Why journalists are afraid of covering the Corrib Gas project

By William Hederman

This is a paper I presented at the People’s Forum in Inver in north Mayo on July 7th, 2012

On her radio programme a few weeks ago, (Saturday, April 14th, 2012), Marian Finucane interviewed the parents of Michael Dwyer, the Irishman shot dead by security forces in Bolivia in 2009. Michael had been brought to Bolivia by men he had met while working with them on the Corrib Gas project, men with links to fascist organisations in Eastern Europe. They were employees of IRMS, the security firm contracted by Shell to police the project.

During the interview I sent the following two text messages to the programme:
Questions must be asked of IRMS security: why the people who led Michael to his tragic death in Bolivia had been working on Corrib Gas project.
and:
Michael clearly didn’t know what he was getting into. It was dangerous people he met on the Corrib Gas project who led him into a dangerous situation.

Marian read out the second of these texts, but with the words “on the Corrib Gas project” removed. Here is the wording she read out:
Michael clearly didn’t know what he was getting into. It was dangerous people he met who led him into a dangerous situation.

This bizarre piece of editing removed the central thrust of my message. Why would an RTÉ radio programme censor a listener’s message in such a blatant manner? The excision of these five words may seem minor, but it encapsulates the approach of the mainstream media to the Corrib project. The question about why they would do this echoes a question I have been asked often since first travelling to Rossport in May 2005: why do the national media either ignore or blatantly misrepresent opposition to Shell’s inland refinery project? Why do they so conspicuously avoid reporting on certain aspects of the story?

One of the reasons such questions were directed at me was because I had previously worked at The Irish Times and, at the time that I first travelled to Erris, I was working for Village magazine. It was only after leaving The Irish Times and becoming involved in protest movements that I fully appreciated the extent to which media outlets (even the ‘quality’ ones) could misrepresent such movements. Corrib is a paramount example of this extraordinary chasm between a reality and the media’s portrayal of it.

Trying to answer this question has been at the back of my mind during the intervening years. It is a question that will have painful significance for other communities in Ireland who live where big oil decides it wants to build or dig or drill or frack.

To those resisting Shell in north Mayo, this distortion and misinformation is felt as a deliberate, vindictive attack. It is assumed that such journalistic lies and misinformation could only be the result of direct pressure – and even bribery – from Shell and the Irish Government. In many instances, these assumptions are accurate (in part depending on your definition of bribery). But the reality is much more complex.

Some of the demonisation of those resisting the project is clearly the result of direct pressure from Garda “sources”, who exploit the dependence on them of certain journalists. This intimate, symbiotic relationship between hacks and cops – a central cog in the news factory – is familiar to any observer of mainstream news reporting. Gardaí provide crime correspondents with the raw material for their gangland drama stories; one of the pay-backs is that the journalists regularly run stories that make An Garda Síochána look good, make their opponents look bad and justify heavy-handedness and heavy spending.

In the case of Corrib, these sensational (and mostly fictional) smear stories first surfaced during the summer of 2005 and began in earnest in the autumn of 2006, when Gardaí were violently breaking a 15-month long blockade of Shell’s refinery site at Bellanaboy. To take one of many examples, the Sunday World of October 8th, 2006 carried a fantastical and utterly unsubstantiated tale by its celebrity crime writer Paul Williams, under the headline: ‘How the Shinners hijacked Rossport: IRA take control of protests’.

As well as resorting to the Irish establishment’s favourite method of tainting a group – associating it with republicanism – and creating the impression that Gardaí are using their batons to deal with dangerous extremists rather than regular local people, this brand of fiction also perpetuates the idea that ordinary folk could not rise up to resist corporate and state power or become radicalised without the leadership of radical outsiders.

Still more of the misleading coverage around Corrib is attributable to the simultaneous ownership by Tony O’Reilly and family of so much of our news media and of an oil and gas exploration company. (This is something that I and others have written about before, including Harry Browne at this event last year, and I don’t intend to dwell on it here.)

Why is coverage of this sort not offset by more accurate, truthful coverage elsewhere? Journalists can see the truth of the matter in, for example, the Centre for Public Inquiry’s 2005 report on Corrib or in Lorna Siggins’ 2010 book, ‘Once Upon a Time in West’. Why is this ignored in most media coverage?

