Policy

Propaganda dressed as news

How Corporate PR industry misinforms and lies to public in a post truth world.

The fossil fuel industry’s determination to manufacture doubt about global warming illustrates the desperation of the oil, gas and coal producers as the realities of climate change strike home. They have created a network of front organisations which actively engage in lies and misinformation about the realities of climate change. While the campaign is largely driven from within the developed world the global South has also been pulled into this high stakes dirty tricks campaign.Keith Bryer has been a regular columnist for South Africa’s largest newspaper group, Independent Media, for several years. He is published in the group’s Business Report, a daily business supplement distributed inside each of the group’s regional titles, reaching hundreds of thousands of readers. Strangely, neither Bryer, nor Business Report, are willing to disclose whether he is a paid columnist or just a source of free copy.

Bryer spent decades at the centre of the public relations department for British Petroleum (BP) South Africa. Now retired, he is listed as an associate partner of the major London based international PR company, Etoile Partners, a “geopolitical consultancy” (http://www.etoilepartners.com) whose clients include the oil industry and whose remit includes “reputation management”.

Recent revelations by whistleblowers have shown that decades ago the fossil fuel industry already knew more than anybody else about the impact of their products on climate change. (See nose198, The nuclear lie of the land.)

As a result, there is a real risk that companies like ExxonMobil can be held liable not just for covering up the known consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, but for lying about these and then embarking on a cynical long-term campaign to undermine any action to reduce fossil fuel use. The industry faces an unprecedented class action, dwarfing the extent of the punishment meted out to the tobacco industry, which already runs into hundreds of billions of dollars.

Exxon has known of these specific risks since the 1970s – from its own research. Yet despite having developed a scientifically sound model, Exxon not only failed to take action but instead rather chose to spend untold millions of dollars both covering up the facts and actively spreading doubt among the public, politicians and legislators.

Dozens of front organisations were created to push this agenda. Groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, The Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute continue to do so, effectively undermining and stalling meaningful action to address climate change.

The documents released in late 2015 by Inside Climate News and The New Yorker have prompted various US state attorneys, including those of New York, California, Massachusetts and the US Virgin Islands, to start investigations to uncover the fraud and malfeasance. The potential damages pose a threat to the very existence of the industry. The stakes could not be higher.

In order to spread this corporate counter-narrative as widely as possible the fossil fuel industry has exploited the increasingly tightly controlled corporate media conglomerates and the trend toward outsourced news gathering. Most people are unaware that a significant proportion of current news is sourced directly from public relations organisations contracted to multinational corporate interests, while mainstream media outlets simultaneously shrink newsrooms and staff to maximise profitability.

As journalists have declined, the ratio of PR news agency employees to journalists has risen. This media infiltration by vested interests has inevitably skewed the bias, as the flow of public relations masquerading as news swells to a flood. As liberal media baron Randolph Hearst put it, “News is what someone does not want you to print – the rest is advertising.”

This is where PR specialists such as South Africa’s Bryer enter the picture, having spent years fronting up for the fossil fuel industry. Not only does he snidely dismiss and denigrate the very notion of climate change, terming it “so-called,” and an unproven theory caused by the sun; he insists that those calling for action on emissions are “communists and socialists of every stripe” and “latter-day puritans”. These are well-documented tactics, widely employed by the Merchants of Doubt.

Reading Bryer’s articles is like juggling a series of contradictions. In one, he claims coal companies are being wrongly held liable for climate change, in another it’s Exxon that’s liable. He cites pundits like the utterly discredited ex-Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore as a reliable source. He claims dealing with climate change will be prohibitively expensive, yet fails to mention the staggering costs and risks of delayed action to manage the emerging impacts of global warming. Bryer unreservedly supports the oil and nuclear industries, excuses Volkswagen’s emissions fraud, undermines solar and wind-generated alternative energy. Naturally he disagrees vehemently with international agreements to deal with climate change. And as a seasoned PR hack, he spins a convincing story to a largely sympathetic audience.

The extent to which Bryer’s discourse closely parallels the identical narratives emerging elsewhere is telling. A recent example neatly demonstrated his role in this corporate echo chamber. In July 2016 he wrote of how ExxonMobil was forced to defend the liberties of free speech as it sought to counter legal investigations into its lies and cover-ups, as discussed.

Exxon has fought back on several fronts. First, it called in its PR media outlets; second, it engaged in the legal battle; and third, it harnessed tame legislators it has a record of funding. The underlying message was the absurd claim that Exxon’s right to free speech was being undermined and that it was the target of a latter-day witch-hunt by nefarious green groups.

Bryer’s narrative was essentially a cut-and-paste emanating from Exxon’s PR pundits in the USA. As far as I can ascertain Bryer has never indicated in any article he has written his link to Etoile, as an associate partner. Remember, their self-proclaimed job is “reputation management” for the oil and gas industry, among others.

