Diagnosing the methods of spin doctors

Allen Myers

Green Left Weekly , No. 229, 1997, p. 26.

Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Sharon Beder, Scribe Publications, 1997, 288pp., $24.95.

It is hard to find words sufficiently enthusiastic to describe Sharon Beder's new book. This is an outstanding study of the techniques by which big business is defending its ability to go on destroying our environment whenever doing so is profitable (which is most of the time).

Beder already has a well-earned reputation as a top environmental writer, thanks to books such as Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing. In Global Spin, she provides both a broad overview and detailed case studies of how corporations attempt to control and manipulate environmental issues.

Most of her material is from the United States, where the corporate assault on the environment and environmentalists has gone furthest, but there is also enough from Australia and the rest of the developed world to make it clear that the differences are not qualitative.

Indeed, Australian business and its governments sometimes directly import the methods and even personnel of US anti-environmentalists: witness the August conference in Canberra, sponsored by US and Australian industry-funded “think-tanks”, which tried to provide pseudo-scientific cover for the Howard government's opposition to mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Global Spin devotes several chapters to the role of conservative think-tanks (“conservative think-tank” is almost a tautology, because big business normally will not fund any other kind).

The advantage of think-tanks is that they at least partially obscure who is paying for the thoughts that emerge from the tanks' thinkers. Thus an article denying the threat of global warming is more likely to impress if it comes from something scholarly sounding, like a Cato Institute or Institute of Public Affairs, rather than from a mining company.

The concealing of thinkers' paymasters can go further. The think-tanks themselves may be hidden by placing an article in a reputable scientific magazine, which allows the magazine to be quoted as the “source” of what may be very questionable science at best.

The establishment media -- which are themselves big business, often with a financial interest in pollution (for example, newsprint is produced in a process that also creates waste contaminated with dioxin) -- are quick to baptise those associated with think-tanks as “experts” and to quote them on the issues they are concerned with, regardless of their real qualifications or lack of them.

Thus, one of the scientific big guns against global warming and ozone depletion is Fred Singer, executive director of a US think-tank called Science and Environment Policy Project. SEPP, Beder points out, was originally funded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Singer's academic career was distinguished by lots of funding from energy companies, and he is still treated as an expert although he hasn't published original research on climate change in more than two decades.

Another method of manipulating political debate is through the creation of front groups to give the appearance of widespread public opposition to environmental controls on business. What such groups lack in real membership can be made up for through large-scale funding of publicity campaigns. Employees of the corporations concerned can be coerced and/or paid to participate in the front group's campaigns.

Beder ranges as well over the public relations industry and its methods, the use of lawsuits to intimidate and divert environmental organisations, the role of advertising and the media.

This is a treasure trove of information, well presented and easily accessible. It is full of insights into the mechanisms through which the system functions, such as the following observation on “objectivity” in journalism:

“Journalists who accurately report what their sources say can effectively remove responsibility for their stories onto their sources. The ideal of objectivity therefore encourages uncritical reporting of official statements and those of authority figures. In this way, the individual biases of individual journalists are avoided but institutional biases are reinforced.”

This is a must read, not just for environmentalists, but for everyone who doesn't have a vested interest in the continued destruction of our planet.

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