Climate Change, BP Greenwash And The Press
On May 25, one of us spent several minutes laughing on the phone with a friend of ours, an environmental journalist. We were looking at the homepage of the Independent website – a newspaper that has made huge efforts to present itself as a radical campaigning force for action on climate change. A February 17 news report, for example, was titled: ‘Greenhouse gases are already past threshold that spells disaster.’ A May 4 article read: ’Global warming fastest for 20,000 years – and it is mankind’s fault.’
A major cause of the problem was identified by Michael McCarthy in a May 15 article: ‘Long-haul breaks spell bad news for the climate.’
The May 25 website was no different, including a link to another damning article: ‘Greenhouse gases: Who produces most?’
Our friend had phoned to point out that the corporate media’s greatest eco-warrior had sandwiched this story between three interesting articles on its homepage.
The first, above the climate link, was a review of Ferrari’s 599 GTB Fiorano sports car – top speed 205 mph (0-60 in 3.7 seconds). The Independent’s judgement: “It’s stupendously good.”
A second article, immediately below, read: “Win two American Airlines flights to New York.” And a third, below that: “10 top places in the sun” – an article promoting long-haul breaks that “spell bad news for the climate“.
It seemed funny at the time, but looking back our reaction was perhaps closer to hysteria!
Of course the Independent is not alone in its corporate schizophrenia. Even the respected science weekly, the New Scientist, is trying to sew with a double-pointed needle. The March 25 issue featured four full-page advertisements for cars. The vehicles comprised three “gas guzzlers” (a 3.7-litre Mercedes, a 3-litre Subaru and a 4.2-litre supercharged Range Rover) and only one “green” car – the Toyota Prius. A few weeks later an editorial responded to readers’ concerns:
“Several readers have noted the difference between our editorial line on climate change and some of our adverts. At New Scientist, there is a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising. This works both ways. While it does create contradictions at times, it also ensures New Scientist’s editorial independence from commercial considerations.” (’Ads for gas guzzlers,’ New Scientist, April 8, 2006; www.newscientist.com/ article/mg19025460.300.html)
This is a claim that flies in the face of decades of evidence of media quietly supporting advertisers, not least by playing down damaging stories. Corporate sponsors are certainly in no doubt about the nature of the relationship. A 1985 memo from the tobacco company Philip Morris International observed:
“The media like the money they make from our advertisements and they are an ally that we can and should exploit… we should make a concerted effort in our principal markets to influence the media to write articles or editorials positive to the industry position on the various aspects of the smoking controversy.” (Tobacco Explained, Action on Smoking and Health, June 25, 1998)
In April 2005, the Independent reported that General Motors had pulled its advertising from one of America’s biggest newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, after it called for GM’s chief executive, Rick Wagoner, to be sacked. GM said it had decided to stop advertising because of “factual errors and misrepresentation“. (Katherine Griffiths, ‘Angry GM withdraws ads from LA Times,’ The Independent, April 9, 2005)
In May 2005, financial giant Morgan Stanley told key publications of guidelines that required its adverts to be pulled if negative stories about the company were published. A key section of its planned addition to advertising contracts read:
“In the event that objectionable editorial coverage is planned, agency must be notified as a last-minute change may be necessary. If an issue arises after-hours or a call cannot be made, immediately cancel all Morgan Stanley ads for a minimum of 48 hours.” (Jon Fine, ‘Morgan Stanley Institutes New “Pull Ad” Press Policy Designed to Respond to “Objectionable” Editorial Coverage,’ AdAge.com, May 18, 2005)
BP – True Therapy
In an article addressed to the chemical industry back in 1989, James Lindheim, director of public affairs at Burson-Marsteller – one of the world‘s largest public relations firms – described how big business could best assuage public fears over industrial threats to the environment. He noted that when a psychiatrist deals with “irrational and distressed patients” he or she responds as a very sympathetic listener:
“The whole time that his mind is telling him that he has a raving lunatic on his hands, his mouth will be telling the patient that his problems are indeed quite impressive, and that he the psychiatrist is amazed at how well the patient is coping, given the enormity of the situation… Once that bond of trust is established, true therapy can begin and factual information can be transmitted.” (Quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.125)
Lindheim advised that “industry must convince people that it cares” in a similar way, not by giving them facts about the true risks and benefits of chemical products, but by creating “a therapeutic alliance“. Industry must be “like the psychiatrist: rationally figuring out how it can help the public put things in perspective”.
