by Media Lens
In July Guardian contributor Nafeez Ahmed examined claims that Israel is seeking to create a ‘political climate’ conducive to the exploitation of Gaza’s considerable offshore gas reserves – 1.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, valued at $4 billion – which were discovered off the Gaza coast in 2000.
Ahmed quoted Israeli defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, to the effect that military efforts to ‘uproot Hamas’ were in part driven by Israel’s determination to prevent Palestinians developing their own energy resources. Ahmed also cited Anais Antreasyan who argued, in the highly-respected University of California’s Journal of Palestine Studies, that this is part of a wider strategy of:
‘separating the Palestinians from their land and natural resources in order to exploit them, and, as a consequence, blocking Palestinian economic development. Despite all formal agreements to the contrary, Israel continues to manage all the natural resources nominally under the jurisdiction of the PA [Palestinian Authority], from land and water to maritime and hydrocarbon resources.’
At the time of writing, Ahmed’s July 9 piece has received a massive 68,000 social media shares and is far and away the most popular Guardian article on the Gaza conflict. In the event, however, it was the last article published by him in the Guardian. The following day, his valuable Earth Insight blog, covering environmental, energy and economic crises, was killed off.
The Earth Insight series had accrued around three million views and was the most popular Guardian environment blog. It published stories which went viral, generating global headlines, such as Ahmed’s interview with ex-CIA official Robert Steele on the ‘open source revolution’ (44,000 Facebook shares); the Pentagon’s Minerva project and Ministry of Defence initiatives targeting domestic activists and political dissidents (47,000 shares); and the little-understood link between NSA mass surveillance and Pentagon planning for the impact of climate, energy and economic shocks.
Ironically, given that the Guardian has just dumped him, Ahmed recently won a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for a Guardian article on Ukraine, published earlier this year. He also won a 2014 Project Censored award for his first Guardian article, published in 2013, which was about food riots as ‘the new normal’. This year, Ahmed was also included as one of the Evening Standard’s ‘Power 1000’ most globally influential Londoners, in the ‘Campaigners: Ecowarriors’ section.
Former Guardian and Observer journalist Jonathan Cook comments:
‘Ahmed is that rare breed of journalist who finds stories everyone else either misses or chooses to overlook; he regularly joins up the dots in a global system of corporate pillage. If the news business were really driven by news rather than a corporate-friendly business agenda, publications would be beating a path to his door.’
High praise indeed. At first sight, then, the Guardian’s ditching of Nafeez Ahmed is counter-intuitive, to say the least.
A ‘Riled And Rushed’ Response From The Guardian
Ahmed has now published the ‘inside story’ of how he ‘was censored by The Guardian’. As a regular and trusted online blogger since April 2013, he had approval to post his pieces direct to the Guardian website. Ahmed describes what happened after he uploaded his Gaza piece in July:
‘The day after posting it, I received a phone call from James Randerson, assistant national news editor. He sounded riled and rushed. Without beating around the bush, James told me point blank that my Guardian blog was to be immediately discontinued. Not because my article was incorrect, factually flawed, or outrageously defamatory. Not because I’d somehow breached journalistic ethics, or violated my contract. No. The Gaza gas piece, he said, was “not an environment story,” and therefore was an “inappropriate post” for the Guardian’s environment website.’
Ahmed was ‘shocked’ and ‘more than a little baffled’ by this ‘over-reaction’. Any concerns could surely be amicably resolved. But Randerson ‘refused point blank, instead telling me that my “interests are increasingly about issues that we don’t think are a good fit for what we want to see published on the environment site.”‘
This was curious indeed because the agreed remit with the Guardian was for Ahmed’s column to address ‘the geopolitics of environmental, energy and economic crises.’ Indeed, when he had first applied to blog for the newspaper, he had submitted a portfolio that included an earlier piece on the link between Israeli military operations and Gaza’s gas. However, Ahmed’s polite protests fell on deaf ears. Within an hour, he received an email from the Guardian rights manager telling him that his contract had been terminated. And yet, according to Ahmed, he had committed no breach of his contractual obligations with the Guardian:
‘On the contrary, The Guardian had breached its contractual obligation to me regarding my freedom to determine the contents of my blog, simply because it didn’t like what I wrote. This is censorship.’
This ‘grievous censorship’ was all the more blatant given the Guardian’s publication of Ahmed’s June 2014 piece: ‘Iraq blowback: Isis rise manufactured by insatiable oil addiction – West’s co-optation of Gulf states’ jihadists created the neocon’s best friend: an Islamist Frankenstein.’ Adam Vaughan, the editor of the Guardian’s environment website, had approved the piece, telling Ahmed, ‘yes – I think it’s fine’.
As Ahmed notes ironically:
‘So an article about ISIS and oil addiction is “fine,” but a piece about Israel, Gaza and conflict over gas resources is not. Really? Are offshore gas resources not part of the environment? Apparently, for The Guardian, not in Palestine, where Gaza’s environment has been bombed to smithereens by the IDF.’
