Understanding the media

An interview with Mark Garavan of Shell to Sea

In October 2006, we visited Mark Garavan, spokesperson for the Shell to Sea campaign, at his home near Castlebar in County Mayo, Ireland. For over six years Shell to Sea have been objecting to plans for a gas refinery and its associated pipeline in Bellanaboy, the town land designated as the location for the refinery.

The Shell to Sea campaign believes the refinery should be sited at sea for health and safety reasons, which is ordinary practice in many parts of the world and because of the devastating impact the refinery will have on the area if it is built. They have also pointed to the financial and economic deficits in the arrangements made between the Irish government and the exploration companies Shell (Dutch), Statoil (Norwegian) and Marathon (UK) and the anomalies they perceive in the way the project has been given approval to proceed. The processes by which permissions have been given to the exploration companies have also been a serious cause for concern amongst local people – with many questions outstanding on planning, health and safety issues in particular.

In the weeks before our visit the government had introduced a heavy police presence in Bellanaboy. Protestors had been physically removed from the gates of the site and many of them had sustained injuries as a result of what they say were unprovoked, violent assaults on their peaceful protest. On the day prior to our visit, one protestor, Maura Harrington, the Principal of a local school – had been knocked unconscious during a confrontation with gardaí, which resulted in her having to be hospitalised. [1]

On release from hospital later the same day she was invited to speak on Joe Duffy’s ‘Liveline’ radio programme on RTE, the national Irish broadcasting organisation. The Shell to Sea campaign had enjoyed the support of much of the media following the imprisonment for 94 days of five local farmers (The Rossport Five) who had objected to the plans and who were found to be in contravention of an injunction against them. Duffy’s interview was a striking example of how the media had turned on the protest in the year that had elapsed since the release of ‘The Five’.

We were interested in the dynamics of the relationship between the Shell to Sea protest and the media. In our discussion with Mark Garavan he gave some valuable insight to the realities of protesting against an alliance of multinational corporations and the political establishment operating with the support of a media that is mostly sympathetic to corporate objectives.

(MG – Mark Garavan, MC – Miriam Cotton, DM – David Manning)

14th October 2006

MG: I’m a sociologist and I’m very interested in how argument and debate happens socially. It’s a thing, with regard to Corrib Gas, I’ve written quite a bit on and how we culturally try and frame things to make sense of them and to see the Corrib Gas issue from that perspective.Oftentimes the media simply don’t comprehend the argument, which is a different issue than filtering them out, but I’ll talk about that as we go on.

I commend your work and think it’s brilliant that you are doing this [Establishing MediaBite]. The track record, as you know, of attempts to come up with independent or monitoring voices in public debate has a bad record in Ireland. You only have to look at the Centre for Public Inquiry and what happened to them and how they were treated. They were targeted once they touched the Corrib Gas issue. The Corrib Gas issue, you need to be very clear, is a frightening issue because the power behind it is almost total and they will not stop at anything for this project to go through.

There have been journalists who have been seriously damaged because they simply tried to write about it. I know for a fact that there are journalists who have even lost employment because they have written about this issue in a straightforward kind of way.

So you need to know all that as well – this is not a simple fight, this is really grave stuff at the moment – we are in a very critical phase. It’s something to bear in mind. Frank Connolly is a good example. I’ve organised a series of public lectures in Castlebar in the GMIT, the third level institute we have here, on public dissent and Frank Connolly is speaking at one of them.

MC: What do you think of the media coverage of the Corrib Gas issue so far?

MG: The answer to that is that like most things in life – the media coverage has been mixed and has gone through various phases. I think if you are talking about Shell to Sea or Corrib Gas, the first thing to realise is that it has been going on for approximately six years.

So it actually started in effect in the autumn of 2000 – there is a long history to it. Now, that would probably be a surprise to most people because their familiarity with it is probably triggered by the events last summer when the Rossport Five phenomenon occurred and five men were imprisoned. That would probably have been the first time the matter came to popular attention but at that point it had already been going for five years so those men and their campaign had been around for that length of time. What was happening for the previous five years was essentially a matter of media indifference.

To answer the question, media coverage has been extremely varied and cyclical including a long period when there was minimal media attention. Then you get a sudden explosion of interest centred on the imprisonment of The Five which alerts us to something – which is that the media response, and in particular its response to a drama that crystallises a set of complex issues around a simple event such as the men going to prison, then the media begins to ask why this happened.

Then you have a platform for the first time to get your message into the mainstream media. Now, at that time, because the specific cause of the men’s imprisonment was the pipeline, media attention therefore focused on the pipeline, which was by no means the only issue of concern to us. As the summer went on there was a significant level of media interest and the media reports were excellent throughout the summer – they were very attentive, very responsive, very humane – they remained very sympathetic. Eventually, the men were released and then we had a downward movement when efforts to resolve the matter came to nothing. Media attention was fairly spasmodic at that time and we finally got to the present phase where we have the forced restarting of work on the refinery using the Gardai. And this is absolutely choreographed to coincide with a savage media campaign against us that is really brutal at the moment and very, very extreme.