Lindheim omitted to mention one small difference – the goal of the psychiatrist is to improve the health of the patient; the goal of the industrial ‘therapist’ is to improve the health of corporate bank accounts.
The prize for the most audacious corporate “therapy” attempting to sell a climate killing company as a friend of the earth surely goes to BP and its ‘beyond petroleum’ campaign (apparently the lower case is more reassuring to the public). Last month, John Kenney, a creative director at an advertising agency, explained his role in BP‘s image transformation in the New York Times. Kenney revealed that he had initially felt inspired by the brief:
“Think of it. Going beyond petroleum. The best and brightest, at a company that can provide practically unlimited resources, trying to find newer, smarter, cleaner ways of powering the world.”
Wonderful! But alas there was a problem: “they didn’t go beyond petroleum. They are petroleum.”
“I guess, looking at it now, ‘beyond petroleum’ is just advertising. It’s become mere marketing — perhaps it always was — instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm.” (Kenney, ‘beyond propaganda,’ The New York Times, August 14, 2006)
You would not know it from the media response to BP’s latest propaganda. On August 23, the Independent’s James Daley wrote of BP‘s new Targetneutral campaign:
“BP will raise the stakes in the battle to be seen as the most environmentally friendly oil company today, launching a website which allows motorists to offset the carbon emissions from their car by donating money to the development of renewable energy sources.” (Daley, ‘BP targets green consumers with carbon-offset scheme for drivers,’ The Independent, August 23, 2006)
The Independent lined up various notaries to heap praise on the initiative. Sir Jonathon Porritt, the founder of the sustainable development charity, Forum for the Future, said his organisation was “very supportive of what BP is doing through targetneutral”.
Peter Mather, BP’s head of UK operations, was also allowed to give his company a boost: “Targetneutral is a practical and straightforward step that BP is taking to enable drivers to help the environment.”
The Independent – a major recipient of BP advertising – included not one word of dissent in the article (although scepticism of sorts appeared elsewhere – see below).
The Times also reported the Targetneutral initiative without criticism. A Guardian article managed to mentioned that “some journalists” had responded with “scepticism”, but no further details were provided. A Greenpeace campaigner was allowed two sentences of dissent in the Financial Times. The Channel 4 website reported the story, without criticism, under the title, ‘BP declares war on global warming’ (www.channel4.com/4car/ news/news-story.jsp?news_id=15086). The piece was nicely illustrated with a BP advert for the campaign and an advert for Ford cars above and below. Yahoo also reported the plan without balancing arguments. (www.uk.news.yahoo.com/23082006/ 344/motorists-urged-join-green-plan.html)
We were interested to know what the environmental social justice group PLATFORM (www.carbonweb.org) thought of ’beyond petroleum’. They told us that despite renewable energy occupying a disproportionate share of BP’s advertising, in fact the company invests just 3.5% of its capital in renewables, all of the rest being in oil and gas. As for Targetneutral, Greg Muttitt, PLATFORM’S specialist in the impacts of the oil industry, was scathing:
“So now we have a scheme to both ease drivers’ guilt, while they continue driving, and boost BP’s reputation, while it continues to expand its production of fossil fuels. Everyone’s a winner – except the millions of victims of climate change. If BP were serious about climate change it would chart a course out of oil and gas – until it does, it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.” (Email to Media Lens, August 23, 2006)
Total Falsehood – Prudhoe Bay
Good reasons for scepticism about BP’s commitment to environmental protection were provided in the Guardian on August 22 and in the Independent on August 30. Terry Macalister reported in the former that BP and its partners had been served with a subpoena by the attorney general of Alaska forcing them to hold on to and “preserve” documentation connected with the corrosion of pipelines at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The action was taken amid press allegations that BP had manipulated inspection data to avoid having to replace some of the pipeline. The manipulation charge has been denied but BP workers have been quoted in the Financial Times as saying they had told investigators at the US Environmental Protection Agency that the company was negligent in its maintenance. (Macalister, ‘BP served with subpoena over Prudhoe Bay,’ The Guardian, August 22, 2006)