Cook comments on the link between Israeli policy and Gaza’s resources:
‘This story should be at the centre of the coverage of Gaza, and of criticism of the west’s interference, including by the UK’s own war criminal Tony Blair, who has conspired in the west’s plot to deny the people of Gaza their rightful bounty. But the Guardian, like other media, have ignored the story.’
Cook is scathing about the reasons given by the Guardian for Ahmed’s dismissal:
‘the idea that an environment blogger for the liberal media should not be examining the connection between control over mineral resources, which are deeply implicated in climate change, and wars, which lead to human deaths and ecological degradation, is preposterous beyond belief.’
‘It is not that Ahmed strayed too far from his environment remit, it is that he strayed too much on to territory – that of the Israel-Palestine conflict – that the Guardian rigorously reserves for a few trusted reporters and commentators. Without knowing it, he went where only the carefully vetted are allowed to tread.’
‘Particularly Outrageous’ But ’Not Entirely Unprecedented’
Ahmed went public about his dismissal on November 27. In the following few days, nobody at the Guardian so much as mentioned it, with the exception of a brief acknowledgement by columnist George Monbiot after being prompted:
‘I don’t know anything about this, but will make enquiries.’
Responding to our tweet, former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald commented:
‘I know nothing about what happened, but he makes a very compelling case – would like to see a @guardian response’
Monbiot has yet to comment further. We asked Seumas Milne, another longstanding Guardian regular, if he would be responding to Ahmed’s claim of ‘grievous censorship’. After several days, Milne replied:
‘Yes, we have 95% union organisation at Guardian/Observer (where I’m NUJ chair) & will follow up’
But despite repeated challenges from us and others, Owen Jones, Richard Seymour and David Wearing – regarded as fiery, independent contributors to the Guardian – have maintained a discreet public silence. As we have previously observed in our books and in media alerts, this is as predictable as it is understandable: it can indeed be career suicidal for a journalist to be openly critical of his or her media employer (or would-be employer). The best that one can hope for, apparently, is for these issues to be discussed ‘in confidence’. Sure enough, Ahmed was told privately by several journalists ‘inside and outside’ the Guardian that his experience, ‘although particularly outrageous — was not entirely unprecedented.’
‘A senior editor of a national British publication who has written frequently for The Guardian’s opinion section, told me that he was aware that all coverage of the Israel-Palestine issue was “tightly controlled” by Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s executive editor for opinion.’
In fact, several journalists have told Ahmed that Freedland is, in effect, the paper’s ‘gatekeeper’ on the Middle East conflict. It certainly takes no deep reading of Freedland’s own output to detect a strong pro-Israel leaning. Jonathan Cook – who, as mentioned, used to work for the Guardian, and is now an independent journalist based in Nazareth – knows this only too well. He points to ‘the Guardian’s historic and current support for the state of Israel’, steered and maintained in large part by Freedland who holds ‘ugly, chauvinist opinions about Israel’. It was ironically appropriate that Freedland should be one of the recipients of this year’s Orwell Prize.
On December 4, after numerous people had read Ahmed’s article and prompted Freedland for a response, he told Ahmed that he had nothing to do with the termination of his contract:
‘I had no idea you wrote for the Guardian, no idea that arrangement had been terminated and not the slightest knowledge of your piece on Gaza’s gas until a few hours ago. What’s more, I was abroad – on vacation – on the days in July you describe. To put it starkly, my involvement in your case was precisely zero.’
‘Your reading of my Medium piece is incorrect. […] I am not implying your specific involvement in the termination of my contract – a matter about which I have no knowledge thanks to the abrupt, unethical and unlawful way in which I was dropped.’
Freedland’s artfully crafted reply sidestepped the main thrust of Ahmed’s piece about Guardian censorship on Israel-Palestine, and Freedland’s significant role in this. Ahmed had spoken to:
‘several journalists about my experience who told me that it was not unprecedented, and mentioned you by name. According to these journalists, […] it is part of an entrenched, wider culture across the paper. These journalists who spoke to me on condition of anonymity claim that you have played a key role in fostering this culture, and that you have quashed legitimate stories critical of Israel without meaningful journalistic justification. I have merely relayed their allegations.’
By the end of last week, with the Guardian under mounting public pressure – and perhaps even internally from some of its own journalists – the paper’s parent company issued a terse PR statement in a clear attempt at damage limitation. As if pulled from the pages of Orwell’s 1984, the Guardian Media Group intoned:
‘[Ahmed] has never been on the staff of the Guardian. His Guardian blog – Earth Insight – was about the link between the environment and geopolitics, but we took the decision to end the blog when a number of his posts on a range of subjects strayed too far from this brief.’
No explanation was deemed necessary as to what constituted ‘too far’. But then, as Noam Chomsky once said, there are limits to permissible debate in even the most ‘liberal’ media: ‘This far, and no further.’ The powerful pro-Israel lobby helps to keep British politics, including media coverage, within these ‘acceptable’ bounds. In the absence of an informed Guardian whistleblower emerging, we cannot know exactly why Ahmed’s contract was terminated so abruptly. But the paper’s swift and drastic response to his insightful piece on Israel’s war for Gaza’s gas is glaring and highly significant.