And so in this sense the media is now against us. What I would say is that I wouldn’t generalise about the media and I would be careful about which phase of our campaign we are talking about. At the moment we have media attention that is uniformly negative. In June of last year we had media attention uniformly positive. Prior to that we had no media attention – it was simply indifferent. What is determining that is a more interesting question.

MC: Of course the issues are exactly the same throughout.

MG: Yes, the issues are exactly the same. They haven’t gone away – there is no difference but obviously we are no longer flavour of the month or there is a much greater manipulation of the media going on behind the scenes – which there is. I know that. There are a number of things that I think determine media coverage of us.

The first thing is that mainstream media doesn’t do complexity very well. The issues at the heart of our campaign are complex. By which I only mean they require a journalist to think through the issues. In my experience as spokesman for the Shell to Sea Campaign since June or July 2005, who has dealt with the media a lot, I know lots of media people very well and talk to them off the record – dozens of media people phone me constantly. I’ve seen them up close and they don’t usually do complexity. That’s the first thing.

They need things translated into relatively simple categories and simple terms. The problem with the Corrib Gas issue is that because it involves a processing facility it involves technical complexity so the validity of the arguments of those who are opposed to it often rests on an interpretation of technical things such as ‘Are the pipelines safe? Is the gas processing facility safe, what are the health implications?’ And so there is a whole lot of science involved in forming a judgment. And the media doesn’t like that. It prefers drama and conflict.

Complexity is not easy for the media to capture. Not only have you to look at the media in terms of the journalist not engaging with complex issues because they are busy/don’t have time/they’ve covered three stories already on the day/they are working to deadlines, the settings of the media also eliminate complexity. Newspaper articles have word limits so they have to compress the issue into the available paragraphs. The electronic media have time limits on what can be said.

So if you go on ‘Morning Ireland’ or ‘Five Seven Live’ or ‘Matt Cooper’ you know you have a four-minute period when you can speak. You will get half of that time and the other side get half, so now you’ve got two minutes. The presenter will be asking questions for about a quarter of that time. So now you are down to a minute and a half. And that’s what you have left to get across an argument. So the settings eliminate complexity and they simplify what is going on. A carefully prepared sound bite appears more compelling – easy for Shell to rely on and more compelling than someone who is desperately trying to explain a complex issue. Their opponents either sound fanatical or out of their depth because they don’t get to the end point, for lack of time. They need to go through preliminary arguments to get to that.

There is this huge compression and that’s a major problem with the media. What happens then is that in order to make a message or conflict comprehensible, the media frame it in some way. So media framing is very important. They are looking for their own familiar categories that are then imposed on the dispute.

Here is the test of the Corrib Gas dispute: if someone asks, ‘What is the Corrib Gas dispute about?’ – There is not an obvious answer to that. If you put that question back to the media, most media people would be flummoxed. They would probably say ‘It’s about a pipeline, isn’t it?’ But if you then ask ‘What are the issues here?’ they really don’t know. Way back in the beginning, for the first five-year period, the Corrib Gas dispute was mostly framed as an environmental dispute. That’s what it looked like. That didn’t really work because it actually wasn’t only that. People weren’t talking against the Corrib Gas only from an environmental perspective. The next context that they used was that it was a health dispute. After that it became a safety dispute and because that was then portrayed as the meaning of it, the government apparently solves the safety problem. But when they apparently solve the safety problem the dispute is still there because that is not what it is solely about. If you don’t know what it is all about, you won’t solve the problem.

It’s about multiple issues – community identity, people’s sense of place, wanting to be free from risk, about resisting a sense of invasion which people regard as a cultural imposition on their area. It’s about multinationals and how people have been treated by them, about being disempowered – it’s about health, safety and it is about the environment and economic issues as well – it’s about a myriad of things that most people have mixed up in their minds. So at any one time the media may be relying on any one of those frames of reference but it never reflects the whole picture.

MC: Isn’t it about public administration now?

MG: That’s a big part of it too. It’s about democracy. There is a whole range of things but the media look for single frames so that they can categorise the issue and then force you to speak within those limited terms. Otherwise you confuse them – or they say you are ‘shifting the goalposts’. They say you were just ‘on about’ one problem and now you are ‘on about’ another one. And yet we haven’t even got to the problem.

You can see this occurring all the time not just in the media but even in attempts to solve the problem such as in the so-called independent report of Cassells. He never defines the problem. If you at look at his report, the first thing you’d expect in a report to solve a problem is a definition of the problem – he never defines the difficulty.

The second problem is bias and that raises the issues that you are probably more interested in. There certainly is bias. Bias cuts both ways – people will be biased in our favour, some will be biased against – the majority will be biased against. But the media, as corporations – and therefore as part of the system if you like – is naturally sympathetic to the dominant myths of our culture such as ‘industrialisation is good’, ‘economic growth is good’ – progress is measured by new developments. These very powerful myths tell most people looking at this issue ‘this must be good – it’s gas, it’s a big factory, it’s progress so therefore it’s a positive step – what are you against it for?’

