Ashley Rindsberg has written a piece for UnHerd about the Guardian’s unfortunate links to the slave trade, and the obvious problems this presents for our nation’s most august bastion of wokeness. Here’s an excerpt:
The Guardian prides itself on being one of the most Left-leaning and anti-racist news outlets in the English-speaking world. So imagine its embarrassment when, last month, a number of black podcast producers researching the paper’s historic ties to slavery abruptly resigned, alleging they had been victims of “institutional racism”, “editorial whiteness”, “microaggressions, colourism, bullying, passive-aggressive and obstructive management styles”. All of this might smack of progressive excess, but, in reality, it merely reflects an institution incuriously at odds with itself.
Questions about the Guardian’s ties to slavery have been circulating since 2020, when, amid the media’s collective spasm of racial conscience following the murder of George Floyd, the Scott Trust announced it would launch an investigation into its history. “We in the U.K. need to begin a national debate on reparations for slavery, a crime which heralded the age of capitalism and provided the basis for racism that continues to endanger black life globally,” journalist Amandla Thomas-Johnson wrote in a June 2020 Guardian opinion piece about the toppling of a statue of 17th Century British slaver Edward Colston. A month later, the Scott Trust committed to determining whether the founder of the paper, John Edward Taylor, had profited from slavery. “We have seen no evidence that Taylor was a slave owner, nor involved in any direct way in the slave trade,” the chairman of the Scott Trust, Alex Graham, told Guardian staff by email at the time. “But were such evidence to exist, we would want to be open about it.” (Notably, Graham, in using the terms “slave owner” and “direct way”, set a very specific and very high bar for what would be considered information worthy of disclosure.)
The problem is that the results of the investigation, conducted by historian Sheryllynne Haggerty, an “expert in the history of the transatlantic slave trade”, have never been made public. When contacted with questions about what happened to the promised report, Haggerty referred all inquiries to The Guardian’s PR, which has remained silent on the matter. (The Guardian was asked for comment and we were given the stock PR response the Guardian gave following the podcaster’s letter.) But what we do know is this: according to Guardian lore, a business tycoon named John Edward Taylor was inspired to agitate for change after witnessing the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, when over a dozen people were killed in Manchester by Government forces as they protested for parliamentary representation. Two years later, Taylor, a young cotton merchant, with the backing of a group of local reformers known at the Little Circle, founded the paper.
The Guardian’s Manchester roots and the links between the slave trade and the Lancashire cotton industry gave the paper an awkward dilemma:
So when the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Manchester Guardian found itself in a strange position. Its very existence was owed to the profits made on the backs of slaves, yet it could not morally support the South. But, because of its business interests, it also found itself unable to champion the North. To explain its at-times stridently anti-Union positions, the paper pointed to a smattering of statements by Abraham Lincoln indicating he would maintain slavery if it meant preserving the Union. The paper would go so far as to characterise Lincoln’s election “as an evil day both for America and the world”.
But there were other forces at work. For all their brotherly love, the Little Circle of Manchester elites believed that the power of democracy, and even of free expression, should be limited to a small elect who were educated and intelligent enough to be entrusted with such power. When it came to the masses, the Circle believed that “because most people had not yet reached the same moral and intellectual standards of the members of the Circle, it was suggested that the bulk of the population should be indefinitely denied access to the public sphere, or at least the right to vote…” To the founders of the Manchester Guardian, America was a lesson in the painful effects of too much democracy. According to its editorial spin, the Union had not gone to war in order to free a downtrodden class but to act upon its expansionist ambitions. This, in one view, was a way for the paper to advance its abolitionist position without putting its weight behind the idea that all people everywhere should be free and fully enfranchised — an idea the paper’s leadership considered dangerous.
The Guardian melded this political conservatism with its stance on free trade, and notably the Corn Laws, which the Manchester elite maintained was an unnecessary tax that hurt the poor. But they were doubtless also sharply aware that, if replicated in other industries (say, cotton production), such tariffs could threaten their businesses. What emerged from the Guardian’s moral contortionism was an argument claiming that the root problem in America was not that Africans were being enslaved by Southerners, but, incredibly, that the South had been enslaved by the North.
Crikey. We’ve come a long way from there to an Owen Jones opinion piece. Rindsberg goes on:
What emerges from this picture of the Manchester Guardian in its formative days is a cultural institution that was able to pull off a kind of moral arbitrage, turning slave profits into an anti-slavery position; espousing high-minded ideals on freedom without supporting the equality that freedom affords; and cannily leveraging the horrors of the Civil War to advance its most pressing economic policy: free trade. Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that in the two centuries since the paper’s founding, the Guardian has returned to the same issue that lies at the heart of slavery — race. For the past 20 years, the Guardian’s approach to the topic of race has been nothing short of total. Yet, like the current leadership’s 19th Century antecedents, it’s not clear that the paper sits on a foundation sturdy enough to support such an uncompromising approach.
Worth reading in full.