History is repeating itself. Just as some of the pioneers of the current environmental movement in the UK, who cut their teeth in the nineties fighting the Tories’ road building programme were demonised and attacked, so are today’s anti-fracking activists.
Some of the similarities are striking.
Since January this year, non-violent protesters have been outside the gates of a shale gas site in Lancashire in the North West of the UK, fighting against the plans by the fracking company, Cuadrilla, to explore for shale gas there.
There is overwhelming opposition to Cuadrilla’s plans locally. At every step of the way, local communities and their councils opposed Cuadrilla’s plans, only for them to be overturned by the national Government in its determination to kick start the UK shale gas industry.
With no democratic legitimacy, the fracking industry and Government are trying to bulldoze dirty fracking on the local community. But the people and environmental activists are fighting back.
This July, the local community and anti-fracking activists are undertaking a month of non violent direct action entitled the “Rolling Resistance”. As usual this non-violent resistance has been met with violence, spin and collusion between the fossil fuel industry and Police. There have also been willing collaborators in certain sections of the press, too.
What is going on here is nothing new: it is the continuation of a playbook that stretches back decades and one I outlined in the book Green Backlash, some 25 years ago: use spin and violence against environmental activists, at the same time as labelling them as extremists.
The mainstream media plays a part. The banner headline on page one of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times newspaper this morning states: “Anti-fracking police Chief accused of pulling force from protests”.
The article is written by Ben Webster, the paper’s Environment Correspondent, who has a history of placing misleading stories in the paper about environmental issues and who has been criticised by the scientific and environmental community because of this.
Today’s article quotes a so-called “residents group” called “Backing Fracking”. But Backing Fracking is no such thing. It has been labelled a classic “astrotrurfing” group, whose members include people who work for the fracking company Cuadrilla.
As one anti-fracking blogger, who has dug into their background noted: “Backing Fracking’s most vocal supporters and spokespeople are overwhelmingly made up of business people who stand to gain financially if fracking goes ahead.”
Having analysed the Group’s mailing list, the blogger John Hobson, noted that “nearly two thirds of those on the Backing Fracking mailing list can hardly be reasonably described as what their Facebook page calls “residents””, but instead are people linked to PR companies, other energy front groups, or are people linked to these groups, the fracking industry or businesses who could gain from any shale boom.”
Webster and The Times have also tried to tar peaceful protesters as being “violent”, exactly as the press did decades ago with the anti-roads movement.
“Ben Webster has form,” says one of the veterans of the anti-roads protests in the nineties, Rebecca Lush. “He always wrote hateful and inaccurate articles about road protests. I once complained to the Times as he literally invented a quote for me once, without having spoken to me. They backed him, surprise, surprise”.
Over twenty five years ago, I interviewed Rebecca for Green Backlash, who remarked then about how the security companies working on the roads sites were “continually talking about how violent the protesters were and how wonderful their guards were”. Some of the press articles warned of “eco-terrorism”.
It is the same PR rulebook being played out decades later.
The Times is not alone. In February this year, the Telegraph ran an article quoting Cuadrilla boss, Francis Egan saying “On our site contractors are facing harassment and intimidation on a daily basis.”
The article went onto allege “There have been a dozen arrests related to verbal death threats and physical assault against workers at Cuadrilla’s site in the last month but some forms of legal protest action are carried out with the police in attendance.”
A week later the Telegraph apologised and retracted the article stating the original piece had been “incorrect. In fact, there were 10 arrests at the site between 31 Jan and 18 Feb, all for alleged offences under s14 of the Public Order Act 1986, which does not cover verbal death threats or physical assaults. We apologise for this error. The article has now been removed from the site.”
The Telegraph has retracted, but Cuadrilla has not.
The boss of Cuadrilla, Francis Egan, still maintains that “much of the protest activity” is “far from peaceful or in many cases lawful.”
This has led Claire Stephenson, a spokesperson for Frack Free Lancashire to argue that “Blaming protesters for violence is desperate spin.” She adds: “Our peaceful protests, non-violent direct action challenging this company will continue until the day they leave Lancashire. They should expect continued resistance. We said no, and we meant no.”
Indeed, there has been growing violence levelled against the protesters by the Police and security guards working for Cuadrilla.
“A lot of the escalating violence is coming from the Police and security”, one activist, Danni told Sky News this month. “We have to do our best to push back against that and say this is our legal right to protest”.
Footage shot by Sky News shows Lancashire Police tipping a disabled activist, who is a former Naval Officer, out of his wheel-chair. The Police tried to later claim the man fell backwards.
The Police have tried to defend their tactics. Speaking to DeSmog UK, the Lancashire constabulary reiterated that: “We aim to prevent, where possible, crime and disorder, but if it does occur we will provide an effective, lawful and proportionate response.”
There has also been violence from the security guards: For example, another protester Katrina Lawrie, told Sky News that she had been knocked unconscious by a security guard while trying to demonstrate peacefully. She said: “One of the security ran at me and pushed my head into the floor which resulted in me being knocked unconscious. We don’t raise our hand to anyone. We’re always peaceful.”
She added: “They’ve been getting increasingly more violent and aggressive over the last few weeks and every day it seems the aggression and violence seems to ramp up. It’s outright assault.”
Another activist recalled how: “One of the security staff who wasn’t wearing a uniform launched at me, he put me in some sort of restraint lock, he pushed his fingers into my neck and he pushed me to my knees. He looked like he was ex-military or ex-police, he seemed to know exactly where to apply pressure on my neck.”
“At one point he was on one knee, holding me down and then he punched me on the right hand side of my head near my temple. The cops were right there and saw it.”
Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the UK Green party, said: “Reports of violence carried out by security services at the Cuadrilla Preston New Road site are shocking: allegations of a protester being hit by a van, another punched in the face, held by the throat. Dogs were brought in, with the apparent objective of frightening protesters.”
The violence against the protesters has gotten so bad that earlier this month, the Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the South East region called on the head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council to urgently issue new guidelines for officers.
The MEP Keith Taylor, said: “It’s shocking that apparently peaceful demonstrators have suffered such violence while exercising their democratic freedom to protest.”
Finally the Police do seem to be taking action. Last week Lancashire Police confirmed it was sending a file to the Crown Prosecution Service over an alleged assault of a protester outside the site.
However, further afield there is evidence of collusion between the Police and fracking companies. An investigation by Spinwatch found that “North Yorkshire Police has met regularly with fracking firms Third Energy and INEOS, and shared information about protesters”.
Furthermore, and more worryingly, as frackers and the Police collude, they are trying to demonise activists by unjustifiably linking anti-fracking campaigners to domestic extremism, using the highly controversial British Government Prevent strategy.
So peaceful protesters are once again being demonised again as “extremists”. So the issues may be different – from anti-roads campaigning to anti-fracking – but the tactics remain the same.