There are biases at the level of the person that can cut in all kinds of ways; there are biases in terms of the corporate entities that partly comprise the media who would be naturally predisposed towards maintaining business and development. There is also bias at a cultural level because the very energy that has driven the Corrib Gas forward has been because it has ridden the waves of a series of cultural myths – such as the desirability of the discovery of fossil fuels. This is the best thing a country can do because discovering fossil fuels is like winning the lotto for a nation. It’s just wonderful – of course we would exploit it – you couldn’t argue that we should not touch it on the basis that burning fossil fuels is actually destroying the planet – you know that! Personally that would be a strong point for me, but I wouldn’t even dream of making it because you’d be so off the norm, you’d be gone!

So, cultural myths are very important and the myth of progress is so powerful, most media people, because they are non-reflective as they go about doing their daily task, aren’t aware of the extent to which these myths are colouring their picture of what is going on. So you get people like Pat Kenny when we were on the ‘Late Late Show’ – and that was a very interesting study in total cultural incomprehension. He started off by asking ‘Aren’t you all Luddites?’

MC: But he knew well enough, I think! He’s a clever guy behind it all and knows who he wants to keep happy.

MG: But it’s quite an interesting question because it struck me that here was a guy who was channelling these very dominant myths. He’s saying no matter what you do you are going to have some risks. For example ‘the DART is a risk, so what is your problem’? I don’t buy into this conspiratorial thing that as a rule all these media guys are sitting around saying ‘OK. We’re going to do down X or Y issue, so let’s really go for them.’ That’s a bit too simple. It doesn’t really work that way.

The reality is that the media world is much more fractured and disintegrated and there is competitive pressure between journalists and media outlets.

MC: And there are certain very strong conventions within the media which journalists believe keep them on the straight and narrow. They think they are being balanced and neutral and they use those conventions to hide behind the fact they are not really looking into aspects of an issue as well as they might. Sometimes something is just plainly wrong: there isn’t ‘another side’.

MG: And that’s an interesting point in our case because in order to achieve an appearance of balance they have had to construct the idea that there is an alternative voice within the community that supports this project. There actually is not but the media have constructed this voice – there are about four or five people – literally that’s it – who have been there over the six years who have supported Shell’s project. That’s the totality.

There are about 900 plus who support the objection to the project but nonetheless, given this media convention of ‘balance’, if you talk to one of ‘us’, you must talk to one of ‘them’ and it sounds to the external ear that there are these two equal voices – which there aren’t.

But just to go back to this question of bias, bias works not so much at the level of mass conspiracy as people within the same social class or within the same political world sharing set assumptions and they operate out of those assumptions. They don’t even have to tic tac with each other to come up with an agreed version – it’s just natural to them because they belong to the same type of world – they have been educated together, they think the same way, they are socialising the same way and see the world in similar terms. So it can be quite hard for them to understand why a group like us would object to something that is apparently good for the country – according to their frame of reference.

So how do we overcome a kind of antipathy towards people who are anti something that appears to be good for the country? So that has been a huge obstacle. There is also a psychology at work here, which I think is very strong. Media people and politicians ask themselves ‘Why are these people opposing the project?’ And the history of the stereotype of us is very interesting. At the beginning and for a long time it was thought we were ignorant, that we just didn’t know any better. They thought ‘God help them, they’re just from Mayo, they’ve never had industry and of course they’d be fighting battles, the poor things. But they’ll be grand in due course.’ But that didn’t really work, so then it was thought ‘They must be looking for something’. And of course what do people look for but money so it was thought there must be an agenda to get more compensation or to be bought out or whatever.

So money is thrown into it. But that didn’t work either because people were clearly willing to undergo terrible privations. So then it had to be political motivations so it had to be ideological and hence we get at different times either the Sinn Fein/IRA version of it, or we get the anarchist/eco-warrior version or the Workers Party/Left-wing Communist Party version of ourselves – or whatever you want as your bogeyman. So this must explain why people are against it.

And so what there is in fact is a very inadequate understanding of human psychology based on the assumption of self-interest – and they don’t get it – that people can actually take a stance and pay a price for it because they simply believe in what they are doing.

MC: To go back to the Sinn Fein association, I’ve written three or four pieces on Indymedia about this issue now and I’ve become aware of the way the Sinn Fein support for Shell to Sea is being used. It bothers me that Sinn Fein are now a ‘legitimate’ political party – you might have felt they were legitimate all your life – but they have now been accepted into ‘mainstream’ politics and yet having gone through that process – which the vast majority of people voted for an acceptance of – people still try to attach to them their former mode of operation when they are not actually doing that.

They are obviously supportive of this issue and it is interesting that it’s being used as a negative and I think that deserves to be shot down in flames because, actually, the opposition parties in this country would do well to adopt this issue as part of their election and policy manifestos – even if only in their own self interest. The feeling around the country is sympathetic.

DM: It is about the public and the way they perceive Sinn Fein and Shell, the media are using that against this campaign. You can’t change someone’s views of Sinn Fein over one issue.