More complex than conspiracy

The explanation for much of this distortion – or media failure – is more mundane, more subtle, more multi-faceted than any conspiracy theory can account for. In comparison to a conspiracy, this complex set of factors and forces is harder to identify, explain, expose and harder to combat.

Over the years an understanding of how and why media coverage (with rare exceptions) is so appalling gradually took form in my head, but I found it hard to articulate it credibly to others. In particular, I understood that journalists (including editors) feel a desperate need to report the same version of reality that their peers are reporting, even when they know that version to be false. This is counterintuitive for most people. Surely journalists and media outlets want to get the scoop, to report what nobody else has reported (not to mention the quaint old idea of reporting the truth)? Surely egotistical journalists want to be pioneers and mavericks?

The tendency of reporters to stay within the consensus, even if it means ignoring what is happening right in front of them, is one of the confounding aspects of mainstream news media. How to account for it?

Then I read an excellent book that put this phenomenon at the centre of its analysis. In Flat Earth News, British investigative journalist Nick Davies – who more recently exposed the News International phone hacking scandal – lays bare a media world beset by distortion, falsehood and propaganda. Ireland does not feature in the book, but anyone with a knowledge of Corrib will be struck time and again by the book’s relevance to media coverage of the project. Examples from Corrib could be used to illustrate almost every point Davies makes.

He charts the devastating cuts in the numbers of journalists working in Britain in the past two or three decades, due to the transfer of media ownership to corporations. Those corporate owners (or “grocers” as he calls them) approach news media as accountants approach any business, demanding reduced costs and huge increases in “productivity”. The result is that journalists today operate in what Davies calls a “news factory”, where they are expected to churn out stories at such a rate that they cannot possibly check the veracity of the information that they publish as fact. A reporter on a regional daily tabloid in Britain kept a diary for Davies for one week. The paper produces about 25 pages of news every day, using 12 low-paid reporters (5 of whom are trainees). The reporter wrote 48 news stories in five days, or 9.6 per day. To research these 48 stories, he spoke to 26 people, only four of them face to face; and of his 45.5 hours worked, he was only away from his desk for three of them.

The effect is that journalists are simply unable to check facts and therefore are reduced to relying on companies’ PR and official sources, whose press releases and briefings flow straight onto the pages and airwaves without being checked or corroborated. Time pressure also means journalists use the online archive of their own and other news outlets for background, which means the same misinformation keeps reappearing.

My favourite PR-produced-and-perpetually-regurgitated factoid about Corrib is the line about the contribution it will make to Ireland’s energy needs. “Corrib will supply 60% of Ireland’s gas needs for 20 years” has become so ingrained as to be as essential a part of its name as a trademarked slogan.

In fact, the gas in Corrib – one trillion cubic feet – is equivalent to the quantity of gas consumed in Ireland every six years. What Shell has claimed is that Corrib “will supply up to 60% of Ireland’s gas needs during peak production and is estimated to have a field life of between 15 and 20 years.” Of course, “peak production” will be a brief spike. If Shell’s figures are accurate, a field life of 20 years would see Corrib supplying just 15% of Ireland’s gas needs over its lifetime. As will have been calculated by Shell, careless reporting by overworked or lazy journalists has simplified the claim to one that makes Corrib sound essential to the national interest.

This rings true with the results of research Davies commissioned from researchers at Cardiff University. They analysed all of the home news stories in five British newspapers (four ‘quality’ papers and the Daily Mail) in two random weeks, and the sources for the stories. They found that 60% of stories wholly or mainly consisted of PR material or wire copy. Only 12% of stories were generated wholly by the newspapers’ own staff. Where a story relied on a statement of fact, in 70% of cases the fact passed into print without any corroboration at all. Just 12% were thoroughly checked.

The electric fence

While this helps to explain why certain stories are published, Davies uses the analogy of an electric fence to account for the media’s failure to publish other stories. Repercussions for journalists or media organisations deter them from reporting something or reporting it in a certain way. As with an electric fence, the threat of punishment does not need to be real. The knowledge, or sense, that others have suffered in the past because they have strayed too close to the fence, is enough to inspire harsh self-censorship.

