Behind the scenes of the Guardian’s divestment campaign: Q&A with Francesca Panetta

Francesca Panetta is an award-winning Multimedia Special Projects Editor at the Guardian, and Executive Producer of the “Biggest Story in the World” podcast series on the Guardian’s divestment campaign.

The series goes behind the scenes to tell the story of a unique campaign for a media organization, which started last December in Sweden, at the Right Livelihood Awards, when Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger met environmentalist and founder of the grassroots climate campaign group, Bill McKibben. Both were honored with the “Alternative Nobel Prize” for their contributions to peace, justice and ecological balance. The Guardian’s divestment campaign, which was launched in early 2015 in partnership with, has attracted praise and controversy in equal parts.

The podcast is a fascinating behind the scenes look at the “War Room” of this campaign. How did the idea first come about?

Francesca: It was an idea of Alan’s. He wanted to capture the conversations as they happened. Alan said it would be interesting to tell the story of climate change through the process of our campaign. He’s a sharp journalist, and he knew there would be something compelling about being very open about our process. So this project was launched right at the start of the campaign.

Was the podcast intended to be part of the campaign?

No, it’s not part of the campaign. The way I make the pieces, using an external voice to narrate, is really to be a fly on the wall and to be very impartial. Coming from a radio documentary background, I saw this as an amazing opportunity. It is definitely not a campaign tool.

One of the really distinctive aspects of the series is all the behind the scenes recordings with the team at the Guardian, the pitch meetings, the strategy discussions. This was a big risk, and I wonder how hard it was to get buy in from staff at the Guardian for this approach?

The behind the scenes approach was Alan’s idea, and he instigated the recordings. He has never said what I can and can’t record, so I’ve had a lot of freedom on that score. At The Scott Trust* meeting for example, it was Alan who went to the Board and said “I want to record this.”

I’ve also done loads of recordings that don’t involve Alan, the ones which focus on the journalistic stories. It’s been quite hard for them. Journalists are very protective of how they do stories, and how they work internally as a team. There are a lot of jokes, and I’m recording everything – for some it’s been more difficult than for others. As a radio producer, I don’t let others have editorial sign-off for my pieces, but I have sent some through to Alan and James (Randerson)** to make sure its fair.

What I do is invite people to come to the studios so I can record their meetings. If that’s not possible I’ll take radio mikes and booms to them. One of the journalists has actually said its incredibly uncomfortable but gone along with it anyway. What has helped is that the core team – it’s about 10-15 people – really like the series. so that has generated a lot of buy-in.

How many episodes will there be and how is it structured?

Series One will be a total of 10 or 11 episodes and we finish at the beginning of June, which is when Alan’s term as editor-in-chief ends. We don’t know if the series will be continued. Each episode is 15-30 minutes and there are different categories. Some episodes follow the story at the Guardian, others are themed – on psychology, on economics, on religion. The idea is that you learn about climate change along the way. Someone who knows almost nothing about the issue should be able to follow and enjoy it. Getting the balance right has been tricky. There are a whole raft of issues that require explanation – carbon auctions, the intricacies of summits, the history of those. But you want to keep it all in a story narrative.

People are talking about the renaissance of the podcast, that it’s the new video and so on. Do you agree, and who have you been inspired by in this field?

I work in the world of creative radio. The pioneer of this work was Ira Glass from This American Life, which I’ve listened to for 10 years. In the US there’s a hugely creative radio scene, where the focus is on scripting and storytelling. But here in Europe we’re known for great sound as well. My background is as a musician, in composition. I really want my work to be textured and rich, it has to sound beautiful. In this series we’ve used a lot of sound design and sound effects. When you make radio pieces you have layers of sound. Imagine the sound of a piece of music, and the sound of some oil drilling and a voice. If you have them all playing at once it makes a rich experience.

I used this approach for this podcast to show that the Guardian is good at pushing itself in terms of innovation. Mobile is driving the podcast renaissance right now. Audio is a secondary medium. You can have it on all the time while you’re doing other things – jogging, walking, commuting, doing things around the home.

We have a big team – 3 producers, a sound designer, and myself working full time. Compared to making short films, it’s still cheap. Plus all the key people in the team are right on my doorstep.

Has the podcast had an impact? Both in the UK and elsewhere?

Feedback from listeners has been really positive. I think we’ve reached a lot of people who don’t know much about climate change. The ones who do know a lot have enjoyed the story elements – the behind the scenes stuff. It would be great if it could reach audiences outside the UK and the US.

* The Scott Trust is a private company and the sole shareholder in Guardian Media Group. It was founded in 1936 as a trust and exists to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity. The shareholders of the Trust take no dividend from the business. The Guardian Media Group announced earlier this year that it would sell all the fossil fuel assets in its investment fund of over 800 mln sterling.

** James Randerson, Assistant National News Editor, with a particular responsibility for environment, science and technology news. He is also Lead Coordinator for the Guardian’s divestment campaign.

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