MG: Yes, that’s a valid point but the main thing is that there are all these stereotypes that work as well and it takes people quite a while to recognise that there is a credible and reasonable argument against the Corrib Gas project. Some of the mainstream papers like the Examiner and the Irish Times have been very good to us in general. RTE are obliged to be ‘balanced’ but they constantly impose biases into their accounts of what is going on.

DM: Journalists appear to bring up the same arguments again and again even though you’ve addressed them before.

MG: The Shell people are highly proficient PR people – they are very well trained and they know the techniques of mass communication quite well compared to most of our people who are simply thrust in front of a camera and just talk as we are talking here and you can’t do that in the media, the way it works. So Shell repeat the same message because they recognise it is all about repetition.

I could predict any of their statements before they come out – I could nearly write three quarters of it because it is so repetitive and it is all about reinforcing the same message: this project has been through a vigorous process over many years, it has all the consensus it requires, we are fully implementing the report of the independent mediator, we are fully implementing the safety review and we want to work with the local people.They don’t engage in the discussion and they don’t go off message – they don’t go beyond that point.

When we get to debate with Shell, we generally do well because they don’t have the flexibility of mind to cope with an argument – they just want to keep repeating their version of events in sound bites. They are much better at the sound bite interview that goes out in 20 seconds in a news programme or a radio programme. They get a lot more flustered when you actually engage them on the issue – then they are in trouble.

MC: They don’t have the argument?

MG: We will beat them on the argument absolutely. Any time we get to argue with them we beat them because we have better arguments – we have quite a reasonable argument.

MC: Do you see a distinction between broadcast and print media?

MG: I wouldn’t generalise between those categories. Broadcast media – RTE Current Affairs like Prime Time has been OK to us, I think – they have been reasonable. The News Department we have found has been generally not very sympathetic – the way they have framed some of their reports. It can fluctuate a bit – again I’d be reluctant to generalise. Then you get into the more personality driven programmes in the broadcast media. For example, the ‘Matt Cooper’ programme – Matt is very hostile. Someone like Pat Kenny, too, is quite hostile.

MC: Has Pat Kenny been hostile all along?

MG: I think he has been, yes. With the print media, again, you have to distinguish between the broadsheets, which are reasonably good – the Irish Times certainly has been very good. Lorna Siggins has been fair. The tabloid media is just hysterical and the Sunday papers border between the comic and the disgraceful – they are a total disgrace, they really are hurtful and appalling – particularly in the last two weeks. But it’s very hard to generalise.

As of now we have a very hostile media environment. But interesting questions arise. To what extent should a campaign shape itself in accordance with the expectations of the media? Now if you don’t want to have a campaign and you don’t want to win over people, then you can do your own actions in terms of moral integrity and do what you want without reference to whether people will support you or not but if you are into communicating a message and you actually want people to understand you cannot but engage with the media. And then you have to recognise how the media works and use that instrument as best you can – without allowing them to overly influence what you are doing but nonetheless you have to be attentive to them. So I’m not sure that we are helping our cause just at the moment. I think that is something that we always have to keep in mind.

MC: Because people on site at the Solidarity Camp are not prepared to talk to the media?

MG: No, they are prepared to talk. But our image is very harsh at the moment. A lot of things are coming across as negative and aggressive. They are not actually that way. We just have to get smart as to how we present what we are doing.

MC: In what way do you think your image is harsh at present?

MG: Tone is very important. People listen to tone, how you sound and whether you come across reasonably and you have to be savvy to that. So all I am saying is that an intelligent campaign is one that is attempting to win support – it has got to be conscious of the media and has got to use the media and understand it while recognising that the media has all these constraints that we talked about earlier. You have to work with them and try to use them as a tool.

My experience is that people in the media can be won over once you spend time with them – explain what you are about. We’ve seen that happen with one RTE correspondent who was very hostile to us. Last summer I spent a lot of time just talking to them and they slowly began to see that at least there is an argument here and that we do have a point – whether they agree with it or not.

But your question finds a fault line in the campaign. Some people will take a different view, that the mainstream media are really so much integrated into the system that they are inherently an instrument of control over people.

MC: I agree with that view. What strikes me is that a very provocative strategy has been put into place now – hundreds of policemen arriving in Mayo, peaceful protestors are being beaten and hauled around very roughly and that has made people angry. Isn’t that anger natural and justifiable in the circumstances?

DM: I talked to people before coming up here and the general perception is the same ‘Pat Kenny’ one: why are the protestors against it? The reasons why have not come over because people see the same ‘balanced’ media coverage: on the one hand you have Shell and on the other you have presented – as an equal and opposite force – the people of Rossport.

Whereas in fact they are completely different entities and people think Shell have a legitimate argument because they don’t know all of the background as well as the protestors – all of these other issues that you refer to are getting mixed up with the national aspects of the issue. Basically, people don’t understand it.

So, when they see things like people being arrested they genuinely think that, although deep down they know that there are a lot of problems within law enforcement, the Gardai are basically trying to do something ‘good’, and if you are being arrested you must be doing something bad.

MG: I agree with that – I think it’s the right analysis. It isn’t the case that there are marches around the country, ordinary people are not outraged that this is happening in Ireland – that a huge force of Gardai effectively takes over an area and imposes an industrial project on a community and then criminalizes and arrests and is violent towards those who oppose. You would think that image would be so stark that people would react along the lines we are talking about. But it hasn’t really happened. Why is that?

