What happened to crusading newspapers?

While I was in London, the Daily Mail opened a campaign — and quickly declared victory — to ban ecologically dangerous plastic bags from stores. Even the Guardian praised it as Martin Kettle said the Mail set an example for government of finding a problem and just solving it (see also Google).

His point is about government and society but I also see a lesson here for American newspaeprs, which in my day, children, used to crusade. They picked a problem and found a solution and then stacked the deck to take credit for solving it. But at least it got solved. Where did that spirit go?

Here’s Kettle on the Mail and its lessons:

Once the Mail went into action the outcome was settled. Ten pages on Wednesday, seven more on Thursday, another four on Friday and the job was done. The Banish the Bags campaign was well planned, well focused, well judged, well timed and was executed on a scale and with a ruthlessness that would have impressed Bismarck. M&S was lined up in advance to create a second-day wave with its 5p-per-bag charge announcement. . . .

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Labour politicians could learn more valuable practical lessons from what the Mail has done this week than from anything that Barack Obama is doing. This is not a fashionable view. Entranced by Obama’s success, every minister wants to know what he’s taking and how to get some of it for themselves. If only we too could somehow be like Obama, they say, trust and respect would flood back into the dried-up riverbed of British politics. But this is purest delusion. Most of Obama is not hard currency. It doesn’t transfer outside the American market. Forget it. . . .

On the other hand there are three lessons from the Mail campaign that really might be worth attention from our politicians. First, why does it take a newspaper to state the obvious and to get something done about it? . . .

Second, look what can be achieved by identifying a problem, deciding what should happen instead, and planning a strategy that can make it succeed. Modern politics has mislaid that hugely important skill. . . .

Third, isn’t it interesting that Britain is full of people who are keen and ready to respond to a call to do the right thing? . . .

Plastic bags are a problem. They can be reduced by leaders proposing clear solutions and promoting good norms. Don’t make people feel guilty. Don’t always reach for new laws. Help people also to feel they can make a difference and that things can be done differently and better. The Daily Mail understood that. The future may belong to the politicians who understand it too.

  • Cooler Heads

    Uhhh, ban ecologically dangerous plastic bags? And replace them with what? Ecologically dangerous paper bags?

    Did they show that the disease is worse than the cure? From everything I’ve read, it’s a toss-up between paper and plastic as far as the environment goes. The manufacture of paper is horribly polluting, as is the pickup of recyclables and the re-manufacture of recycled products.

  • PXLated

    Agree with Cooler Heads…Read an article this weekend (sorry, no link) that talked about how paper takes a ton more energy/resources to produce than plastic/styrofom and biodegradability in modern landfills isn’t an issue.

  • rick gregory

    Plastic bags??? Banning plastic bags now gets identified as some noble crusade?? Have we really sunk to that depth? Please… this is a nice publicity stunt – period.

    To your questions about why people don’t do this more… it’s because not all problems are as easy to solve. Ban plastic bags, check. Replace them with reusable cloth bags, check. Ok, done, next issue. But what about the problems that aren’t so simple? You know… health insurance coverage for the 40+million in the US who aren’t covered? Immigration issues? Childhood hunger? The solutions are unclear and dependent on your ideological bent and on what you believe the consequences of each possible solution are.

    I’d LOVE to see newspapers start crusades to address those, but sadly they won’t since it doesn’t fit in a nice neat soluble package that they can use as a PR stunt.

  • roger rainey

    Good God, Jarvis. Its as if we don’t have enough campaigning by news outlets on all kinds of issues already. Take global warming as the elephantine example sitting in the corner. I for one can’t credit the reporting of many outlets on the warming issue because their prefernce is so plain. Isn’t encouraging papers to start choosing sides contra to a lot that you advocate for? Where is the reliable straight up local news? What happens to the credibility of a rag when the other guy reports how paper bags are even worse than the plastic ones? Why should anyone rely on the choice made by a reporter and rubber stamped by an overworked editorial board on any issue, scientific or otherwise?

  • Anna Haynes

    Roger, do you have children?

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  • Richard Cook


    What does that have to do with anything?

  • Glyn Thomas

    Cooler Heads and others:

    This isn’t a case of replacing plastic bags with paper bags, because paper bags aren’t much used in the UK in comparison to the USA. It’s a case of replacing disposable plastic bags with plastic “bags for life”.

    The problem isn’t plastic bags as such, it’s with plastic bags that are only used once and thrown away. Which is insane.

    The Daily Mail (whose politics I detest) may actually do something positive here, for which I grudgingly salute them.

  • Andy Freeman

    > The problem isn’t plastic bags as such, it’s with plastic bags that are only used once and thrown away. Which is insane.

    And how do you know what people do with the bags they get?

    In the “old days”, everyone did things with paper bags. Today they do things with plastic bags.

    They’re so useful that I occasionally ask the clerk for an extra.

    There are, of course, two responses to my question. The first is “well, I do the right thing, but those people are different.” Wrong. The second is “I throw them away because I can’t figure out anything else to do”. If that’s the case, perhaps you should be fixed, but leave the rest of us alone.

  • Anonymous

    Why didn’t the Guardian suggest that the publication save people the miles upon miles of paper and ink that newspaper companies like themselves continue to waste day after day?

    Perhaps people would realize that all too often these purported crusading publications would not be such staunch advocates if it results in bottom line losses….

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