Lord Chris Smith, chairman of both the ASA and of the pro-fracking Task Force on Shale Gas, who provided the ASA with evidence in a contentious case involving Friends of the Earth. Photo: ASA website.
Lord Smith's conflict of interest: why we cannot trust the ASA on fracking!
18th January 2017
2017 began with bang for Friends of the Earth, writes Tony Juniper, with a hostile media blitz orchestrated by the fracking industry and abetted by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). But the storm, over alleged errors in an FoE leaflet about the hazards of fracking, reveals nothing so clearly as the disgraceful conflict of interest at the top of the ASA itself.
And so it was that Cuadrilla, the UK's largest fracking company, benefited from an ASA intervention based on misleading information from a pro-fracking body chaired by Lord Chris Smith - who also chairs the ASA. All a coincidence?
Having run many environmental campaigns over many years I know very well the importance of getting the facts right.
With that basic principle in mind I was surprised to hear a radio broadcast on January 4th suggesting that in relation to its campaign against fracking for shale gas and shale oil, that Friends of the Earth had got some basic points wrong.
The allegation was that a leaflet explaining some of the health and pollution risks of fracking had made factual errors.
I spoke to Craig Bennett, Chief Executive at Friends of the Earth, to find out what had happened. I used to do his job some years ago and was very interested to know what the campaigners had to say.
I quickly discovered that reality differed somewhat from the headlines that screamed about Friends of the Earth's alleged errors.
As it happens, the campaign group hadn't got anything wrong and the reason that the radio broadcast, and a number of newspaper articles appearing around the same time, said otherwise was down to that impression being created by a public body with a remit to independently adjudicate the veracity of claims made by companies and charities.
Has the ASA itself been politicised?
The public body in question is the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and it looks very much as if, on fracking, it has been engaged in political activities itself. The chronology of events went like this ...
During December the ASA assured Friends of the Earth in writing that they were planning to make an informal resolution on complaints they had received about claims made on fracking. They said that at that point the ASA "will not give details of the complaint or state that you breached the Code." Since Friends of the Earth's claims had not been ruled to be false, the ASA should not of course say that it had breached its code.
The ASA had by then closed their case on the Friends of the Earth leaflet without a ruling as 'informally resolved' - because no final decision had been made by the ASA Council on the statements, or their accuracy. As Craig Bennett explains:
"Friends of the Earth agreed not to reuse an old leaflet, or repeat some specific wording, because the case was taking time away from vital campaigning - we are, after all, talking about an out-of-date leaflet from two years ago which we weren't using anyway. But, one thing is certain, we continue to stand by our facts. Indeed, the scientific evidence against fracking is stronger than ever."
Having established that the case would be closed with no ruling, the ASA went on to say that "The ASA publishes basic details of the complaints it investigates on its website, www.asa.org.uk. Your company name, the industry sector and the medium in which the advertising appeared will be published on Wednesday 28 December in a list with other advertisers that have co-operated in resolving complaints. It will not give details of the complaint or state that you breached the Code."
A carefully timed media coup by the ASA?
It was in other words to be a non-story. There was no ruling that Friends of the Earth had made errors. Outline information only, with "no details", was to be published alongside a number of other cases with no statement that the code had been breached.
During the Christmas holidays, however, the campaign group was told that the ASA had decided to move the publication date to Wednesday 4th January - as it happens the day before fracking company Cuadrilla moved onto a site in Lancashire where they are now preparing to try to frack.
Then on Tuesday 3rd January Friends of the Earth started getting press enquires, asking whether the group had admitted to being wrong about health, water and property price claims in its leaflet. A BBC journalist forwarded an extract of what they said was an ASA press release.
This was especially strange as the ASA said they hadn't put out a press release, yet what the BBC shared, and what I saw, looked very much like one. A flurry of publicity followed, including that piece I heard on the radio on January 4th.
The effect was to create a media blitz that drowned out any campaigning by anti-fracking activists that might have been broadcast that morning to accompany Cuadrilla's first day of operations on its new site in Lancashire.
The compromised chairman of the ASA - fracking 'task force' supremo Chris Smith!
As if this wasn't fishy enough, I discovered a major conflict of interest at the ASA. The Chairman of the ASA is none other than Lord Chris Smith - who is also the chair of the industry funded Task Force on Shale Gas. This is a remarkable and clear conflict of interest and makes the facts of what happened in relation to the Friends of the Earth case all the more fascinating.
The conflict deepens when one realizes how the Task Force was evidently influential in helping the ASA form its initial views in relation to the Friends of the Earth case.
While the ASA evidently ignored, or at least failed to appreciate, the strong scientific and technical backing to the Friends of the Earth claims (many of which were supported by experts) the ASA quoted an industry source in defence of their broad view that the campaigners had got it wrong. That source? Yes - none other than Chris Smith's Task Force on Shale Gas!
And so it was that Cuadrilla, the UK's largest fracking company, gained helpful air cover at a crucial moment - cover derived from an ASA intervention coming in part from misleading information from a pro-fracking body. A body chaired by the same man who chairs the ASA. All a coincidence?
Scandal and intrigue
While you ponder that question, have a look at some of the claims that Friends of the Earth didn't get wrong. These were the ones that caused such a furore, and as you hear more from that Task Force and Cuadrilla in the months ahead, you might like to bear these in mind.
- "Fracking involves pumping millions of litres of water containing a toxic cocktail of chemicals deep underground ... Up to 80% never returns to the surface and could end up in your drinking water."
- "A hospital near a US fracking site reports asthma rates three times higher than average."
- "25% of fracking chemicals could cause cancer. Also, more than 75% of fracking chemicals could affect your skin, eyes and respiratory system. Whilst 50% could affect your nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems."
Now, astonishingly in my opinion, the chief executive of the ASA, Guy Parker, has personally stepped into the fray with an 'opinion piece' published on the ASA website, in which he succeeds only in digging his organisation even deeper into a hole of its own making. He writes:
"We told Friends of the Earth that based on the evidence we'd seen, specific claims it made in its anti-fracking leaflet about the effects of fracking on the health of local populations, drinking water or property prices, or claims with the same meaning, cannot be repeated."
Trouble is, insists Craig Bennett, that statement is "factually wrong". All the claims are true and based on solid evidence. Friends of the Earth was never told those claims were wrong, says Craig. Instead it volunteered to avoid them in future to put a swift end to the dispute. "There is so much new evidence on fracking now with even more up to date and persuasive information, and that's where we wanted to focus our campaigning!"
The real questions here - all scrupulously avoided by Guy Parker in his 'opinion piece' - concern the extraordinary conflict of interest of the ASA's own chairman, Lord Smith; the ASA's uncritical acceptance of his industry-biased evidence; and the ASA's unprecedented use of the case to attack one of the UK's leading anti-fracking campaign groups at this critical time; and to do so in breach of its promise to "not give details of the complaint or state that you breached the Code."
Reassured by the independence of the ASA and its ability to act in the public interest? I'm not.
Dr. Tony Juniper is environmentalist and writer and former chief executive of Friends of the Earth (England, Wales & NI). Among many other things he is the co-chair of the advisory board of the Belantara Foundation, and a trustee of the Resurgence Trust. His latest book 'What's really happening to our Planet?' was published by Dorling Kindersley in June 2016. Website: www.tonyjuniper.com. Twitter: @tonyjuniper.
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