Well, the media is part of the problem here. You can ignore them or you can begin to use them and get a bit smarter and the key thing is if you are beginning a campaign you have to get your message out – the media is a conduit whether you like it or not so you have got to take account of it. They are a fact within the environment that we work in – there is no point in ignoring big chunks of our reality and trying to live within a much narrower and much safer sort of world where we have a sort of moral security about what we are doing. If you want to engage with the world as it is you have got to deal with every aspect of it – that’s just my view.

MC: I don’t disagree that is the current reality. But there is another possibility which is that once you engage with the mainstream media, the discussion is then exclusively on their terms. Even in the way you have defined it yourself, you place your self and your campaign inside their agenda and you are forced to be ‘polite’ and ‘reasonable’ in a way that is acceptable to them. Once you are in that place they know they have got you. You’ve stepped onto their boat, as it were, and you’re away from the place you were – away from your true position, in fact. And all you achieve is to have made yourself acceptable to them on their terms without any real account being taken of what you are talking about.

And then the media and the people they really represent – which let’s face it are for the main part Shell and the government – are very happy to be nice and reasonable right back at you – because they have effectively neutralised you and you are behaving nicely for them. There may be less apparent hostility in doing that but does it really get you anywhere?

Perhaps there is a need for both approaches – for peaceful and strong direct action and for a realistic engagement with the mainstream media that doesn’t compromise your true objectives?

MG: You can engage with the media and be strong – hold your point. I’m not sure it’s a necessarily contaminating process – it can be but it isn’t necessarily and don’t forget that the alternative doesn’t necessarily work. We want to win this campaign. We don’t want to have a campaign where we all feel good about ourselves – we’re not in this to make a point – we’re in this to win it and we need to use whatever tool is required. We don’t want to end up in a situation where we all feel what a great time we had when we fought the refinery but the refinery got built anyway.

The way to win is actually to occupy the middle ground – to take it from them. If you don’t engage with them, they win. I don’t agree with your analysis – you occupy their territory. You make it clear that you are in the mainstream, that you have the majority support here, that we are not the marginal extremists that we are being made out to be. We have gone straight into the mainstream and pointed out that Shell and the government are actually the extremists and thrown their language back at them and take them on at an intellectual level.

MC: I agree that it’s better not to appear angry – if you can help it – it tends to reflect badly on the person who is angry however unfair that might be – but anger as a result of violent assault is surely different? Shouldn’t the media be sympathetic to that?

MG: But is it really different? In Nigeria they have been watching us very closely and a Nigerian activist has said to us that what is interesting about our campaign is that we have intellectually engaged with Shell – that we have taken them on and argued with them about the planning process and through all the processes at every stage. We have combined that with the more traditional protest mode such as people going to prison, sit down protests and I fully support all of those methods of protest but we have also then come out and explained what we are doing and created and presented an argument that people can understand.

We won the pipeline argument. Shell had to back down. We won the Rossport Five argument – Shell had to collapse the injunction and the men were released. They were defeated on that point. Even within four days of their release Shell were saying beforehand, they could not, would not lift the injunction – but they did. They had no choice.

Now we are onto the refinery – the last element of the plan and they’ve got clever. They’ve seen how we operate. They’ve thrown everything at us now – there is nothing left and they have thrown the full force of the state against us – plus the media propaganda campaign. So this is the lowest of the low – bar shooting us this is as bad as a liberal western state would go. We are now in a do or die battle so if they don’t win this they are finished – there is nothing left. Not only that, if the state doesn’t win it, it has a huge problem.

MC: Why do you think the media are so hostile to you now?

MG: This has been carefully planned and probably put in place from about a year ago. The men were released on the 30th September and we have seen Shell restarting work on the Bellanaboy site literally a year to the day. They almost certainly had a one-year plan.

The first part of the plan was to undermine our argument. As part of that they had to take out the pipeline safety issue, which they did by producing a report, the terms of reference for which were nonsensical – but it looked good, as if they were really looking at it. Then you get an apparent attempt to find a solution, which is another seemingly moderate thing to do – we had what was supposed to be an independent mediator and that failed of course. It was an attempt to reclaim the middle ground by Shell – to get us out of that place which we had successfully occupied. When the men were released there was a march by 10 thousand people in Dublin – it was enormous. We were the ones that the people supported and that is very frightening for the system – it frightens the life out of them. They have no problem with a thousand ‘usual suspects’ walking around the place doing every march, every weekend – but we had the people. It was a totally different mobilisation. So what they had to do before they could proceed was to reconsider their strategy – it was impossible for them to restart the building at that time. So they had to erode our credibility and legitimacy, undermine our arguments and put us back into the margins.

That’s what they have been doing for the last year through the so-called safety reviews and mediation process – coming out and ‘apologising’, developing a new and nicer image – employing local people as part of their media team – spending vast amounts of time on wining and dining the journalists.

MC: RTE appear to be very much on Shell’s side.

