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 UK 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.

“Since 1821 the mission of The Guardian has been to use clarity and imagination to build hope,” The Guardian’s current editor, Katharine Viner, proudly proclaims on the “About us” page of the paper’s website. Part of this founding myth concerns one of the defining social and political issues of the day, slavery, which the Little Circle members, including Taylor, vigorously opposed as a moral affront. “The Guardian had always hated slavery,” Martin Kettle, an associate editor, wrote in a 2011 apologia on why during the Civil War the paper had vociferously condemned the North while equivocating on the South.

That may be true, but it also presents an incomplete picture. The Manchester Guardian, as the paper was then known, was founded by cotton merchants, including Taylor, who were able to pool the money needed to launch the paper by drawing on their respective fortunes. While none of these men, many of whom were Unitarian Christians, is likely to have engaged in slavery, they didn’t just benefit from but depended upon the global slave trade that provided virtually all of the cotton that filled their mills. As Sarah Parker Remond, an African American abolitionist, said upon visiting Manchester in 1859: “When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those 80,000 cotton plantations on which was grown the $125 million worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of that money ever reached the hands of the labourers.”

Remond had ample reason for saying this. The relationship between the northwest English cotton industry and the American South’s slave society was one of mutualism. Of all the cotton in Manchester, 75% of it was sourced from Southern slave plantations. On the eve of the Civil War, Lancashire was importing more than one billion pounds of cotton from the United States per year, about half of the two billion pounds of cotton picked by Southern slaves annually. By buying slave-picked cotton at extremely cheap prices, Manchester’s cotton industry could use advances in manufacturing to profitably spin the cotton into textiles that were then sold back to the Southern slavers. Instead of trading slaves — a morally messy and economically-risky affair — Manchester’s liberal elite learned how to trade slave-grown cotton.

The trade in Southern-sourced cotton enriched the city, giving rise to the wealthy middle class of which John Edward Taylor and other members of the Little Circle were a part. On the back of this cotton surge, men such as Taylor — the son of a tutor, who apprenticed with a local cotton merchant — rose from humble beginnings to achieve affluence and national influence within a matter of years.

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. The South, The Guardian held, could break its Northern bonds by establishing free trade with England’s industrial and commercial centres. As the paper wrote in May 1861:

“If the sentiments of the educated and higher classes of Southern society could find expression, we should be frankly told that in the emancipation of the South from dependence on the North, in the creation of diversity of employment for Southern capitalists and for the masses, and in the saving that would arise from direct Southern intercourse with Liverpool, Southampton and Havre, the day would not be distant when slavery itself would cease.”

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.

Since the 2000s, The Guardian’s race coverage has left no element of existence, human or otherwise — as a piece on why driverless cars are racist attests — unbent by its racial prism. By The Guardian’s telling, post-Brexit Britain has been beset by a “frenzy of hatred”. British schools are racist. Twitter is racist. The Covid response was racist. Dog walkers are racist. Chicken is racist. Cricket is racist. And if you consider asking someone to explain why something is racist, don’t: it is, according to another Guardian piece, extremely racist.

But you need only look at the Executive Committee of the Guardian News and Media, the body that governs the paper, to see that, by the racial standards the paper has spent decades engendering, The Guardian has a serious problem: it is strikingly white. From the company’s CEO, Anna Bateson, to Viner, its chief editor, right down to its CFO, deputy editor, head of communications, and head of product are white. Now, the liberal democratic world in which The Guardian was fashioned would find nothing about this fact objectionable. These are simply individuals who seem to be doing their best to combat social ills. But that is not the standard The Guardian has held the world to. Social justice and racial equity, as expounded by The Guardian, hold that whiteness is inherently a form of racialised power, achieved through the subjugation of non-whites. And that’s where the charges levelled by the podcasters, who accused the paper of, among other things, “editorial whiteness”, gets thrown into stark relief.

For all its talk of corporate equity efforts, according to an internal report from 2019, only 12% of The Guardian’s editorial team come from BAME backgrounds — despite BAME people making up 18% of the British population. The paper’s median ethnic pay gap has hovered around 15% over the past three years, which means non-white Guardian employees are paid “only” 15p less on the pound than white Guardian employees. For your average British company, this might be a stellar result. But for a newspaper that for the past two decades has made race into a defining issue in all of our lives, is it quite as acceptable?

It’s not difficult to imagine, then, how a group of black producers would see an environment like this as hostile. Surely, if The Guardian stood behind the decision to throw the statue of Edward Colston into the Bristol harbour, despite everything he did with his wealth, then it stands to reason that a newspaper founded by white merchants who made their fortunes milling Southern cotton should be similarly heaved overboard.

But that has not been The Guardian’s position — and this is where the paper’s blind spot for its own racial misdeeds threatens to morph into something more dangerous. In response to the podcasters’ letter, the newspaper did not bend the proverbial knee. Its editor did not step down. Its CEO did not announce a series of sweeping reforms. The company did not even issue the obligatory company-wide mea culpa lined with pledges to “do better”. Instead, it pushed back.

“We are concerned that some former colleagues and contributors have not had a good experience working with us, but we are disappointed they have chosen to write a partial reflection of their time at The Guardian,” the paper wrote in a statement. From its perspective, the onus is on the podcasters, who have told a tale.

While that kind of corporate crisis control would probably succeed for most companies, The Guardian is no longer most companies. It is no longer even a Left-of-centre publication pushing for progressive policies. It has slowly become a furnace of racial grievance which now threatens to consume the paper itself. For all its commentary on power and race, The Guardian is a powerful publication, able to make a single uncomfortable episode like this simply go away. But the bigger concern is whether it can satisfy the demands of an ethos that seeks to overturn institutions precisely like The Guardian, when they fail to live up to the social justice ideals they preach.

When a Left-wing publisher released a collection of essays marking the paper’s  200th anniversary, what readers found was not a celebration but a critique of the institution. Capitalism’s Conscience, edited by a Guardian contributor, slammed the paper in one of its chapters as not just corrupt but a corrupting cultural institution that is guilty of white supremacy.

[T]he Guardian has repeatedly given voice to racist and far-Right figures and ideas in interviews and articles,” claimed the authors of one chapter. “This platforming and the resulting amplification do not only fulfil the function of deflecting from liberal racism, but also allow the paper to represent its journalism as adhering to liberal principles of objectivity, balance and free speech.” On the face of it, the statement seems absurd. But looking at the political context the paper has engendered, it’s clear that, given the cultural conditions The Guardian has used its considerable influence to foster, it could not be any other way.

For its part, The Guardian has assured readers that the review is “largely complete and will not pull any punches in terms of transparency”. This may be cold comfort for the podcast producers charged with looking into slavery at the paper’s historical roots only to come away with allegations of racism in its present incarnation. Whether or not the review finds that Taylor had direct ties to slavery, the podcast affair shows that The Guardian has, wittingly or not, stumbled into a new and fraught chapter of its story, one even the most polished podcast productions will struggle to explain.

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