If you have never been to an oil company AGM it is worth going to watch two parallel words colliding for a few hours.
On the one side are the protestors arguing passionately for the company to listen to how their activities are destroying someone’s homeland or are polluting the earth.
Up on the top table sit the company’s top brass, who go through the motions of this annual public inconvenience.
They bat the questions away like an experienced cricketer annoyed to be outside in the mid day sun. In the middle are the shareholders who shuffle in, listen and then shuffle out.
In the early nineties, I routinely attended both BP’s and Shell’s AGMs, as a whole host of environmental and social concerns was put to their boards and raised before shareholders.
But questions about corporate pollution or human rights abuses would be dismissed by the board and booed from the floor.
The shareholders were there for their day out, that included a free lunch and as much free wine they could drink in the proscribed time limit.
Any questions from the floor were an inconvenience that ate into the amount of time they had to scoff their free wine. But scoff they did.
So if they were doddery before they came in, they were certainly doddery on the way out.
Most haunting was the May 1995 Shell AGM, when campaigner after campaigner tried to get Shell to intervene in the ongoing incarceration of Ken Saro-Wiwa.
But the pleas fell on dead ears and so Ken too ended up dead. And off they trooped to the bar.
So at least the shareholders went home with a belly full, something Ken never managed in his long months of appalling incarceration.
But that was fifteen years ago and maybe now, ten years into a new century, in this new era of corporate responsibility, do you get a different class of shareholder? One that seems more interested in holding their company to account than holding a glass of wine during the corporate hospitality afterwards.
Yesterday, BP was under pressure from a group of shareholders, led by Fairpensions, that was trying to get BP to undertake an audit into its operations in the dirty Canadian tar sands.
But, only 6per cent of investors voted for the Fairpensions motion, despite the fact that Fairpensions was backed by representatives of Canada’s first nation people, claiming a 30pc higher incidence of cancers in areas near to the “bloody oil” sands.
So times don’t change. As the Telegraph reports: “Rowena Mason finds BP shareholders were more interested in a free lunch than debating the company’s move into oil tar sands at the annual meeting.”
Mason asks: “Was it a coincidence that the dining hall opened just as the meeting got round to debating BP’s most controversial resolution?” as several hundred other shareholders left the room as the Fairpensions motion was up for debate.
She concluded that “most shareholders certainly appeared more interested in the free food than what the campaigners were saying”.
In fact rather than listen, “the reality was that most people fleeing the room seemed not just unconcerned but actively in support of the fact that BP will very likely choose to spend its pennies on a project resulting in higher carbon emissions.”
Despite this Catherine Howarth, chief executive of FairPensions, which ran the campaign, was taking comfort in the defeat. “The vote today is only one outcome of a wider process, which has catapulted tar sands risks to the top of BP’s agenda, and has become a major topic of debate in the City.”
“The task for investors now is to make the most of the disclosures made to date, and continue to robustly engage with BP into the future. This will be matched by an unprecedented level of scrutiny from campaigners, politicians and members of the public”.
But it seemed the only real scrutiny from shareholders was whether the chardonnay was chilled enough.
And it is really telling that, in this day and age of supposed social conscience, people care more for chilled wine than cancers or carbon emissions.