MG: RTE are largely on Shell’s side, that’s true, but not totally. The key people to watch are not necessarily even journalists. The news editors are very important. The news editors of the 9 0’Clock news and of the evening news are important people to have onside. The producers of discussion programmes are also important. The journalists don’t really set the agenda – they just go and do their thing mostly. The guys who shape it are the producers behind the programmes. And even when it comes to the papers, it’s the editors you need to persuade – the people who don’t have by lines.

So there has been a huge effort – at local media level too – that has been aggressive and overt and very rough – to bring onside those journalists who were sympathetic to us. I know how this has been done and I can tell you it has been brutal – it is a conspiracy along the lines we were talking about. They have also been giving out information packs to people.

For example, it was very clear that Joe Duffy on a recent Liveline programme had received some sort of briefing pack because he kept referring to documents that he would have got from Shell. So they have been preparing the ground with the media for when they came at us with this huge Garda force. And the battle was pitched so as to make it about legitimacy. If a western liberal state uses coercion it can only get away with it if the mass of the people view it as legitimate. So the key point is that they have now played their last card – which is naked force – all the more subtle forms of force have failed and we are left with the question whether what they are doing is legitimate and they are winning that argument with the help of the media at the moment.

That is the reality – and I speak from inside our campaign. I’m a realist. We look as if we are breaking the law, the guards are the good guys. It is very hard to turn people so as to realise that there is something wrong about what is happening.

MC: Having said that, though, you must be aware that there are many similar campaigning groups around the country who are opposing similar plans in their areas. A lot of people who would ordinarily be leading comfortable, conservative lives have been radicalised by seeing how the processes and procedures that are supposed to safeguard their communities are being disregarded and undermined – they see the discrepancy between the media coverage and the reality on the ground.

MG. You are right. There are the same issues of powerlessness, false processes through planning all being biased, that don’t take account of the issues that people want considered.

MC: They are all affected by the points you made earlier about how the media is only equipped to deal in sound bites.

MG: And the other problem is that there is no political opposition to what the government are doing to people. How could anyone like the opposition? There is no political opposition – all the parties are the same. But I’m too long involved in this now to get caught up in fantasy. I’m a realist and we are running a campaign to win and not to make us feel good and I say at the moment we are in a slight cul de sac.

MC: How about local media coverage around the country?

MG: Well they have been very good to us – one huge asset we had was local radio. Mayo was really good until the last six months but all of a sudden that has stopped – they have obviously been really got at.

MC: Are there specific issues that the Shell to Sea campaign are finding it particularly difficult to get across to the public?

MG: One particular issue that is difficult to get over is the nature and character of the local community and the way they feel about what is being proposed for their area. It is an Irish speaking area. The landscape for which this project is planned is very beautiful and the local people find it very hard to accept that something like this could be done to it – that anyone could contemplate destroying something like that.

At the core of it, the imposition of this project onto their area for the people of the area is simply culturally unacceptable. The other thing that has not been got across well has been the extent of the local support for the opposition to the plan. Shell have worked hard at creating an impression of a silent majority that aren’t speaking out and their only way of explaining why no one ever sees this majority is to claim that they are all being intimidated. We are supposed to have frightened the life out of them all – because apparently we have some IRA unit who can call around to people.

The third thing is explaining why people are doing what they are doing now. While the men were in prison we had 94 days to get across that there was a problem with the pipeline and people got that. Now it appears as though we have switched focus onto this refinery and people are wondering what it is now all supposed to be about. We are having trouble getting across our worries about having a gas processing refinery in the middle of the community.

To industrialised, urbanised people who live beside semi-risk projects all the time they don’t understand why these country people should be so worried. We need to get across that there is a very credible set of reasons for our concerns in that regard – we haven’t done that yet. We won the pipeline argument, which is in truth only a small part of the overall picture – but we won it because Shell could not maintain their position on that. But the refinery is a different thing.

I have a more pragmatic view of the media overall and while the coverage is dismal at the moment, another event can turn it back in our favour. Attacking the media and shouting at them is not going to do us any favours in the long run – we just have to go with the flow at the moment.

MC: Are you aware of any relationships between big business and the media?

MG: I’m aware of relationships that exist between certain news editors and the PR companies employed by Shell, for example. It is a very incestuous world and of course we are up against all of that too. There is a network of people out there that all know each other and who in general terms share all the same assumptions about situations like this.

That said, there is certainly a deliberate attempt with this issue as we have said and I believe that Shell have huge information files on all of us. People like Maura Harrington are seeing terrible abuse in the media – really nasty personal stuff – really savage. The oil industry is the worst. They will destroy any of us they can – they have tried to and they have destroyed individuals in the media as well – I know that.

MC: How many are you aware of?

MG: A few.

MC: How is that being done?

MG: It’s very serious. People are being told ‘you don’t cover that issue anymore and if you continue to do so you’re gone’. So they have been brought back into line. One prominent journalist I know has lost their job and another is under serious pressure to stop reporting this matter.

MC: Are there any particular journalists that you see as being especially biased?

