In the week Rupert Murdoch’s media empire came close to collapse, the broadsheet branch of News International, The Times, ran a three part series on Shell in Nigeria. If you aren’t a subscriber, you can read the articles here and here. The paper dedicated plenty of column inches, time and resources to its “official tour” of Shell’s operations.
Internal memos written in the aftermath of the executions of Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogonis in November 1995 reveal that Shell was anxious to maintain a “stable relationship” with The Times to counteract the critical edge to its coverage. Foreshadowing the Murdoch scandal of today, Shell’s media strategy in the late 1990s included “a programme of social contact between senior editorial figures and [Shell Chairman and Managing Director].” By the tone of its recent articles, Shell’s engagement strategies with The Times appear to have paid off.
We weren’t the only ones disappointed with The Times’ special series. In a letter of protest, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:
Your two articles on Shell’s operations in Nigeria illustrate why the company has become so widely vilified for its impacts in the Niger Delta.
Overall the articles were (surprise, surprise) skewed in favor of the oil multinational. I identified 7 separate points in the articles which were either factually inaccurate, unbalanced or misleading. I will deal with 3 points below.
1. “There are few police and soldiers to protect [Shell’s] pipelines” – July 11th
This is clearly inaccurate. Independent security studies in 2005 and 2009 confirm that Shell uses over 1,000 armed guards in Nigeria. These troops, some of whom are known locally as the “kill and go” police, are notorious for human rights violations.
I can only imagine that Shell were delighted by media coverage that downplays the extent to which company operations are linked to abusive government forces. When I asked energy editor of The Times and author of the article, Tim Webb, to provide a source to back up this statement, he was unable to.
2. “[Shell] employs 9,000 local youths to look for spills” – July 11th
This gives the impression that Shell is employing locals to monitor the environment for oil spills. What it doesn’t say is that many of these youth are the recipients of “security contracts”, Shell’s way of shifting the burden of security onto the community. This practice has had disasterous impacts, fuelling conflict between armed gangs who compete over lucrative contracts.
3. The July 12th article focused on Shell’s successful CSR projects in Nigeria, but ignored the failures.
While the article gave colourful descriptions of the Shell branded bed-sheets and “pink tiles” in Obio Cottage Hospital, Port Harcourt, it failed to mention that the rural Delta is littered with non-functioning white elephant projects by oil firms like Shell, ranging from empty hospitals and un-staffed schools to dried-up water tanks (see p 121 – 122 in Frynas, 2009).
A substantial percentage of Shell’s CSR projects (70% in 2001) were failing or non-existent. Much of Shell’s $600m “community development” funds have gone as ‘stay-at-home’ payments for local gangs, further exacerbating conflict. (see Watts, (2008) and Groves, Adam, (2009)).
The Times’ far glossier portrayal of Shell’s CSR may actually re-enforce the problem. According to professor George Frynas “If PR priorities precede development priorities, this is likely to affect the planning. … There is a real danger that PR priorities may constrain development efforts.”
Tim did not respond to points 2 & 3 (and 4, 5 and 7), but he said:
its unfortunately impossible to include everything one would like on such a complex issue in such short space.
I appreciate the challenges of journalists in the Delta. But what goes unsaid often speaks volumes about the real agenda. With Shell’s vast legacy of social and environmental devastation in the Niger Delta, responsible journalism requires a higher degree of accountability, better research and a willingness to ask harder questions in the face of those who act with impunity.