2015‎ > ‎


Source: The Guardian
URL: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/audio/2015/mar/27/podcast-biggest-story-climate-change-campaign-episode3-audio
Date: 27/03/2015
Event: The Biggest Story: Episode 3: The Targets
Credit: The Guardian
Also see:

  • Alex Breuer: Creative Director, the Guardian
  • Aleks Krotoski: Broadcaster, presenter of Guardian podcast Tech Weekly
  • Bill McKibben: Environmentalist, author and journalist
  • Amanda Michel: Open editor, the Guardian US
  • James Randerson: Assistant national news edior, the Guardian
  • Alan Rusbridger: Editor-in-chief, the Guardian
  • Adam Vaughan: Editor, the Guardian environment site

Alan Rusbridger: People have compared this to slavery, as an issue...

Aleks Krotoski: This is the biggest story in the world... climate change. Last week, on the podcast, the Guardian was at a fork in the road. People power or political action - which would keep global temperatures from rising to a catastrophic level?

Alan Rusbridger: World leaders, in the run-up to Paris - they should feel the pressure, they should feel the pressure of their voters.

Aleks Krotoski: Alan had to make a decision about whether to back a divestment campaign or push for influence at the Paris climate change summit. But for Alan, actually, it doesn't need to be one or the other -

Alan Rusbridger: Both could be true...

Aleks Krotoski: - because they are intrinsically linked. And on the ground, they've started running. It's a campaign - people power for political change. Alan again draws together his team, to pick a target. A smaller group, this time, in his office overlooking the canal.

Alan Rusbridger: Okay, I'll kick off. So it's all been, as you know, a bit, sort of, ad hoc at the moment, as we've tried to draw together various strands, but...

Aleks Krotoski: When thinking about who they should go for, Alan had gone back to that conversation he'd had last year, with climate campaigner Bill McKibben. He'd said -

Alan Rusbridger: You simply go for the bad people, the Shells of this world, it's probably going to be water off a duck's back, because they're used to being treated like that.

Aleks Krotoski: So -

Alan Rusbridger: Don't go for the really bad guys, you go for the liberals.

Aleks Krotoski: - as they should be the ones setting the example.

Bill McKibben: Some of the great universities have already, even early on, begun to divest. The World Council of Churches and other denominations, likewise. Spokesmen for the Rockefeller family, the first family of fossil fuel, the original oil fortune - they announced that their philanthropies were selling all their holdings in coal and oil and gas, because they thought it was both immoral and unwise to keep holding them, and they said that if John D. Rockefeller were alive at the moment, what he'd be pursuing was renewable energy, because he understood that it was the future.

Aleks Krotoski: So... suggestions?

Alan Rusbridger: Um... One of our number, who shall remain nameless, said "What about the Wellcome Trust? They've got lots of money".

Aleks Krotoski: Wellcome is the second largest charitable foundation in the world. It was co-founder of the Human Genome Project, and they're dedicated to medical research.

Alan Rusbridger: It's supposed to be about science, it's supposed to be making the world a better place.

Aleks Krotoski: They're usually the good guys.

Alan Rusbridger: Um, and they've said that they won't -

Aleks Krotoski: - divest -

Alan Rusbridger: - and suddenly I thought: well, there's a campaign. Because you've got Nobel laureates who care about this thing passionately, are very knowledgeable and who you could mobilise. And it sort of gives a focus, it sort of dramatises it, a bit. So, is Wellcome a good subject to concentrate on?

Male voice: They said to me last week, and they said "No, we won't", said "How much of your portfolio is fossil fuels? "Don't know, can't tell you". "The Trust believes that climate change is one of the greatest contemporary issues facing health, which is why we've made the understanding of the impact of the environment on health one of our five key research channels."

Aleks Krotoski: The only thing Wellcome won't invest in is tobacco companies.

Alan Rusbridger: So, a powerful argument against that would be: carbon is much worse for you than tobacco. So that's a completely irrational thing for a scientific trust to...

Male voice: One thing I would add - to focus exclusively on Wellcome, the downside is it's not really a global brand. I mean, they act globally, they fund things all over the world, but you probably wouldn't get people excited in America. So I mean, one argument might be to sort of say "Well, we have two or three targets - we have Wellcome, we have Cambridge University, we have..." I don't know.

Female voice: I take your point about what Bill's doing and targetting the liberals who will do something, but it...