MG: It is depressing – there are so few journalists that are doing their jobs properly. Lorna Siggins of the IT is good – she isn’t biased in our favour but she does report the facts as she finds them. The numbers against us are very large at the moment. There are a number of columnists in particular who are very negative. Paul Williams is virulent and Kevin Myers has recently delivered himself of a volley of invective: he has called us ‘cretins’, ‘sub-intellectuals’, ‘fir bolgs’ and suggested that the Gardai should baton charge people and that the cracking of a few heads would be no bad thing. It was very much an incitement to the Gardai to get stuck in.

DM: Can I ask you about the first few years when the Shell to Sea campaign hadn’t really been heard of?

MG: The only highlight of the first couple of years was when Channel 4 did a news report on what was going on. There were some serious allegations in that report to do with the planning process by the Department of the Marine and that went out on their evening news programme. That would have been quite explosive but it was leaked that it was going to be broadcast and the Shell lawyers crawled all over it and kicked it to hell and about eight minutes went out but there was a lot more taken out. RTE had no interest in it really. There was no interest until the human-interest element of the imprisonment arose. That’s what got around this issue of complexity – you had a piece of drama: five men going to prison – then it was interesting. The narrative was then something the media could understand.

DM: In a ‘Prime Time’ debate in August this year an RTE presenter asked you the question ‘Are you effectively holding the country to ransom?’ That’s a question I’ve not noticed being similarly asked of Shell representatives? Have you found this style of aggressive questioning to be common within the mainstream media?

MG: That’s a very good question. Yes, they continually ask these sorts of nonsensical questions that only indicate their own biases exactly as you have highlighted there. We get asked these questions because of the dominant myths we talked about earlier. So we are forced into a defensive posture. They start from a position of incomprehension whereas Shell is on the side of the dominant perspective.

You have to make your problem specific. If you universalise it and say the whole system is wrong then people feel threatened and that you are attacking their way of life. You can’t make a systemic argument and say, for instance, the problem here is capitalism – that the problem illustrates the irrationality of capitalism. So you are on narrow grounds and so yes, as Miriam observed earlier, you are forced into an agenda that you don’t control in that sense. You can’t overthrow capitalism along the way while trying to relocate a gas refinery to sea! You might illustrate some systemic problems as you go but you need to stay focused on the specific situation with which you are concerned.

But what people don’t take account of is the level of investment by the participants in this three-partnered project: Shell, Marathon and Statoil. A trillion cubic feet could be up to 10 billion euro plus in value and rising all the time so the amount of money involved here is simply enormous. There has been nothing like this in Ireland ever. This is the biggest money-spinner we have ever had so therefore there is more power behind this than anything before. This company is going to spend 900 million euro at least in developing the project. Think of that as a big trough – the builders, developers – all kinds of small companies – the whole Fianna Fail wagon train. They are lined up ready to dip their buckets into this huge trough. Of course they want this to happen – it’s a massive bonanza for certain companies and businesses. There is corruption involved in this. Companies have been set up specifically to take benefit out of this. Some of these companies have close links with politicians who are helping to promote the project. Do you think these people are going to allow this not to happen? Who is getting in their way? A few hundred peasants in Mayo – and they wonder who we think we are. We are to be swept aside if at all possible. So they have sent in the police to physically move us out of the way of this incredible gravy train for the people who have power in this country.

MC: But why won’t they relocate the refinery to sea? Even allowing for the additional cost they still stand to make huge amounts of money.

MG: But it’s not just about that. They are not saying so openly, but the reason the land-based site at Bellanaboy is so important is because it is going to be the place where ALL future finds of gas and oil off the coast in that region will be routed to. If they had an offshore platform it would only be specific to the well. What they have in mind is not Corrib at all – it’s all the additional wells.

MC: That’s certainly a point that doesn’t come over in the mainstream media.

MG: In a horrible sort of irony, it actually suits Shell that this project is full of controversy – the more protest the better. Because they can say to other companies who may attempt the same thing ‘look what happened to us when we tried it. But now that we have got our refinery, you will have to use it.’

The whole of that huge expanse of the North East Atlantic finds will be routed into the European market via Bellanaboy. And whether it is a Shell well or not, they will act as the gatekeeper for all of these finds. So what you will have in Bellanaboy is maybe four or five refineries – all processing gas from the North East Atlantic.

That’s why you have a pipeline that’s pitched to take pressures at such incredible levels – because there could be two or three wells going through it. That’s what this is about. The people on the ground know that if they allow Corrib to be developed in this way their community is finished because this area will become one huge depot for the oil and gas industry for a century. Shell can take a long-term view. If there is a protest that takes a year or two, funnily enough that’s useful too because the gas is appreciating in value all the time, so they are not losing any money out of this. Secondly, the more trouble they have, the more likely it is that there will never be another refinery built in this country.

DM: For the Irish newsreader, what should they be questioning in an article on this issue?

MG: That’s another very good question. For the general reader I think they should be thinking about what benefits there are for the country because this is another aspect of the selling of the project. It’s being projected as something that will have benefits for us all but when you analyse the situation properly there are actually no benefits for the country. It’s not even as if there will be some. There will be gas. There is no problem with gas supply.