It is to Nafeez Ahmed’s credit that he has decided to speak out about what happened to him at the Guardian. He could easily have kept quiet, hoping that the paper might take him back, suitably chastened; or that he might be picked up by another ‘mainstream’ newspaper. He comments:
‘The Guardian breached the very editorial freedom the paper was obligated to protect under my contract. I’m speaking out because I believe it is in the public interest to know how a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper which styles itself as the world’s leading liberal voice, casually engaged in an act of censorship to shut down coverage of issues that undermined Israel’s publicised rationale for going to war.’
If past experience is anything to go by, Ahmed will now be deemed ‘radioactive’ by the Guardian, other ‘mainstream’ outlets and most previously supportive corporate journalists. He will join the ranks of the corporate untouchables, people who broke the first rule of corporate journalism: Thou Shalt Not Criticise Thy Employer.
In similar vein, Giulio Sica worked at the Guardian as a subeditor and occasional writer between 2007 and 2013, having spent time with ‘antiwar and climate change demonstrations, with what I would describe as a mixture of eco-spiritual and anarchist communities’. Sica assumed these interests would be welcome at the Guardian. Alas, in October, he wrote:
‘I found to my dismay… that in fact there seemed to be a culture of open disdain at anything remotely radical or spiritual and, along with some very dubious office politics, which I openly and forcefully contested to no avail via official channels, I eventually had my contract terminated.’
The public are led to believe that ‘comment is free’ at a Guardian steeped in ‘liberal, humanistic and left, rather than right-wing, values’. But Sica found that:
‘discussions on controversial issues were not encouraged. They seemed, in fact, to be passively discouraged. For example, any comment I made even remotely critical of western mainstream media propaganda, whether from myself or others, anything suggesting that the (then Labour) government’s economic policy was neoconservative, or any suggestion that Tony Blair should be tried as a war criminal for his conduct in sending the UK to war on false premises, would often result in either an abrupt put-down, or an awkward silence, rather than open, welcoming dialogue. The political narrative in office conversation seemed to be dominated by New Labour thinking.’
Instead, Sica perceived a drift to the right at the paper:
‘But while the right has become more extreme in many ways since the events of September 11, 2001, the Guardian and the liberal establishment in general has appeared to veer to the right in its qualified support for war and liberal intervention and its generally dismissive attitude to what was known in the 1960s as countercultural thinking. As such it has been unable, or unwilling, to mount a successful challenge to an increasingly bigoted form of multicultural class war.’
‘The delusion of treating the Guardian as a leftwing liberal news organisation, which has a multicultural and multidisciplinary make-up, has to be challenged in the interests of creating a news medium that is a truly balanced representation and reflection of British leftwing radical and liberal viewpoints.’
In reality, the Guardian is part of ‘an ethnic monoculture that may believe itself to be liberal, but which bears all the hallmarks of insular, upper middle-class thought’.
A Guardian Of Power
The Guardian is, as we have often noted, at the liberal end of the corporate media ‘spectrum’. It portrays itself as a compassionate forum for journalism willing to hold power to account, and it makes great play of its journalistic freedom under the auspices of Scott Trust Limited (replacing the Scott Trust in 2008). The paper, therefore, might not at first sight appear to be a corporate institution. But the paper is owned by the Guardian Media Group which is run by a high-powered Board comprising elite, well-connected people from the worlds of banking, insurance, advertising, multinational consumer goods companies, telecommunications, information technology giants, venture investment firms, media, marketing services, the World Economic Forum, and other sectors of big business, finance and industry. This is not a Board staffed by radically nonconformist environmental, human rights and peace campaigners, trade unionists, NHS campaigners, housing collectives; nor anyone else who might threaten the status quo. As Ahmed observes:
‘If this is the state of The Guardian, undoubtedly one of the better newspapers, then clearly we have a serious problem with the media. Ultimately, mainstream media remains under the undue influence of powerful special interests, whether financial, corporate or ideological.’
He concludes, crucially:
‘Given the scale of the converging crises we face in terms of climate change, energy volatility, financial crisis, rampant inequality, proliferating species extinctions, insane ocean acidification, food crisis, foreign policy militarism, and the rise of the police-state — and given the bankruptcy of much of the media in illuminating the real causes of these crises and their potential solutions, we need new reliable and accountable sources of news and information.’
DC and DE
As a promising alternative to corporate media journalism, Ahmed has announced plans for crowd-funded independent journalism. His initial goal is to enable him to pursue investigative journalism on a full-time basis. If this is successful, he then plans to take things to the next level: ‘a new, people-powered multimedia investigative journalism collective with its own dedicated website, where I’ll commission new investigations and hire amazing journalists in my network.’ You can support his new venture here.