Alan Rusbridger: Isn't the nice thing about Wellcome is that they - they are the scientific grant-making body -

Female voice: But that makes -

Alan Rusbridger: - and they have said no. So, you've - to that extent, they've put themselves in the frame and it's they, of all people, who are not going to make this move. And, conversely, if you could make them make a move, it ought to start with the Wellcome Fund because how can 97% of scientists lecture the rest of us and yet allow their main grant-giving charity not put their money where their mouth is.

Aleks Krotoski: Adam Vaughan has two other suggestions.

Adam Vaughan: Church of England is the other obvious one, because again you've got the people you can lobby, and the other one is MPs' pension fund, which -

Alan Rusbridger: The Church of England haven't said they won't, have they?

Adam Vaughan: They haven't said they won't, it's just they're clearly leaning towards -

Alan Rusbridger: And what about the MPs?

Adam Vaughan: MPs, he - I spoke to the guy on the board for the story at the time, and he said [laughing], he said - he's a Scottish Labour MP and he said "Frankly I don't know what she's talking about". The only thing about the MPs' is, you know, those MPs who are receiving pensions from that fund voted for the Climate Change Act -

Alan Rusbridger: Yes, MPs', MPs' pensions, I like [?] -

Adam Vaughan: They don't even know how much of it is fossil fuels, they couldn't tell me, so if you could find that out, for starters, and you just survey all the MPs and say: do they agree that it should be. And that's a story in itself. But then you've got science, politics and religion.

Alan Rusbridger: So, I take it the mood of the meeting is: yes, we could go for Wellcome - it would be quite nice to start thinking what that would begin to look like. So, what would be the elements of that campaign? We'd need to find out who the directors are, where they're invested, what discussions they've had - do they publish the minutes of their meetings? Great - thank you very much indeed.

Aleks Krotoski: Two floors up, the special project room has finally been vacated by the HSBC tax scandal team. The pizza boxes are cleared, the bowl of granola is on the table. The climate team are here, and Alan has appointed Captain James Randerson to run the ship. He's an experienced news editor, but running a campaign...

James Randerson: This is something that I don't have a great deal of experience of, before. So, trying to understand, you know, which other organisations we should partner with, who can help us, and when you're creating content, not making it too confusing, has to be very focussed, and really you have to tell people exactly what you want them to do, which is come and sign up here. You don't want to give them all sort of options. So there's trivial things like that to understand, and on one level they're trivial but they're kind of important, well, very important.

Aleks Krotoski: One person at the Guardian who does have experience in campaigning is Amanda Michel in the US office. James calls her up to pick her brains. It might be a good idea to have a target in the US. And then there's all those other suggestions from Alan's meeting - the MPs' pension fund, Church of England...

Amanda Michel: I think that having multiple targets makes this more complex. You know, it's like in crafting any story [inaudible] that's adding more characters. [Laughs]. And it can make it more difficult to follow, so it is a really important decision, because it means that, you know, there will be updates about all these different institutions. And that can be, you know, a lot for people to take in, it can be a lot to follow. Which is why I personally prefer a small number, because I think it makes the narrative much more manageable. Also I feel pretty strongly about - we're overlooking a major opportunity to have influence on journalism itself, and we should really think about that, as its own, sort of, target. So to say: what are the implications of Rusbridger's decision for the Guardian, but also why is he choosing to do this? What argument is he making about journalism itself? You know...

James Randerson: Well, that - that comes back to the question of having people who have perhaps been impacted by climate change, as a face of the campaign. But it sounds like, from what you're saying, that there area lot of advantages to Alan being the focus.

Amanda Michel: I think this is, this is Alan - you know, he sees this as his legacy and he wants to do it for the Guardian, on behalf of the Guardian, using the Guardian platform. And he's choosing to do so, I think - as editor-in-chief, he's making a real argument for the role - how he sees the Guardian's role in the world. And I think we should - and he should, explicitly - address that.

Aleks Krotoski: Fewer targets and a 61-year old, bespectacled pinup for the campaign. James puts this to the editor.

James Randerson: So, the big question is: the US target. And we've checked out quite a few potential organisations, and I am pretty convinced that the best one to go for is the Gates Foundation, the reason being - now, I mean, obviously we have a relationship with them.

Aleks Krotoski: They fund the Guardian's global development website.

