UK ‘Phantom’ oil slick was a smear against Climate Camp by Richard Bernard

27/8/2010 Guardian Monday’s Climate Camp day of action against RBS looked like having all the classic ingredients:hard data showing the problem, coupled with direct action to help move us away from a path
towards climate catastrophe. We were working in a relevant and immediate
political moment: no to austerity cuts and bank bail-outs, yes to climate
justice. So how did our actions get overtaken by accusations of media control
and “wrecklessness”?
Unfortunately, coverage of the day was dominated by a hallmark Climate Camp
smear story splashed across the media. According to a police press release put
out at noon: “a substance similar to diesel or vegetable oil” spilled onto two
major roads in Edinburgh.” We understand that some journalists had been told
about it by the police earlier.
Worryingly, almost every media organisation, from the Scotsman to the Financial
Times, re-reported this despite no evidence of any kind having been presented to
link this oil spill - if it happened - to the camp: no pictures of the spill; no
traffic reports showing disruption; no bystanders or drivers complaining; no
banner; no word from any climate activist on any website saying they did it. It
appears to have been a phantom oil spill.
This “action” defined the narrative of camp’s day of action. Yet, compare this
with every other direct action that the Climate Camp has been involved in. In
each case, the target was a corporation or government, not the general public;
no one’s safety was ever purposefully put at risk; and each action was
cheerfully claimed by the camp, usually in a press release.
We have been here before. In 2007 apparently we were planting “hoax bombs” to
shut Heathrow airport. But it wasn’t true. Almost every national newspaper in
the UK was forced to apologisefollowing our complaints to the Press Complaints
Commission. In 2008 it was reported (including in parliament) that there had
been “70 injuries to police officers”. Again not true. There were no injuries
sustained in clashes with protesters, and the only injuries were caused by
heatstroke and bee stings. In 2009, the police provided a fictitious account of
the last moments of Ian Tomlinson’s life. The public were told that the police
were just trying to help Ian Tomlinson and that protesters - including those at
the G20 Climate Camp - impeded them. Video footage told a very different story.
This year it is a mystery oil spill.
What’s ironic about all this is that the big news on the Guardian’s website
isn’t an investigation into whether or not the police deliberately misled the
public by duping lazy newspapers into regurgitating a fake smear story. Rather,
some journalists think that it’s the Climate Camp who are the ones supposedly
controlling the media.
While most journalists have understood that we lived at Gogarburn for the week
and that some people like some privacy, some seem intent on ignoring this point
year after year. That means balancing our desire to work with the media and get
our message across, and also ensuring that for the week of the camp we still
have some kind of privacy. That’s not just privacy to plan acts of potentially
illegal civil disobedience, but also just to have a shower or eat or sleep
without press intrusion. That’s why we opened the camp to media between 1pm and
6pm: between lunch and our evening meal. In truth, this is an ongoing and
difficult process: some activists are totally opposed to professional press,
many welcome them with open arms. This is the result of the diversity we are
often criticised for supposedly lacking. To deal with this range of opinions, in
the weeks before the camp itself we try and find some kind of consensual
agreement, something that everyone involved can live with.
There are photographers, videographers and bloggers who take part in the Climate
Camps from start to finish, by coming along to meetings, helping make decisions,
putting up tents and marquees on site. We collectively make the media we
distribute, and share our footage with each other to help teach people about
climate change and direct action all year round. Given the way the majority of
the professional press have reported Monday’s actions, it’s no surprise that we
try and find our own channels to get our message out there.
We have been criticised for describing journalists as “astoundingly
unimaginative”. These words were borrowed from George Monbiot’s activist guide
to the media, written over a decade ago. We hope one day that this proves to be
We ask readers who know anything about the spill to contact us with information.
Perhaps collectively we can crowdsource what really happened. In the meantime
the Camp for Climate Action media team is writing to the Press Complaints
Commission about each of the articles that uncritically reported the mystery oil
spill. Why? To force the media to carefully report the facts, not regurgitate
police propaganda. (This is possible, the Guardian did accurately refer to the
oil slick as a “police allegation”.)
If that equates to not trusting the media and trying to control journalists then
we’re guilty. And we’re happy to say so.
• Richard Bernard is a member of the Climate Camp press teamP
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