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The Irish Media and the Corrib Gas Project

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Shell’s PR machine and the media: the case of the Corrib gas project
Andrew McGrath 

On Tuesday 3rd October 2006, a large Garda operation was set in motion in Erris, Co. Mayo. Up to 200 Gardai, including riot squad and armed detectives, forced their way through protestors at the Ballinaboy terminal site so that Shell employees could access the site. To coincide with this, several major newspapers and state broadcaster RTE lined up on the side of Shell, reporting favourably on Garda actions, attributing aggression to protestors where there was no evidence, and failing to report repeated instances of Garda violence and provocation.
The most blatant example came from the Sunday World’s Paul Williams (ex-RTE correspondent), whose article led with “How the Shinners Hijacked Rossport – IRA take control of protests”. The fact that there was not the slightest evidence to back up these claims did not matter, nor did it prevent prominent broadcasters and news programmes from making similar claims. The Sunday Times has followed suit, pursuing an ad hominem vendetta against Maure Harrington. The Irish Times has, in keeping with its status as paper of record, confined Shell PR mainly to its letters page; a notable instance of this was a letter justifying the Nigerian dictatorship in its execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and seven co-defendants, citing the baseless, trumped-up charges laid against them as evidence.                            
RTE’s “Morning Ireland” accused protestors of intimidation; RTE news reports have implied that protestors are responsible for violence, while proven instances of Garda violence are either ignored or distorted. Nowhere is it mentioned that this kind of policing operation, the protection of a multinational’s operations when the details of those operations are still under legal challenge, is completely without precedent in Ireland, and that Ballinasloe Garda station, the base for the operation, is refusing to accept complaints of Garda misconduct, indicating that the Gardai are operating under political direction.
Pat Kenny and Joe Duffy, both senior RTE broadcasters, openly stated their support for Shell on their respective radio programmes and recited Shell PR as fact, Joe Duffy going so far as to cite an opinion poll conducted by Shell, which (by excluding the possibility of refining the gas offshore) claimed overwhelming endorsement for its plan, even though an RTE/TNS MRBI poll conducted in September 2006 found that 6 out of 10 Mayo people wanted the Corrib gas to be processed offshore. Following an incident (13th October 2006) in which Maura Harrington, member of the Shell to Sea campaign, was pushed to the ground by a Garda and suffered head and neck injuries, she was a guest by telephone Joe Duffy’s programme Liveline, in what must be described as one of the most extraordinary hours of radio ever broadcast by RTE. In the usual style of this programme on the rare occasions when a “dissenter” is allowed to speak, Joe Duffy cooperated with a number of phone-in attackers who sought, repeatedly but unsuccessfully, to distract from the issues, focusing on baseless allegations against Ms. Harrington, and repeating Shell PR even when demonstrably false.
This interview, or attack piece, can be seen a microcosm of how much the media have handled the issue. The papers owned by Anthony O’Reilly KBE have played a substantial part in Shell’s PR war against the people of Erris Co. Mayo. “Sir Tony” owns a substantial portion of the Rockall Bank oil concession, and thus stands to benefit substantially from Ireland’s energy resources. (Ireland’s licensing regime permits, essentially, the alienation of sovereign territory and all its resources to multinationals and individuals such as O’Reilly.) The fact that O’Reilly’s media group, which, among many others, owns the Irish and Sunday Independent titles (prominent propagandists in recent days against the Shell to Sea campaign) should follow such an editorial line is not surprising. That RTE should do the same is less excusable, given the vast amounts of taxpayer funding it receives each year. Despite its claims of editorial impartiality, it has, as on previous occasions, shown itself to be anything but impartial. Any deviation from the State script is regarded by established RTE personages to be a threat, and treated as such.

This would be less shameful if the State were not too politically and morally weak to put forward a viewpoint which might challenge powerful and unaccountable interests. The Government is obliged by the Constitution to protect interests of the electorate, yet the furthest it goes in this direction is to invoke a democratic mandate for its actions. By pocketing its lavish state benefits and going along with the political status quo, RTE in its current form is a poor excuse for State media.

© The Tara Foundation, 2006