James Randerson: The reason being that they are the largest private foundation in the world, they've got 43 and a half billion dollars in their endowment, the endowment's got about 1.1 billion in 40 of the top carbon reserve companies, so people like Exxon, Coal India, Chevron, Total, Rio Tinto, Shell... And they make statements in which they say that investments should be in line with their values. Bill, in his statements, you know, says a lot about climate change and a lot about of what they fund is connected to climate change. The other alternatives we looked at were things like the Ford Foundation, which is the second biggest in the US, or the Clinton Foundation, so I don't know. I mean, I would imagine a campaign that had the spec [?] for, we think: this is one of the greatest organisations on the planet, it's achieved brilliant things doing X, Y and Z, and we think it should show leadership.

Alan Rusbridger: How much better they could be...

James Randerson: Pardon?

Alan Rusbridger: How much better they could be, if only they would do this.

James Randerson: Yeah, indeed, indeed, so...

Alan Rusbridger: Okay, I mean, the deal is: they support our journalism on development, on Millennial Development Goals and so forth, so, um... There's nothing that says that we can't criticise them - we should criticise them, if we feel, so... That's fine.

James Randerson: Great.

Aleks Krotoski: Well done, James! Next...

James Randerson: We think that it would make sense for you - I mean, this is such a personal campaign about you, that effectively the face of the campaign is you, as opposed to, um, having a father figure who is, you know, a person out there who is the face of the campaign. You're wincing at that.

Alan Rusbridger: Well, I don't know if I want to be the face of the campaign, I think, in the sense that it should be the Guardian and its readers. I mean, of course I'm going to be doing some of the journalism, and I'm the editor - that's fine, but I don't want to look like a sort of, you know, personal hobbyhorse.

Female voice: Getting an email in your inbox from Alan Rusbridger is, like, it's going to get a lot more click-throughs, basically, than getting an email in your inbox from the Guardian, which feels like just a - could be just another corporate email.

Alan Rusbridger: Okay, right. If you say so.

Aleks Krotoski: A decision. Two targets - the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Feeling confident, Alan?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, the classic rules of a newspaper campaign is: only start campaigns you know you will win. So, in that sense, this is the most terrible campaign. But, on the other hand, the stakes are incredibly high, you know - this is something that, if we don't manage to change behaviour and shift governments, then it's not too bleak to say we're all doomed. And I can't think of a - it's about the most important campaign you could do.

Aleks Krotoski: Time will tell, and time is short. With four months left, Alan and James have started talking content.

Alan Rusbridger: We've set out the basic reporting, so, um... James is putting together a list of the pieces, which I think are just the questions that anybody will ask, about how this works, who owns this stuff, where is it, questions about fossil fuel subsidies, explaining how carbon trading mechanisms work. So we haven't really geared up the investigatory bits of this, yet, have we?

James Randerson: Not really, because Nick Davies told me that he's basically unavailable for the time. Is David Leigh a possibility?

Alan Rusbridger: David Leigh claims to have retired, again. And I've told him: he can't. His opening position is: he's retired.

[In a one-to-one interview]. One of the things I underestimated was that real life intervenes. So I think I had this fantasy that I would come back in January and I'd clear the decks and just do this. And the attack on Charlie Hebdo happens, and then we had the HSBC tax thing, so suddenly this dream that you're going to come back and just do climate change is out the window. And anyway, when you meet with your colleagues, they've all got different ideas of what it's going to be.

James Randerson: Well, I've asked Larry Elliott to answer what I think is the most fundamental question: how do we make this fossil fuel transition? Can we even make it? You know - do we need some kind of voluntary recession? Do we need an entirely different economic model? Um...

Alan Rusbridger: Bill McKibben wants to go a bit earlier, because he thinks there's going to be action in America. I think our team want to push it back a bit.

James Randerson: You know, it's all very much in flux, really.

Alan Rusbridger: So, we're, sort of, still feeling a slight tension between the urge to go fast and go slow.

James Randerson: As every day goes on, I realise how much bigger this whole thing is than I thought it was going to be. Yeah...

Alan Rusbridger [speaking to the team]: Should we let them in and so this bit, and then come back to this bit...?

Aleks Krotoski: Creative Director Alex Breuer enters the room with a large stack of front page prototypes.

Alex Breuer: I took, from our last conversation, that this shouldn't feel like a newspaper front page, this should feel something very, very different. I have some examples of things now... We haven't necessarily got all of these people yet, but some of them we have, and so the first one - and this is the idea is that first potential is that we could actually wrap all the way round the back of the newspaper. This first one is by Anthony Gormley - this is an existing piece that he's already done, but I have been in touch with him this week and he's really keen to do something original for us, if we get it done in time.

Aleks Krotoski: Fifty figures, black silhouettes, type across the top.