Two weeks ago a new pipeline was opened between Norway and England. There was so much gas flooding the English market it cost nothing – wholesale companies were able to buy gas for nothing because it was pouring in. There is no gas supply problem. Not only are we linked in to the European market, there are gas pipelines going all the way to Siberia and we will have a liquid gas facility and refinery so the gas will be tankered in from all over the world.

Are the Irish taxpayers going to benefit? Of course not. We will have no royalties, no equity share and no windfall profit tax. Shell have a 100% tax write-off against all the costs of development and exploration. The amount of net tax is going to be negligible. The imprisonment of the men, the cost of the legal fees, the cost of security – we’re paying for all of that. Is it our gas in any meaningful sense? Of course not. It’s Shell’s gas – they can supply it or not supply it. It all has to be sold at market value anyway so it won’t bring down the price of gas in the country. It will have no impact on supply, in fiscal terms or in price.

So what is the benefit? Given that we have to burn the stuff, we could derive billions in revenue from this, which would transform our social infrastructure, help build our hospitals and make it possible to do the things we want to do. I would argue that money derived from Corrib gas should be used to build sustainable energy systems. An intelligent country would say ‘We’ve got gas – let’s take 5 billion out of it, ring fence it and use it to tackle our sustainable energy needs – secure the country’s future in a 20-year time frame’.

Future generations will indict us for this – they will ask whether there ever was an Irish generation so stupid. The whole country is looking on while this is happening. It’s a lack of planning. Given that we have to use fossil fuels for the time being – and gas is the least environmentally damaging of the fossils – we could use the next two decades to end our reliance on fossil fuels. Have they even thought about it? No. That is the real tragedy.

So to go back to your question – the reader should be asking himself or herself what is the benefit because there really isn’t a single one. People say it will provide employment. The number of long-term jobs at this refinery is 35. During the construction of the refinery there will be about 200 construction jobs but that’s just for a period of two years. So you have a two-year bubble and then a century of misery.

DM: In much of the media coverage, Shell appears to be described as the embattled underdog at the mercy of a group of ruthless campaigners. For instance, I came across an article in the Irish Times which began ‘It’s been a tough twelve months for the embattled staff at Shell’s Irish operations.’ How have Shell managed to create this impression?

MG: [Laughs] From my point of view, I don’t think they have been that successful in creating that image. I suppose the trick in the public debate is to come across as the more reasonable actor. If they have succeeded then it is a tribute to their PR people because they were starting from a very bad position. Shell were looking like bullies but they’ve turned that position around.

Firstly they have put time between themselves and the imprisonment of the Rossport Five. They know that attention spans are short. Next, they positioned themselves as reasonable. They’ve made apparently conciliatory overtures, which the public have noted without realising that these overtures did not actually address the problems we are concerned with anymore then when they were being aggressive. Shell have apologised for what happened to the Rossport Five. So that issue is seemingly over with – if we keep going back to that we are accused of being ‘bitter’. Now they are saying they want to make sure everything is safe so we get a report done which tells people that everything is safe. But it isn’t. Then they bring in Cassells whose remit as a mediator is nonsense. Basically it is all just a ritual but the public are fooled. Shell then say ‘Well, we tried to talk to people and it didn’t work. We have hundreds of ordinary people with their poor, starving children who are dying to start work and waiting for their wage packets.’ They start talking about ‘the right to work’. It is transparent from our point of view – it looks stupid. In point of fact I don’t think Shell have succeeded in this transformation as well as they think. Most people don’t like them I suspect – they look a bit devious. I don’t think they have got so far as persuading people that they are the victims and we are the bullies. I think the images of people being dragged off the streets looks bad from Shell’s point of view.

DM: By pushing the ‘workers’ angle Shell have changed the dynamic. Whereas it was ‘Shell versus the people of Rossport’ before, now, it is ‘Shell to Sea versus the honest workers’.

MG: That is exactly right and we have to be careful about that. That’s one of the reasons why I feel that there is no point in having this haze of sanctity about us. Just because we are tackling the multinationals we are not naturally wonderful people that everyone will support. It doesn’t follow that because the Gardai are attacking us, even though we are protesting peacefully, we will be seen as morally wonderful people and everyone should love us. It doesn’t work like that – I wish it would but it doesn’t.

Shell have been very clever. It is no longer a dispute that is sharply delineated between themselves and the community. Now they have made it an internal thing. They have stepped back and are watching the scenes between local people and the Gardai and the workers. They can say ‘If only the children would agree and let the adults get on with the work.’ The scenes now are of, for example, the newly returned worker with a nice Irish name saying how much he appreciates the work and the protestors are screaming ‘scab’ at him – it looks very harsh.

Don’t get me wrong – it has taken immense courage to sit peacefully on the ground and sustain a severe pummelling from the Gardai.The calm and courage with which local people have withstood that has been amazing. I just think we need to be careful about how we respond to this provocation. It is hard but if we don’t do that, we walk into the trap that has been set for us.

1. http://www.rte.ie/news/2006/1013/corrib.html

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2 thoughts on “Understanding the media

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