Where similar events, with apparently similar newsworthiness, occupy a different position in relation to this electric fence, the differing coverage of them is telling. Davies cites examples from the war in Iraq, but let’s look instead at a chilling example from our own Corrib Gas project.

At 3 a.m. on the morning of April 23rd, 2009, a Rossport farmer was dragged from under a truck on Shell’s compound at Glengad, where he was obstructing work. Up to ten IRMS workers wearing masks beat him severely, using a heavy object, while kneeling on his head. He was hospitalised with severe bruising to the head and body. Exactly two years earlier, on April 22nd, 2007, the man in question, Willie Corduff, had become Ireland’s first winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. When a winner of the world’s most prestigious environmental prize is hospitalised due to an assault inflicted during the course of the very protesting for which he won the prize, one would assume this would tick enough newsworthiness boxes to make it global news.

A news story did emanate from Glengad the next day and it did go global, but it was a different news story. This was down to a quick stroke by Gardaí (none of whom, mysteriously, were anywhere near Corduff when he was assaulted). They used another event on the same night to create a distraction. At around 11.30 p.m., a group of local people had entered Shell’s compound and dismantled fencing for which Shell had no planning permission.

At 9.30 a.m. on April 23rd, the Garda Press Office issued a statement to the effect that a gang of men in balaclavas armed with iron bars had attacked Shell’s compound. Journalists were told the “attack” bore “all the hallmarks of a military-style operation”.

This is where the Flat Earth News comes in. When a police force’s press office says something, journalists will immediately report it as fact. No need to check or corroborate. Thus the falsified story of the gang “armed with iron bars” started running on Irish breaking news sites. Crucially, it was also reported by the wire service, Press Association (PA).

By Thursday afternoon, a Google News search showed that 150 news sites around the world were carrying the story under variations on the headline “Armed Gang Attacks Shell Site”. A construction industry website even ran the story, opening with the words, “There’s a hunt on today for a gang of men…” Of course, there was no hunt, because Gardaí knew that this was a fairly run of the mill piece of direct action by local protesters. A Shell to Sea press release issued on Thursday morning (April 23rd) openly admitted to the dismantling of the fencing.

The “claims” by “a protester” that he was assaulted did merit a mention in the latter paragraphs of some of the news reports. These claims were mostly “balanced” with a Garda acknowledgement that Corduff was removed from the site after “complaining of feeling unwell”.

Coverage ‘turns ugly’

In the above example, reporters had to choose between an official source and campaign sources about events which the journalists had not witnessed. In other instances, violence has been visited on protesters in full view of reporters. Yet in these instances, they still fail to report reality. Their powers of description have tended to desert them, as they resort to clichés and euphemisms about “scuffles” and “protests turning ugly”. Again the electric fence scares them away from doing their basic duty and telling the public what they saw.

This brings us to the most perplexing of the habits of the creature known as journalist: the desire to stay within the consensus, to report what their peers are reporting. Davies cites several powerful examples, including the consensus about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq in the build-up to the 2003 invasion. Some journalists knew or suspected there were no WMD, but the consensus was too overwhelming (or the journalists were too cowardly).

A more humdrum example is the practice of reporters from rival news organisations conferring after an event to agree on “the line” that they will report. Their fear is that they will not have the story the other papers have; that their readers will be isolated. In 2005 it was revealed that, for the previous ten years, the New York Times and the Washington Post had been faxing each other an early proof of their front pages, for exactly this reason.

We all know the consensus that has been built up around Corrib: that technology-fearing and progress-hating country folk have been “got at” by a “motley crew” of opportunistic outsider extremists, who together have exploited the regulatory process to deny a big-spending, job-creating company from building a piece of infrastructure that is essential to Ireland’s needs.

Before concluding, I would like to consider another baffling trademark of Corrib coverage that accords with one of Davies’ “rules” of journalism. Throughout the years of the Corrib story, whenever media outlets have alluded to the question of the safety and or otherwise of the proposed Corrib refinery and onshore pipeline, they all follow a particular stock formula, one which does no service to their audience.