Alan Rusbridger: "All we have to do is not react if this is a full-blown crisis - all we have to do is keep on denying how frightened we actually are". These are Naomi Klein quotes?

Alex Breuer: Yes, this is taken from her first piece, and I quite like using the human form...

Alan Rusbridger: "... from which we have been averting our eyes". That's very powerful.

Alex Breuer: That's one piece, this is another.

Alan Rusbridger: Sorry, where would that typeset...?

Alex Breuer: So that's the front page.

Alan Rusbridger: So that would be the front page, literally the front page... Is this -

Alex Breuer: This font, it's called Why So Serious.

Alan Rusbridger: Why So Serious.

Alex Breuer: Yes.

Alan Rusbridger: Because we're all about to be fucking destroyed? [Laughter in the room.]

Alex Breuer: Pretty much. Yeah, absolutely. Next one is by an artist called Cornelia Parker, which is - again, I thought was - as soon as I saw this, I thought that's - it's mundane but actually really, really evocative of what are the challenges. And it's a simple image of an oil stain on a pavement.

James Randerson: I really like that one.

Alan Rusbridger: Well, it gets back to the psychology of all this, whether coffins make people wake up or whether coffins are too scary and switch people off. We need a psychoanalyst on the job.

Alex Breuer: Yep.

Aleks Krotoski: But before you press "print", guys, step back a second. There's a fundamental philosophical problem with this whole project that could be its undoing.

Amanda Michel: You know, there are big questions about asking people to do something that we ourselves have not done.

Aleks Krotoski: What Amanda is talking about is sorting out the Guardian's own pots of money, their investments.

Amanda Michel: It will seem like hypocrisy.

Alan Rusbridger: We have about £600 million invested at the moment, and I don't think our fund managers could say exactly how much was invested in fossil fuel. But it is there, we haven't said that it shouldn't be, so we have got money invested. And so, if we're going to be calling on people to divest, people are bound to ask "Well, is that what the Guardian's going to do?"

Aleks Krotoski: This is where it gets complicated, business-wise. The buck doesn't stop with Alan. The finances of the Guardian are looked after by the Guardian Media Group or GMG, run by Andrew Miller. They have a savings fund of £600 million, which is there to secure the future of the Guardian. But the Guardian newspaper and GMG are separate organisations.

Alan Rusbridger: There's no direct link that says the Guardian Media Group has to behave in accordance with the Guardian's policies, because in a sense, the freedom works both ways - if we're going to be free of influence from the commercial side, then you could say "Well, the commercial side should be free from influence from the editorial side". But I think I will try, over the coming weeks, to persuade the Guardian Media Group that they should divest, and it will be an interesting litmus test of our powers of persuasion, if we can persuade them.

Aleks Krotoski: And here's Alan's first chance to pitch to the powers that be.

Alan Rusbridger: So we're going into these meetings of the Scott Trust.

Aleks Krotoski: They own GMG.

Alan Rusbridger: It's the only shareholder - it's been a trust since 1936, and it's the body that exists to preserve the Guardian and its editorial independence but also to make sure that it's got the, sort of, long-term future, financially, in perpetuity, i.e., for ever. And there's a group of my colleagues in there who I'm about to ask about climate change and the fact that, at the moment, the Guardian Media Group doesn't have a policy about the kind of things that we're going to be writing about, editorially, i.e., they do invest in fossil-fuel companies and I don't think they've ever been challenged to think about this before.

Aleks Krotoski: So, take a deep breath, Alan. All your life skills are needed here.

Alan Rusbridger: So, I just wanted to bring you up to date with something that we are doing, which - normally we keep editorial away from anything that concerns the GMG or Scott Trust, in a sense - nobody should feel bound by what we're doing, editorially, but I think this campaign is bound to immediately provoke questions about our own attitude to our investment. So what we are going to be doing is launching a big campaign around fossil fuels and divestment. And if you look at the - at this A3 sheet, and you look at the three numbers on the...

Aleks Krotoski: Alan has done his homework. Yes, the Guardian's £600 million is partially invested in fossil fuels. If they do want to divest, it's impossible to know what the return would be.

Female voice: Well, I think your idea, that the Guardian should open the argument, is a really good one. I think for us, for the Trust, it's not our job to tell you what to put into the paper, but the questions for us are ethical one, the effect on the income of the company, perpetuity, and maybe this is not right but maybe is there a distinction between what we do ourselves and how we go about targetting other people? Right, who wants to say anything?

