Lonely Planet Goes All “Fair and Balanced” On Us

In a move that’s sending shivers down the spines of many Lonely Planet guidebook writers, the first bold move from new owner the BBC is a directive to move to the mainstream and become more politically neutral. The Age in Australia has the full rundown in Lean Times at Travel Bible.

“In a move that’s already igniting suspicion among writers, Lonely Planet is cracking down on political bias, especially in the history and culture sections of its guides. At least one senior journalist has been to the publisher’s Footscray headquarters to speak to commissioning editors about objective reporting. Lonely Planet’s global publisher, Alex Fenby, says a formal policy, which stems from an internal review that began in March last year, will be rolled out to authors next week.”

Is this good or bad? The article cites some really painful passages from some books that are pointedly left-wing and anti-American. This probably doesn’t sit well with the corporate parents, especially since many of the series buyers are beyond the backpacking phase and the U.S. is by far the biggest market for sales.

On the other hand, many have complained for years that the LP guides get blander and blander by the year, striking anything that resembles personality or opinion and making the books sound like they were written by committee.

“Some fear the policy is part of a wider cultural shift within the organisation that threatens to stifle the distinctive Lonely Planet ‘voice’ at a time when globalisation has drained the tourist scene of some of its spice and adventure.”

There’s also the issue that political problems are watered down in almost every guidebook to keep them from getting banned from local bookstores. Thus the political text you see in a guide on Cuba, Burma, or even Malaysia is seldom going to reflect the true reality of the situation and how it’s viewed in the world. The unvarnished truth is bad for business.

There are solutions though. First, you could just download the Lonely Planet chapters you want from LP then use something like Rough Guides for background. Or you could read the freelance articles the various Lonely Planet authors write to get the real story they can’t tell in the guidebooks. Here are some choice ones from Perceptive Travel and there are lots more on World Hum.

Burma story from Robert Reid

Romania story from Leif Pettersen

Northern Russia story from Robert Reid

Riviera Maya story from Zora O’Neill

Saigon story from Richard Sterling

(Thanks to Stuart at Travelfish for finding this news story.)

  1. bryan in san francisco

    Maybe this is somehow related to that Columbia travel writer scandal: “Remove” bias especially if your writers probably won’t step foot in the country.

  2. Pokin

    Just found this blog. Looks like it’ll be a great read. :) That’s really disturbing to hear that Lonely Planet is going to be essentially censoring. The writers’ candid recounts (as is seen appropriate in context) was one of the things I loved about these guidebooks.

  3. Renato

    Reading Unlikely Destinations, the Lonely Planet story written by Tony Wheeler and his wife, looks like the “Fair and Balanced” approach is nothing new and started already a few years ago. Now, with BBC on board, is just getting worst. I actually think that’s the way to go for mainstream guidebooks that have to target more customers and travellers. Nothing weird, kind of sad but pretty reasonable. If you are looking for something more “off the beaten track” and less “Fair and Balanced”, go for Trailblazer guides, Bradt travel guides…


  4. David Else

    Hi Tim (and folks!),

    My name is David Else. I write books for Lonely Planet as an author, and I also work for LP in the role of Author Liaison Manager. This message comes from me and LP’s Global Publisher, Alex Fenby.

    First up, thanks for the comments. You raise some interesting points.

    Fundamentally, Renato is right. Our new guidelines simply enshrine our editorial principles – which we’ve adhered to for some time. They’re about quality for the reader, and are much the same as any responsible journalistic institution (check your facts, avoid conflicts of interest, aim to be impartial etc).

    Opinion can and will always be part of the mix at Lonely Planet. The key point is making sure opinion is distinguishable from fact. Or, more precisely, that opinion isn’t presented AS fact.

    The Lonely Planet authors’ voice is still paramount, and their freedom to tell as it is when reviewing places to eat, sleep and visit is uncompromised. If a place is good, they’ll say it’s good. If it’s bad, they’ll say it’s bad (or just leave it out altogether, and use the space to mention another, better, hotel or restaurant).

    The ‘fair and balanced’ approach comes into play for our front-matter chapters and introductory material covering history, politics, culture etc. In these instances, it is incumbent upon writers to present historical/cultural information as accurately as possible, with less personal commentary.

    We think these are good things, not bad (to your original proposition Tim), but we’ll definitely embrace conversations about the finer points, and the broader issues raised here.

    Thanks again for the comments.

    David Else, Author Liaison Manager
    Alex Fenby, Global Publisher
    Lonely Planet

  5. Louise

    As a political conservative who nevertheless enjoys taking off for two weeks’ backpacking in Eastern Europe every so often, I don’t want someone else’s politics shoved down my throat. Guidebooks should point out local controversies and make sure the traveller understands local customs and sensitivities (like the necessity for Russian speakers like myself to remember that using Russian in the Baltic States is not particularly done and that it is better to use English or German if one doesn’t speak Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian) but not impose one point of view on their readership.

    If you want politics, do your homework before you go or contact organisations in that country before imposing western values – left or right – on the “natives”. Having lived and worked in Eastern Europe, they tend to laugh at naive western anti-capitalists. Lonely Planet is doing people just as much a disservice by presenting local situations in western-centric black-and-white tones and should stick to assisting travellers to making informed but balanced choices.

  6. Mike

    LP is a joke. It’s bland, armchair, stiff upper lipped traveling socialists. I wonder why the writers travel at all?
    The complaints in the books are always how they can’t get something like back home in their boring, white, secular/protestant minded country. The slanted loonie lefty running politcal commentaries are very childlike…the individual writer acts surprised, amazed and bewildered. With the LP Spain being the worst travel book I ever read. Thank God it was given to me. Just the anti-Catholic bent alone is annoying. Not to mention time and time again how it used to be there under Franco and of course the whining about the shortage of vegetarian restaurants…In the end not much was positive in the whole book really about anything in Spain…and what was written on where to go, what to see and eat..anything off the beaten track…was as bland as Let’s Go. I have lived in Spain for 6 years, traveled throughout the country not to mention have read over 15 historical books on the country and my vision and version of Spain is a 180 of any writer in the book.

    To the writers: Simonis, Andrews, Forsyth, Ham, Noble, Roddis, Schecter, Frey and Sterling..you should all be ashamed of yourselves for putting together such a terrible book. Seriously, stay home and stay out of Spain. Neither the good people of Spain or myself need you here.

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