This is what it looks like when the Fracking industry know they can’t win the argument

It’s no surprise to find the Telegraph shilling for the fracking lobby. After all it’s the mouthpiece of two paranoid billionaires living in tax exile on a feudal rock somewhere west of Guernsey. As such, it is fairly predictable that its sympathies would lie with the extractive industries rather than the communities whose lives will be blighted by this dirty, destructive practice.

Similarly, the Telegraph’s long embarrassing downmarket slide, in the hope of capturing some of the Daily Mail’s tawdry  market share, is a matter of public record. So, it’s really not a surprise to see the Telegraph aping one of the Mail’s long-running tactics: running ‘exposé’ articles smearing activists and others they feel are getting ideas above their station. These usually include personal details completely unrelated to the campaign or issue that brought the person to public attention, and are unabashed attempts to intimidate people the Mail disagrees with into silence.

It’s tricks like this which make the Mail terrified of meaningful press regulation – it fears limits being put on its freedom to browbeat and bully those it disagrees with. In this battle the Telegraph can invariably be found also manning the barricades – spouting pious guff about the sanctity of a free press. What they actually mean to defend, of course, is the inalienable right of rich newspaper proprietors to pay minions to publish spiteful ad-hominem attacks on people they disagree with in the national press.

In these two respects, Sunday’s attack in the Telegraph on two anti-fracking activists is an unremarkable piece of gutter journalism. The angle of attack, too is relatively predictable – the idea that activists are somehow ‘outsiders’, and don’t really represent the imaginary silent majority who are secretly delighted with the prospect of companies coming in to install endless drilling rigs, pollute groundwater, cause earthquakes and destroy the climate into the bargain.

This isn’t simply a lazy PR angle, picked up by a lazy journalist. The fracking companies know very well that the tactics which halted fracking in New South Wales, prevented it in Victoria and were so successful in Balcome involved local communities organising amongst themselves and using direct action to fight back. This is why we saw so many planted stories in the press about protesters coming from elsewhere to take action at Balcombe – it’s a classic attempt to divide and rule. Of course, some people who lived outside Balcombe came and joined in with the protests, but in general they were welcomed by the community; the whole campaign was underpinned by a locally run consultation which showed that 82% of local people were against fracking. Against that level of opposition Cuadrilla didn’t stand a chance.

A similar consultation is being run right now around Barton Moss, and the early indications are of very strong local opposition. With the drilling rig having arrived this week, greeted by a series of well-timed actions and blockades, the fracking industry is panicking. They desperately need to try and drive wedges between the emerging opposition, or failing that to persuade the government and their spooked investors that they are facing a small group of “professional” activists travelling around, rather than broad unwavering local opposition wherever they try to set up. Attempting to single out protesters as having no connection to the local area does both.

However, what this article actually did was to go way further than this. It singled out two activists involved in the No Dash For Gas group who they claimed had “no connection to the area”. One of them was British Asian, the other has a Polish surname and was pictured wearing a headscarf.

I’ve not been very deeply involved in the campaign at Barton Moss, but I know it well enough and enough of the people involved to state with absolute certainty that there is only one rational justification for picking on these two. Other individuals are more deeply involved, have featured more prominently in press releases, have played more central roles in setting up the camp and have repeatedly put themselves on the line standing in Barton Moss lane blocking lorries. Quite a few of those individuals did not live in Manchester before this autumn and could easily be portrayed as serial protesters – some of them even have dreadlocks. The only difference is it is much harder to make them sound foreign.

The article is subtle, as dog whistling often is, but the whistling is there: the choice of photographs, including a caption (since amended) which incorrectly states that one of the pair is from Poland; mentions of them living “hundreds of miles away” and referring to “demonstrations as far afield as Turkey and Gaza in support of Palestinian rights”. The underlying message, backed up by mentions of trade-union membership, attendance at Cambridge, and involvement in struggles elsewhere in the world is that these ‘leaders’ of the campaign at Barton Moss, if not strictly foreigners, are some variety of rootless cosmopolitan. At the very least they are portrayed as the kind of ‘outsider’ who should rightly be spurned by the kind of forelock-tugging grim-up-north worthies that inhabit Salford in the imagination of your average Telegraph journalist.

For the sake of accuracy, it should be pointed out that the entire premise of the angle – xenophobia nodding, divide and rule bullshit aside – is factually unsound. The campaign at Barton Moss doesn’t have any leaders. That’s not just sloganeering: at its most organised it involves a very loose coalition of groups, none of whom have any formal hierarchy. As mentioned above, if you wanted to select the most prominent individuals to smear, you wouldn’t pick the two mentioned in the article.

Furthermore, these two individuals put forward as having “no connection to the area” actually do. One of them has lived less than 10 miles from Barton Moss for more than three years, and the other, while currently based in London, worked in Salford for two years and lived in Manchester for three. Again, the obvious conclusion is that they were in fact singled out because they were able to be fitted into some weird stereotype of the foreign ‘other’.

There’s also a wider question about this whole narrative – what’s the deal with this idea that there is something dubious about people not living nearby being involved in a protest? Did I miss a memo about there being some kind of radius-of-acceptable-concern – that beyond 50km from your place of habitual residence, you are forbidden to give a shit about any untoward events? Fracking is a deeply misguided policy being rolled out at a national level. It has climate change implications – meaning it affects the basic habitability of the whole planet. What kind of a twisted worldview finds it unusual that someone might chose to travel up from London to try and do something about it?

Even if people from Salford did have an unaccountable suspicion of everyone living further away than Stockport, one suspects that they’d resent being told who to trust by a journalist sat in a desk in London, writing in a newspaper owned by two blokes who divide their time between Monaco and the Channel islands for tax reasons.

This is what it looks like when the fracking industry know they are losing the public debate – instead of trying to argue on the issues they are resorting to running cack-handed smears via their toadies in the press. They have every reason to be afraid – there is absolutely no public mandate for fracking in the UK: no political party championed or even mentioned fracking in their manifesto at the last general election; both of the parties now in government were elected promising to tackle climate change, not make it worse.

The very best case that can be made for fracking is that it will deliver us in a few decades time back to where we are now, only worse off – still shackled to an unsustainable and antiquated energy infrastructure, with even higher energy bills, more fuel poverty and a destroyed climate to boot, and if we’re lucky we’ll only have a few poisoned water supplies and earthquakes along the way. It will benefit almost no-one and the consequences will be literally disastrous – the shale gas deposits under the UK need to be left in the ground.The only reason fracking is being pursued in the UK is that it stands to make a few people extremely rich, and a substantial number of those people are intimately connected to the Tory party.

One of the interesting facts about fracking which the industry are very keen for you not to know is that the wells are much less productive than wells drilled for conventional gas and oil. This means that for a deposit to be commercially exploited, loads of wells need to be drilled, often several per square mile, otherwise it’s not profitable. The sheer density of wells required for profitability means that they can’t go ahead in the face of sustained local opposition – it’s simply not viable.

If the fracking industry thought that 2013 was hard work, they are going to be waking up to their worst nightmare in 2014 – organised local resistance everywhere they try and start drilling, while public opinion increasingly gets wise to their false promises of jobs and cheap energy. They can’t go ahead in the face of sustained local opposition, and they won’t. Happy new year….