Male voice: And this is a helpful kind of guide, general guide, but how empirical is it possible to be? I mean, could we, can we sit down and crunch the numbers and say, for this particular strategy, the impact would be X? Or is that just - is that not...?

Female voice: And it depends how successful the campaign might be, doesn't it, because we do - if we genuinely get momentum behind these things, then...

Male voice: Yeah, but I think the great thing is, as I said, I don't think that if anything this is a debate that we ought to have between the board, the GMG board and the Trust. And the Trust, as shareholder, can ask us to do certain things, and if the - what we'll have to do, as a board, is come back and say what the impact is and the return rates on funding.

Female voice: Interesting question - whose decision is this? It is conceivable that you would - you would take an editorial line, after debate, and Andrew and the board, the commercial board, would say "We decline to do that with the business". It would be very embarrassing, very difficult and I do hope we don't end up with that possibility, but it's a possibility.

Alan Rusbridger: What we're doing here is, by setting up a campaign, a campaign around divestment, we're going beyond reporting, and we're doing that because it strikes me that we're in this, sort of, extraordinary disjunction between an issue that threatens the future of the human species - so it is by some way the biggest news story of our lives - and yet nobody's reporting it. And so I'm just trying to find something that will dramatise this - it's not going to be done through reporting.

Female voice: There is also a financial risk, potentially - there is. Doing it, taking a, sort of, campaigning approach and sacrificing returns that could be, you know, vital for funding the future of the organisation.

Female voice: I do think there is an issue, if you never can resolve it. Because I think there is a really questionable weakness in an editorial position which we cannot ourselves sustain - if we are telling other businesses to do something that we cannot ourselves do, then there's something wrong with either our business or our attitude, it seems to me.

Male voice: Editorially, the editor-in-chief wants to do this, and, you know, seems that there has to be some kind of integrity in that the Guardian Media Group, you know, at the very least, you know, is investigating - if not actually doing - the things that we're campaigning for, jointly [?] and it's - otherwise we are, we do look [laughing] - it's for someone else to behave sustainably, but not us, you know. I think that's pretty tricky. [Laughs].

Female voice: Given how difficult this is for us, can we just be a little bit careful about how violently we go for other people, before we've set our own house in order? I mean, you know, tackling ethically difficult questions is hard - it's much easier to be bad than good. And, you know, I'm not - I don't mind the Guardian often finding itself unable to live by its own lights completely. But before we actually put heavy boots into other people, can we just, you know, make sure that we're, kind of, ahead of other people's efforts. We understand it - it's a fantastic issue. I think we're going about it the right way. We need to be just skillful at moving together, if we possibly can. Um, and I thank you for raising that, I think it's just a brilliant thing to launch into the most exciting, important issue.

Male voice: I'm just really inclined [?] to look at my pension funds, see where they're invested.

Female voice: Yeah.

Alan Rusbridger [speaking in a one-to-one interview]: So that was a, sort of, slightly strange conversation, because they almost veered into talking about editorial content, which was not what I was expecting them to do. But you could see them, when I mentioned we might start criticising the Wellcome Trust, you could see them saying "Well, hold on a minute, isn't that a case of glass houses? Why are we throwing stones at them, when we haven't sorted out what we're going to do?" And that, sort of, raises an interesting question about what journalism is, you know - if you're working for the Guardian, do you have to, sort of, think "Oh well, are we morally pure, ourselves?" before we write about this?

Amanda Michel: This is - it's a really important argument made by Rusbridger about why he wants to pursue this path and wants to see if the Guardian can do it, and... It will be a bit, I mean - I do think [inaudible] group adjourn and discussion about what happens if the Guardian's not able to divest. Or maybe the [inaudible]. [Laughs]. How much effort are we putting into divesting, ourselves? And often, do you think doing it publicly is the way? To make a big case [?] within the Guardian. It's one thing if the Guardian has divested and was asking other institutions to. Um... But that's not where we are, now. I hate to leave on that note, because I know that's probably one of the thorniest ones...

Female voice: Alan, will you go ahead with this, if the Guardian doesn't divest?

Alan Rusbridger: Well, no, I think we have to. I think - I think if the board don't agree, I will ignore the board and run the campaign anyway.

Aleks Krotoski: Good luck! The biggest story in the world is narrated by me, Aleks Krotoski. It's produced by Alannah Chance, Lindsay Poulton, Matt Hill and Lucy Greenwell. Head of Audio is Jason Phipps, and the executive producer is Francesca Panetta. Subscribe!