The death of independent media. VICE may have been the first victim, but it won’t be the last

By Charlie Sawyer

Published Oct 8, 2023 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

When you think of VICE, what do you think of? For me, I think of Andrew Tate deep dives, millennials in skinny jeans, and a million and one articles about mushroom addictions. Well, at least, that’s what I used to think of. Now, I think of something completely different, and here’s why.

On Friday 29 September 2023, Novara Media posted a video to its TikTok captioned: “How did VICE go from new media giant to Saudi propaganda machine?” The video, which was narrated and headed up by former VICE editor Simon Childs, dug into a long-known inevitability: independent media is dead in the water.

@novaramedia

How did Vice go from new media giant to Saudi propaganda machine? Simon Childs, a former editor at Vice and currently a commissioning editor at Novara Media, explains how Vice left its anti-authoritarian roots for ties with Saudi Arabia. #vice #saudi #saudiarabia #politics #media

♬ original sound - Novara Media

So, who’s running the show now? Well, according to Childs, Saudi Arabia. I won’t run you through the entire video, but here are the primary highlights. First off, for any of you who maybe aren’t familiar with the media publisher’s connections with the Middle East, they date back a few years now. VICE has been in financial trouble for some time, culminating in the company filing for bankruptcy in May of this year. This period of financial turmoil also coincides with both a business and content-focused partnership with a Saudi Arabian Prince and businessman.

Most of these ties originate with VICE’s executive chairman Shane Smith who, after being abandoned by a number of his top dogs at the company, sought help elsewhere. Saudi Arabia has been trying to rebrand itself for some time now. With a reputation for poor human rights protection and authoritarian government control, it makes sense that the Middle Eastern nation would team up with the alleged liberal and progressive media publisher. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Beneficial of course, for everyone, except for the employees of VICE and its loyal readers.

According to The Wall Street Journal, in the summer of 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, met Smith on a yacht off the Red Sea coast in order to discuss the building of “an international media empire to combat the kingdom’s rivals and remake its image in the West.” This meeting marked the beginning of a partnership that would ultimately ruin VICE’s credibility.

For those of us who dreamt of a career in the media, VICE was the publication to look up to. It revolutionised digital media and brought youth and innovation to the forefront—ditching tired and crusty old editorials for think pieces on sex, drugs, and the internet. In what’s now become a very saturated industry, VICE stood out and paved the way for many independent publishers who were seeking to make their mark.

Then, it grew and grew. Before we knew it, VICE was everywhere, its tone of voice became lost in the hustle and with pressures to compete with traditional media outlets, it became obsessed with investment opportunities. The takes became less and less fresh, and then they became full-on stale. But you know what’s worse than stale? Corrupt.

According to Novara Media, who spoke with a number of former employees at the publisher, journalists on the content teams began sensing a shift among the higher-ups—particularly after the company opened an office in Saudi Arabia in January 2023. One individual shared: “They keep sending new teams out there [to Riyadh]. And they’re certainly not doing proper journalism, as most people would recognise it. They’re doing lifestyle features about how great Saudi Arabia is. It’s basically an advertorial.”

@philipdefranco

Saudi Arabia Has Paid Off Vice News #vice #saudiarabia Vice News, they were someone you could count on to give you the news that no one else was willing to cover… they have fallen. After striking a deal with a State-run Saudi Arabian media company, Vice removed their documentary that was critical of the Saudi Crown Prince. The documentary revealed how MBS orchestrates purges, kidnaps Saudi elites and tortured them, and how he killed Jamal Khashoggi. The video they removed was from June of this year but Vice’s ties to Saudi Arabia go way back. In 2018, Vice started making promotional videos for the Kingdom after Saudi gave them $200 million from the sovereign wealth fund. In 2020, they helped organize a Saudi music festival that was paid for by the Saudi government & Vice hid their involvement. In 2021, they opened an office in Riyadh after previously being banned from the country. Now they’re actively seeking producers for their “new media brand” that’s headquartered in the country. Vice claims that they have full control over editorial but that seems to be a flagrant lie. This year, Vice entered into another deal with a Saudi media company and after doing so they reportedly canned a story on how Saudi Arabia was helping families harass and threaten transgender Saudis living overseas. With the Vice Union saying that just cause the company is bankrupt financially doesn’t mean it should also be morally bankrupt. The icing on the cake here is that in Vice headquarters in London, there is reportedly a map of Saudi Arabia on the wall.

♬ original sound - Philip DeFranco

Cases of censorship have confirmed the influence on content these financial investments had. In June, a VICE documentary, which was highly critical of MBS (the Prince that the company had financially partnered with just months prior), was pulled from YouTube three days after being released.

In August, VICE cut a commissioned story delving into the LGBTQIA+ human rights violations and murders that occurred in Saudi Arabia. It’s reasoning for killing the piece? That it would put queer VICE staff members at the Riyadh office in danger.

What’s worse, is that it seems as though the VICE Jax team, based in the Riyadh branch, are pulling journalists and resources from other teams to divert their attention towards producing more Saudi Arabia-centric content.

Now, this story in and of itself is a sad one. But it’s representative of a much bigger problem within the media industry. Maintaining and growing a viable business, while also preserving your tone of voice and moral standing.

https://www.tiktok.com/@dardir.x.dardir/video/7284274978265091370?lang=en&q=Vice%20Saudi%20&t=1696256077138

As someone who writes for an independent media publisher, I can appreciate the stresses that come with being in this industry. People get bored, very easily. That being said, it’s a terrifying thought when you consider the fact that digital media is now going exactly the way traditional media did two decades ago. While it shouldn’t be, money is everything. Some incredible publications have had to close up shop due to a lack of funding, like the much celebrated Gal-Dem. It’s the cruel reality of this business.

Gen Z are far more likely to look to their favourite creators for content and entertainment than to a website or media publisher. Our ability to adapt is the only thing we can rely on. Oh, and journalistic integrity of course. VICE was being led by a group of people who, unwilling to step down out of greed or ego, allowed a once thriving and important company to become nothing more than a corporate vessel.

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