This involves simply presenting the positions of the two sides in the issue and leaving it at that. ‘Objectors say the project is dangerous, unprecedented and inappropriate. The company and the government refute this and say it is safe.’ It is left to the reader/listener/viewer to digest these two opposing viewpoints and make up their own mind about the truth of the matter. Only one of these positions could be correct, but almost never has a mainstream publication or broadcaster bothered to investigate which one it is.

This is symptomatic of one of the fundamental failures of mainstream journalism: the protocol that dictates that the journalist must be ‘neutral’ and the concomitant excuse this provides not to investigate the matter. Under time pressure and under pressure not to upset powerful interests, this adherence to pseudo-balance allows the journalist to tell the story without unearthing anything that will upset powerful interests.

Consensus takes hold

In conclusion, once a narrative is established, through intensive PR work that takes advantage of time-starved journalists’ inability to do their own research; through the pushing of the same message by official and corporate sources; through the propaganda of a small number of ideologically-driven commentators who may or may not be friends or associates of the corporate PRs; through the fear of upsetting powerful interests who will complain about you to your bosses… When this narrative is in place, the flock-of-sheep factor kicks in and ensures that this consensus is maintained. Staying within the parameters of this consensus is easier, quicker and safer. Gradually the narrative becomes the reality; Gramsci’s hegemony becomes common sense.

By that stage it is harder for journalists to step outside the narrative, just as it was hard for those who knew the earth was not flat to say so at a time when a flat earth was the common sense reality. For a mainstream journalist, to contradict the consensus about Corrib is to be seen to be unpatriotic, anti-business and taking sides with stubborn extremists who are holding up a vital national project and who are damaging Ireland’s image as a place to invest. Under those circumstances, to simply cut the words “on the Corrib Gas project” out of a listener’s text message must seem like the common sense thing to do.

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3 Responses to Why journalists are afraid of covering the Corrib Gas project

  1. GB says:

    Your application of Nick Davies “Flat Earth News” analysis to an Irish example, and the application of your own experience is very thought provoking.

    Intuitively, the idea that “Consensus” plays a part in why mainstream media systematically ignore or limit the reporting of certain types of news stories or events makes some sense, but can it be the complete story? Likewise the idea that news is mostly recycled corporate press releases is undoubtedly true, but again, does that fully explain media output and behaviour?

    The only explanation I’ve read that more generally and satisfactorily explains media behaviour/output, is Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda model. Glenn Greenwald sums it up basically as corporate media servility to power, irrespective of whether that is government, or other centres of major corporate power, expertly expressed here (emphasis added):

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/08/cnn-iran-drones-gulf

    “…..In case any of you thought the US media would change its future behavior in light of the debacle during the run-up to the Iraq War – and, really, were any of you thinking they would? – this is your answer. The pre-Iraq-War behavior wasn’t an abandonment of their purpose but the supreme affirmation of it: to drape the claims of the US government with independent credibility, dutifully serve its interests, and contrive an appearance of a free press. This is our adversarial, watchdog media in action.”

    Another media analysis organisation, medialens.org, have deconstructed Davies’ “Flat Earth News”, quite convincingly, and without any coherent challenge from Davies’ himself that I’m aware of, despite invitation.

    http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/alert-archive/2008/535-flat-earth-news-the-inside-view-part-1.html

    Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cooke also analyses and refutes many of Davies’ claims, in particular in comparison to medialens analysis here:

    http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/alert-archive/2009/584-a-comparative-review-of-flat-earth-news-and-newspeak.html

    Also, let’s not forget that Davies and cohorts at the Guardian are the same people that are responsible for the demonising, ad hominem hatchet job on Julian Assange and wikileaks.

  2. Sarah Jane says:

    “A reporter’s lack of supposed ‘bias’ – which, I suspect, is now the greatest sickness of our Western press and television – has become the anti-dote to personal feeling, the excuse for us to avoid the truth”. Robert Fisk, 2008

  3. Excellent work, thanks.

    As GB mentions above, Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model is the the place to go if you want a detailed explanation of how the media works in democratic societies. Flat earth news, though excellent (despite Media Len’s nitpicking) is more of a corollary.

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