Chuck Hamel, a long-time oil industry watchdog who has been working with concerned oilfield operators employed at BP’s Prudhoe Bay site, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman last month:
“I have been tracking the corrosion control program by BP for that thousands of miles of flow line that they have. They have been cutting corners, budget problems. And the first document that came to my hands from the workers was in 1999, that they were not injecting the sufficient amount of chemical inhibitors to prevent the rusting… I’m talking about engineers, BP engineers, BP corrosion experts, who have left the company because they wouldn’t participate in their corrupt corrosion programme.” (‘Did BP Purposefully Allow its Alaska Pipeline to Corrode in Order to Shut it Down and Boost Oil Prices?’; www.democracynow.org/ article.pl?sid=06/08/10/1339232)
Hamel described how the worst pipeline rupture and spill in Prudhoe Bay happened in 2005, when 500 barrels of highly toxic “produced water“ contaminated with oil was spilled onto the tundra. Hamel revealed that BP had used a second-hand valve from a scrap yard. Eleven months later the valve ruptured causing the spill. Hamel claims that the subsequent BP report that denied the valve was from a scrap yard was falsified:
“They falsified the report. And 72 pages. And total, total falsehood.”
Occasional mentions have been made of some of these issues in the press. But out of a dozen articles mentioning BP’s Targetneutral campaign – including the Sunday Mirror (August 27), the Daily Telegraph (August 26), The Scotsman (August 24), the Financial Times (August 23), the Sun (August 23), the Independent (August 23), and the Times (August 23) – only one mentioned BP’s problems in Alaska.
This came in an article by Jeremy Warner in the Independent on the same day James Daley‘s supportive piece appeared. Targetneutral was “promising” and “intriguing”, Warner wrote, although “a cynic” would say “that it is not an act of altruism at all, but one of unbridled self interest. By launching targetneutral, BP hopes to improve its image, even if Big Oil and saving the planet seem a contradiction in terms”. (Warner, ‘Matalan’s minority shareholders squeezed by Hargreaves between rock and hard place,’ The Independent, August 23, 2006)
The scandal in Prudhoe Bay was described in a single sentence as “failure to tackle corrosion in a timely fashion” – tardiness being the problem, then, rather than corruption and fraud, as alleged. Waxing philosophical, Warner described Prudhoe Bay as part of “one of those terrible down phases in its [BP’s] public relations right now which from time to time afflict all big oil companies“.
As the world approaches a climate collapse that will likely consume millions of lives, this represents the most critical response to BP’s latest ruse to appear anywhere in our ‘free press‘.
In considering the credibility of oil industry greenwash, one might deem relevant its documented history of subordinating human life to profits. One might describe its role in supporting dictatorships, in overthrowing obstructive governments, and in suppressing democratic movements. One might even refer to its tireless, fanatical attempts to deny the reality of climate change. But for the mainstream media every fresh deception should be judged on its own merits, in isolation from economics, politics, history, and simple common sense.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to the journalists and organisations below and ask they why they included no scepticism or criticism of BP’s Targetneutral campaign in their articles on the topic.
Write to James Daley
Email: [email protected]
Write to the Channel 4 website:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Jim Gray, editor of Channel 4 News:
Email: [email protected]
Ask the Independent editor, Simon Kelner, how he can justify promoting irresponsible fossil fuel consumerism alongside news articles reporting the rapid destruction of the climate:
Email: [email protected]