I raised these failures of disclosure with the Press Council of South Africa. Despite pointing out the links between Bryer and the fossil fuel industry the Council insisted Bryer was free to express his opinion and that opinion cannot constitutionally be limited, as it is protected under the rights to free speech. Further appeals that provided detailed material links between Bryer and Etoile were likewise  dismissed, again citing the protected right to free speech.

This is a remarkable ruling on two accounts. First, the Press Code requires balance and the disclosure of vested interests. It stipulates that no intentional distortion or misrepresentation can be made, nor shall commercial interests be allowed to influence or slant reporting.  It also clearly states that conflicts of interest should not undermine the trust of the public in the media.

The fact that a business newspaper failed to disclose these links appears to be a significant moral and ethical lapse of disclosure, notwithstanding the Press Code.

Surely if Bryer’s writings were above-board and simply a reflection of his own opinions – not those he was paid to write for his entire professional life – he would disclose his links to Etoile? And surely Business Report would also feel morally obliged to share this information? Neither did so.

Surely neither he nor his publishers ought to be able to naively claim that he is simply a “retired communications consultant” providing his “opinion” – rather than an active player in the field?

On a more sinister note, Bryer’s role appears entirely consistent with that of the Merchants of Doubt, constantly seeking to cast aspersions, sew discord and undermine opposition to its interests. The first rule of propaganda is to repeat a lie, often; by doing so people start to believe it.

Glenn Ashton

Copyright © 2016 www.noseweek.co.za

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First printed in Noseweek Issue 205, November 2016. Please contact Noseweek for reprint permission via http://www.noseweek.co.za
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Synthetic biology: Artificial life threatens nature and society.

Synthetic food has long been the subject of speculative fiction, from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” where poor quality artificial food spawned dissent, to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” where food was manufactured from coal and petroleum because fossil fuels had trashed global ecosystems.

Today fiction manifests as reality. If genetic modification (GM) of our food were not enough, biologists continue to push the boundaries of their ability to alter life on earth in novel and unpredictable ways. The latest version is known as synthetic biology, or “synbio.”

We are all familiar with chemical based artificial ingredients, especially flavourants and preservatives, in our food. However our evolving ability to manipulate genes enables us to synthesise entirely new living organisms in previously unimaginable ways.

Synbio has become the commercial flavour of the month, with a new supposedly “nature identical” vanilla essence ready to go on sale. But just how nature identical are these synbio products?

From the outset synbio promoters have attempted to avoid both the controversy and the required oversight associated with GM products, claiming that the synbio process produces compounds identical to natural products. Therefore they require no evaluation, monitoring or labelling.

Published studies reveal increasing environmental and health risks associated with GM crops and products, repudiating years of industry denial. Similar denial of the risks associated with synbio products raises an obligation for us to independently monitor and oversee these products.

But what exactly is involved in synthetic biology? Briefly, it is human designed life, using computerised gene sequencing strands of artificial DNA and associated proteins. It can involve “gene shuffling” or “whole genome construction,” using complex algorithm’s involving millions of variants.

These processes are neither risk free nor benign; they essentially involve the creation of novel life forms that could or would not exist naturally. Although experts have written extensively on the subject there is no dedicated international or national regulation of the associated processes, nor have the complex ethical, social, environmental or legal implications been dealt with. Oversight remains unaddressed and absent.

What products are in the pipeline? Besides synbio vanilla flavouring produced via synbio yeast, other products such as synbio rubber and vetiver oil are almost ready for market. Extensive research is being conducted on replacement energy sources. The corporate control and production of these products through patented processes raises other serious concerns beside regulatory oversight.

For instance vanilla is grown by over 200 000 small scale farmers around the world, many in poor nations like Madagascar where vanilla is a leading cash and export crop. An estimated 20 million smallholder farmers rely on the production of natural rubber. Vetiver provides a livelihood for some 60 000 Haitians, the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere. Synbio directly threatens these agricultural industries, along with the downstream supply chains.

The past 20 years has seen extensive international regulation of benefit-sharing of natural products, primarily through the recognition of traditional knowledge and expertise. Synbio facilitates de facto bio-piracy, robbing these marginalised people of these precious resources, just as the piracy of music, books and movies subverts the intellectual property rights of their creators.

While there are ways to protect these rights, we should note that the developers of synbio include the world’s seven largest pharmaceutical companies, leading food commodity traders, along with most of the big chemical and energy companies. This skewed power dynamic essentially pits unsophisticated, poor farmers against the power of the corporate-political nexus.

It is imperative that synbio is not only regulated but that adequate provision is made to ensure that access and benefit sharing contractually protects this vulnerable sector. Synbio threatens to accelerate the already precipitous shift away from traditional, natural production methods toward capital intensive, patented and legislatively protected industrial manufacture, along with presently undisclosed risks. The danger is that synbio reinforces already growing global inequality, further eroding already precarious social cohesion and stability.

This article was first published on SACSIS, the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service – http://www.sacsis.org.za
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