Why is the Guardian letting Shell fill its pages with dubious spin?

The Guardian is publishing articles in partnership with one of the world's most notorious oil companies, despite running a campaign to divest from them.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
16 January 2016
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Oil sponsorship is pretty controversial. Where companies like BP and Shell have paid to have their logos displayed in museums, art galleries and theatres, they have been met with a torrent of protest performances and artistic antipathy.

Groups like BP or not BP, Liberate Tate, BP out of Opera and Art Not Oil have found numerous high profile and creative ways to challenge oil company sponsorship of institutions including the Royal Shakespeare Company, The British Museum, the Tate and Tate Modern, the Science Museum, the Royal Opera House, the National Portrait Gallery, the Edinburgh Festival and the Louvre.

Activists have leapt onto stages before plays have begun to perform their own short dialogues, in perfect verse. They have delivered a vast wind turbine instillation to the Tate Modern turbine hall. They have writhed in 'oil' on the floor of the National Gallery and delivered a three-hour performance occupation at the British Museum. Their protests against cultural institutions lending credibility to oil companies have been musical, theatrical, educational and relentless.

They have also been widely covered, particularly in one newspaper: the Guardian.

The point that the protesters make is a simple one. Fossil fuel companies are making billions from selling stuff that's poisoning our atmosphere. They are bound up in destruction of vast areas of land and the death and injury of huge numbers of people. None of this would be considered even remotely socially acceptable if, say, I were to do it.

And so, in order to operate, they need to buy their way into society. They need to pay respected and respectable organisations to give them a pass, to welcome them into civilisation. This is something which oil industry representatives at COP21 essentially said themselves, talking about how they were losing their social licence to operate.

The Guardian has repeated this argument on its pages a number of times. And it's an issue about which the paper has professed considerable concern: last year, it joined the divestment movement campaigning for institutions to stop investing in fossil fuel companies under the slogan “leave it in the ground”.

The divestment movement and the movement against oil sponsorship are, essentially, two sides of the same coin. As Bill McKibbon, founder of the 350 campaign which is key to the “leave it in the ground” movement has said, “the odds of bankrupting Exxon are pretty small, but I think the odds of politically bankrupting them are higher.”

The point of divestment, in other words, is political. It's about saying to the world that being involved with oil companies is socially unacceptable, given what we know about what they do.

In that context, one thing seems strange. Why does the Guardian have a “Shell working mum's partner zone”?

In this “zone”, you can read about Colette, an engineer with Shell and a mum, who tells how Shell allows her to work flexibly, making family life easier. Or you can read about “how to build stamina at work and create a better balance for the year ahead” (sponsored by Shell). Other matters are quietly ignored.

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Big controversial companies spinning themselves as progressive on LGBT issues as a way to cover up for their crimes is so ubiquitous it has a name: 'pinkwashing'. It's hard to see how this amounts to anything more than the feminist equivalent.

I asked the Guardian if their acceptance of sponsored content had any implications for their coverage of those protesting against oil sponsorship of cultural institutions. Are they not implicitly saying that allowing oil companies to buy credibility through association with respected institutions is OK? Are they not coming down firmly on the other side of this debate from the protesters they have covered? I also asked whether this piece – sponsored by Shell, and about the excellence of Shell's employment practices – was an advert or an article. They responded as follows:

"The acceptance of advertising or partnership content in no way affects our editorial position. We are free to, and often do, challenge the activities of companies and organisations that are also our advertisers and sponsors.

“All branded content is clearly labelled in line with our sponsored content guidelines."

I contacted the campaign group 350, who have worked with the Guardian on their divestment campaign. Jamie Henn, their co-founder and Strategy and Communications Director, said:

"The Guardian's sponsored content partnership with Shell is certainly concerning. We're not worried about the impact it will have on the Guardian's climate coverage–they've more than proven their dedication for hard hitting coverage on the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But we are concerned that the Guardian is now acting as an enabler for Shell's desperate attempt at brand control.


“A series on 'women in the workplace' to distract from Shell's environmental crimes is a textbook PR move, one that the Guardian shouldn't facilitate. Real fossil fuel divestment doesn't just mean selling off a few stocks, it means separating oneself from any affiliations with this destructive industry. The Guardian should end their partnership with Shell and go back to using its bandwidth to support real climate solutions."

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