MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media
November 26, 2008
The Observer Smears Climate Activism
Despite the fine words of the ’Living Our Values’ audit, the Guardian and the Observer are part of a corporate system that is determined to prevent the public from interfering with the maximisation of profits.
Earlier this month, the Observer smeared climate activists by highlighting police warnings of a “growing threat of eco-terrorism”. The alleged threat is presented by a group called Earth First!, which the paper claimed “has supporters who believe that reducing the Earth’s population by four-fifths will help to protect the planet”. (Mark Townsend and Nick Denning, ‘Police warn of growing threat from eco-terrorists: Fear of deadly attack by lone maverick as officers alert major firms to danger of green extremism,’ The Observer, November 9, 2008)
The Observer implied no less than three times that Earth First! activists would not only like to see the Earth’s human population drastically reduced, but might be willing to take action to make that happen. The impression given was of a group bent on the mass murder of billions!
And yet, almost comically, the article focused on police concerns that “a ‘lone maverick’ eco-extremist may attempt a terrorist attack aimed at killing large numbers of Britons”.
If an entire group really is advocating mass murder, then presumably the concern is not for “a lone maverick”. And some kind of evidence – weaponry, plans, perhaps a declaration of intent – should be available to justify these extreme allegations. But none was provided by the Observer.
Worse still, the article linked eco-terrorists to some very sane and peaceable climate camps in Britain. A police unit, the Observer reported, “is currently monitoring blogs and internet traffic connected to a network of UK climate camps and radical environmental movements under the umbrella of Earth First!, which has claimed responsibility for a series of criminal acts in recent months.”
It seems that activists “are doing research of possible targets… they could research an airline and see how many of its aircraft are not environmentally friendly.”
The article thus insinuated that green terrorists “could” target airliners – a mere hypothetical possibility, but obviously a key public fear since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
A group of four academics from the universities of Aston, Keele, Kent and Southampton responded to the allegations in a letter to the Observer:
“Neither in Britain nor in the US have even the most radical environmental activists attacked people rather than property… Research on environmental direct action taken in the name of Earth First! in the past 16 years shows that activists are overwhelmingly committed to nonviolence, and are not using terrorism, violence, or any other direct action to seek to reduce the Earth’s human population.” (www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2008/nov/16/18)
And what of the claim that the climate camps fall “under the umbrella” of the Earth First! group? We asked Kevin Smith, a member of the climate camp media working group, someone who has been involved in climate change activism since 2000, if this was an accurate description:
“No, not at all. Not in the slightest. There is no ‘umbrella’ for Climate Camp. It is a stand alone process. It involves a number of individuals who have been active in Earth First! networks, but no organisation has any sort of official representation or affiliation within the climate camp process.” (Email to Media Lens, November 18, 2008)
Likewise, the alleged involvement of a “network of climate camps” – a phrase perhaps intended to trigger fears of al Qaeda-style “cells” – is a myth. There have only ever been three climate camps in the UK – one every year for the last three years. The last was in August, lasting a week. No climate camp has ever resulted in a conviction for a violent offence.
Given the reality of impending climate catastrophe, the Observer’s demonisation of peaceable direct action is deeply irresponsible. The crisis is now so severe that everyone from Al Gore to leading NASA scientist James Hansen is supporting civil disobedience in an attempt to try and get something done. As Smith points out:
“The real extremists are the companies – such as E.ON and BAA – who are hell-bent on profiting from increasing C02 emissions by burning more coal and building more runways, and the government which is doing their bidding.” (Smith, letter to the Observer, email to Media Lens, November 17, 2008)
So what was the purpose of the Observer article? In their letter, the four academics wrote:
“When, in the late 1990s, some American politicians and media started to call activists ‘eco-terrorists’, it was the start of a concerted campaign which prepared the way for repressive policing and new laws curtailing fundamental civil liberties. Is the same thing about to happen here?”
Direct action is a potent way of pressing for political change. By associating that action with terrorism, the Observer is helping to dissuade the public from offering the support it urgently needs. More insidiously still, if the security apparatus subsequently chooses to crush this form of dissent, then the public will be less likely to object in the mistaken belief that a deadly “eco-terrorist” threat has been averted.
Chalk One For Media Activism – The Observer Withdraws The Story
On November 23, Stephen Pritchard, the Observer’s readers’ editor, wrote of the eco-terrorism article:
“It’s perfectly legitimate to report police security concerns, but none of the statements were substantiated. No website links were offered, no names were mentioned, no companies identified and no police source would go on the record.” (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/23/readers-editor-climate-change)
“We’ve been here before. Other newspapers reported on a predicted ‘summer of hate’ at climate camps that never materialised and the Press Complaints Commission found against the Evening Standard [th]at climate campers were planning attacks at Heathrow… I can’t verify that or the fears about mass murder because, despite repeated requests, Nectu won’t respond. Accordingly, The Observer has decided to withdraw the story.”
Kevin Smith sent us his response:
“On the one hand, I obviously think it’s great that the article has been taken down. I think this has real consequences in terms of it not being able to be used in court at a later date for the granting of injunctions and so on. I’m also really pleased in that between this and the upholding of the complaint against the Evening Standard last year at the PCC [Press Complaints Commission], we are sending out a message to the mainstream media that people can’t just print outrageous lies and slander against us and get away with it. It sounds like the paper was besieged from a number of different angles by people expressing their dismay at the article – it’s really heartening that so many people took this article seriously and took it upon themselves to make complaints.
“I appreciate the efforts of Stephen Pritchard in going through the process of holding the journalists in question accountable and making the decision to retract the piece, but I don’t want to get into the mentality of being grateful when it’s just horrendous that the article got printed in the first place. These ‘green backlash’ pieces were common at the height of the anti-roads protests in the Daily Mail and such papers, but I didn’t expect that sort of thing from the Observer.
“I’m also incredulous that such odious, shoddy journalism was able to make its way through all the various layers, people who should have checked it out and spotted it for what it was.
“It’s difficult when we spend so much time having to talk about the heavy-handedness of the police and repudiate these sorts of insidious aspersions, when what we are trying to do is have a serious conversation with the mainstream media about the real issues – the unsustainability of the model of constant economic growth in the face of the enormous ecological catastrophe we are facing.” (Email to Media Lens, November 25, 2008)
The last point is the most important. Media like the Guardian and the Observer are run by human beings – people who live on this planet, who have children and grandchildren who will be required to do the same over the next few decades. When will these journalists start having the kind of serious conversation about the real issues that people like Kevin Smith are seeking? When will they wake up from their glossy, PR version of the world to the reality of what we are doing to our planet, to the unimaginable disaster that is overtaking us?
What will it take before they wake up, before we all wake up, to the truth of where we are at this very moment, here, now?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Siobhain Butterworth, readers’ editor of the Guardian
John Mulholland, editor of the Observer
Mark Townsend, the Observer
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