Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about the implications of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s increasingly large and complex web of media partnerships. The first part, published on the author’s personal blog in July and cross-posted with updates to CJR yesterday, described a two-year-old partnership with PBS NewsHour. This installment examines more recent agreements with the Guardian and ABC News.
The independence of the Guardian’s global health journalism has a new guarantor: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Manchester, U.K.-based paper recently announced a global development section co-sponsored by the foundation. Such non-profit funding deals are not unusual in the media today and, like many others, the partnership agreement states that the Guardian has editorial independence.
The Gates Foundation is not just any foundation, however. It is the largest charitable foundation in the world, and its influence in the media is growing so vast there is reason to worry about the media’s ability to do its job. With Gates’s support, the Guardian aims “to hold governments, institutions and NGOs accountable for the implementation of the United Nations millennium development goals,” according to its press release. The site unveiling came in the run up to a September U.N. meeting to assess progress on the goals, which are supposed to be met by 2015.
The project, which is described as an action-oriented, “global development website,” is reminiscent of the Guardian’s 10:10 climate campaign to get people to reduce their carbon emissions. However, neither 10:10 nor the environment section sits within the Guardian’s news section (nor do they or any Guardian section have a site sponsor). But that is exactly where the global development page can be found on the Guardian’s home page. That alone stands to confuse readers and blurs the line between journalism campaign and advocacy campaign.
In the press release, editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger described the sponsorship arrangement as compensating for declining coverage. “All too often the mainstream press ignores long-term development stories,” he said. “However, it is essential to have a place where some of the biggest questions facing humanity are analysed and debated, and through which we can monitor the effectiveness of the billions of pounds of aid that flows annually into the developing world. The creation of this website is a natural step for the Guardian, which has always been internationalist in its outlook and passionate about social justice.”
Yet the Guardian has ignored an important, long-term story: the ascendancy of the Gates Foundation in setting global health policy and orchestrating media coverage. In 2006, the paper ran “Super-rich donations are just a drop in the ocean,” which observed of the Gates Foundation’s $3 billion a year in spending:
[J]uxtaposed with UK government spending, these sums of money are a drop in the ocean… [T]he Gates Foundation endowment is about the same as a year’s worth of official UK development aid.
With perhaps a few million dollars in media investments, however, the Gates Foundation has made itself synonymous with global health. As part one of this series detailed, PBS NewsHour struck a similar deal with the foundation in 2008. On Wednesday, ABC News announced that it has partnered with the foundation for a yearlong project investigating global health problems. ABC News is investing $4.5 million in the project and Gates will contribute $1.5 million for overseas travel and production. The New York Times called it “an unusual financial agreement.”
Many first tier news outlets now fly the Gates Foundation flag. With similar highly leveraged investments in the policy world, the foundation has been able to unilaterally set global health policy in areas like malaria, moving the focus from containment to eradication with a single speech in 2007. With what is certain to be only partial attainment of the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Gates Foundation stands to be portrayed as the savior of a failing system. The story could also be viewed as the Gates Foundation attempting to wrest control of the goals from the multilateral institutions and elected governments, which deserve credit for setting them to begin with and for what progress has been made. Not only does Gates Foundation sponsorship close off large expanses of storyline, it appears to have altered the Guardian’s coverage.
Earlier this year, in a piece headlined, “Inside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” Guardian contributor Andy Beckett asked, “Is this the future of giving - and, if so, is that a good thing?”