Nafeez Ahmed’s account of the sudden termination of his short-lived contract to write an environment blog for the Guardian is depressingly instructive — and accords with my own experiences as a journalist at the paper.
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.
Instead he has been mostly ploughing a lonely furrow as a freelance journalist, bypassing the media gatekeepers by promoting himself on social media, and placing his articles wherever a window briefly opens. His 43,000 followers on Twitter are testament to his skills as a journalist — skills, it seems, that are in short demand even at the bastions of liberal journalism.
That neglect looked like it might finally be remedied last year when the Guardian gave him a blog.
Let’s be clear: the Guardian is now a raucous market-place of opinion — its model for monetising the mostly voluntary labour of desperate journalists, writers, academics and lobby groups. The paper calls it “Comment is Free” — free for the Guardian, that is.
But it is certainly not “free” in the sense of “free expression”, as I know only too well from my many run-ins with its editors, both from my time on staff there and from my later experiences as a freelance journalist (more below). The Guardian’s website covers a spectrum of “moderate”, meaning conventional, opinion from right to left, with a couple of genuinely progressive staff writers — currently Seumas Milne and Owen Jones — there to offer the illusion of real pluralism.
Recruiting Ahmed was therefore a risky move. He is a voice from the genuine left, and one too independent to control. The Guardian did not offer him a column, or the more interesting — and suitable — position of investigative journalist, a platform that would have given him the opportunity and resources to explore the biggest and most under-reported story of our era: the connection between corporate greed and the destruction of the life-support systems necessary for our continued existence on the planet.
Instead he got a minor leg-up: a raise out of the morass of CiF contributors to his own Guardian blog. Rather than waste inordinate time and energy on arm-twisting the Guardian’s ever-cautious editors, he was able to publish his own posts with minimal interference. And that was the beginning of his downfall.