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The papers daren’t bite the Whitehall hand that feeds them


ONE of the many industries to face a dramatic decline in its fortunes since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic is advertising.

According to reports, the industry-wide ad-spend for 2020 was down 14.5 per cent: a decline of £3.6billion. Some areas of advertising have witnessed complete destruction as the Government has clamped down on businesses’ ability to operate and has restricted civic freedoms.

The UK’s top advertisers, led by McDonald’s and Procter and Gamble, have slashed their budgets: why put adverts on the telly when your outlets are closed? A report from August 2020 states McDonald’s year-on-year advertising had already fallen by 97 per cent. Even Amazon’s fell by 77 per cent and Sky’s by 60 per cent. Entertainment and leisure (-£207million) and travel and transport (-£138million), hit hardest by restrictions, saw the largest cuts.

Such reductions had a dramatic impact on companies reliant on them for their advertising revenue, namely newspapers.

Daily Mail and General Trust reported an advertising revenue fall of around 25 per cent between September 2019 and September 2020; given that half this date range is pre-pandemic, the impact is likely greater still.

Yet despite such drastic reductions in commercial advertising, there’s been a silver lining for newspapers such as the Mail.

Until 2020 the Government was not a major advertiser in newspapers. According to Newsworks, the marketing body for national newspapers, between February 1, 2019 and 31 January 31, 2020 the Government was 30th on the list of UK’s spenders on newspaper advertising, shelling out £6.23million over that one-year period (approximately 13 per cent of HM Government’s advertising budget), a figure dwarfed by Amazon and Sky, which spent five times as much.

All that changed during the pandemic, when the Government became the nation’s largest advertiser across all media. Between March 23 and June 30, 2020, Public Health England’s advertising spend increased by 5,000 per cent (year-on-year), reaching £44million in that three-month period. (1)

Though less than a quarter of the Government’s total outlay for Covid-19 information and communication, the spending has proved significant enough for the newspaper industry to hail this continued Covid advice blitz as vital for its revival in 2021. 

The Government’s coronavirus public information campaign appears to be centralised under Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office, a fast-growing department since 2010 employing 8,270 staff as of June 2020. The department spent £194million on Covid-related advertising between April and December 2020.

This money is spent indirectly via advertising agencies such as Mullen Lowe and Manning Gottlieb, the major recipients of government funds to date. Mullen Lowe is the agency responsible for the recent and controversial ‘Look Him In The Eyes’ series. Omnigov, a division of Manning Gottlieb, is tasked with the media buying.

The Cabinet Office’s Covid-19 advertising spend, broken down by recipients of its funds and set out below, continued to rise to December. The vast majority of its spending is through Manning Gottlieb.

Adding PHE’s 44million between March and June 2020 gives a total of £238million for the whole of 2020.

In view of the continued public awareness campaigns, it is highly unlikely that the Cabinet Office’s rate of expenditure has slowed through the first part of this year. It is probably safe to estimate that total spending now stands at between £275million and £300million. This is likely to be an underestimate given expenditure by other public bodies.

In relation to total government spending schemes in the wake of Covid-19, an extraordinary £271billion so far, this might seem relatively small.

However there are highly significant implications to this particular spending.

The Fourth Estate is supposed to hold the Government to account. It should be the newspapers’ responsibility to scrutinise the unprecedented state actions taken in response to the pandemic under the emergency powers of the Coronavirus Act, now twice extended, and bringing about the greatest loss of liberty in our country’s history. 

When newspapers find themselves increasingly reliant on the largesse of the UK’s now-largest advertiser, can they be trusted to question robustly and independently the approach the Government has taken?

As Laura Perrins pointed out last week, the media rarely ask any tough questions. Pretty much every question they put is, why didn’t you lock down earlier, and why didn’t you lock down harder? Why didn’t you enact more draconian measures sooner?

Manning Gottlieb, which as of December had received £172million from government contracts, unsurprisingly backs official policy to the hilt, invoking a stridency and certainty of language in a propaganda message dissonant with the suffering and huge collateral damage of lockdown this last year:

‘In a stark reversal of a trend which has developed in years past, support for government intervention has been universal. With mandated movement, mass limitation of freedom and social interaction, Brits have understood the importance of stability in uncertain times. Recognition for our services (NHS and police) has been propelled to the forefront of our mindsets and societal bonds have been strengthened.’

It should be the task of the mainstream media to question such narratives, probing assertions of universal assent and demanding answers to long overdue questions. But when newspapers and other media sources are increasingly reliant on advertising revenues from the companies making such statements, how ready will they be to do that? Many will be reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. Is this the reason why they are not pressing the government daily on the catastrophic costs and unintended consequences of enacted measures?

In the absence of such challenging questions, a stifling atmosphere of uniformity has become the standard of the British media. It has been left to sites such as The Conservative Woman and Lockdown Sceptics to pose questions that the media class, compromised by their increasing dependence on government funds, find themselves unable to ask.

It is nothing new that the media has a symbiotic relationship with Government. For journalists it’s their need for access to information and promises of scoops; for the politicians it’s their need for the platform to promote their policies or their personal profiles. But now the balance has changed. With the Government increasingly becoming the editors’ paymaster, paying to push their policies, where is the quid pro quo? What chance of these newspapers raising and ruthlessly pursuing the questions so urgently in need of asking, or indeed, of running a campaign against lockdown for example? A lot less likely is my guess.

(1) Public Health England’s publicly-released spending data has not been updated since March 2020, meaning that the figure for the rest of 2020 is likely to be far higher. 

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Frederick Edward
Frederick Edward
Frederick Edward is from the Midlands. You can see his Substack here.'

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