Protesters in Guy Fawkes masks, seen it all before, right? The hallmark of an opportunist, anarchist troublemaker. Yet behind the masks lie fears for the English countryside and demands for a more equitable energy industry. The Reclaim the Power and No Dash For Gas protests at Cuadrilla’s exploratory hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, site in Balcombe, West Sussex, have exposed the dangerous, inequitable, and ambiguous results of methods of energy extraction, and the reductive and simplistic media reporting of environmental protesters.
Whether pictures of hemp-clad, tent-dwelling campaigners, or the focus on an eccentric fashion designer’s endorsement of the protest, the British media simply couldn’t seem to take this protest seriously. Conversely, according to the protesters, the consequences of fracking couldn’t be more serious. While the energy company Cuadrilla is only at the initial stage of exploratory drilling outside the West Sussex village, in the event of the discovery of shale gas resources, a fracking permit may be granted by the Government. The chemicals required for the fluid that is injected into shale rocks at high pressure include uranium, mercury and lead, and the drilling process releases a toxic mix of chemicals and methane gas, which can contaminate nearby groundwater. The contamination of drinking water would reach far beyond this small community and could have grave health consequences. Around two-thirds of the British countryside could be fracked for shale gas, but little debate has been had over the health and environmental impacts, or even a wider consultation over the consent of the British public.
Given the very real health and environmental dangers, it would seem reasonable to expect that in a democracy with a well-established freedom of information norm, the media have a duty to inform the public of all aspects of the debate. Yet, media coverage remained firmly in the realms of protester spectator sport. 10 points for a Vivienne Westwood sighting, 15 for Bianca Jagger, win if you secure an inane quote from a young, naive protester that reduces the debate to ‘sticking it to the man’. People who camp out for a week straight in a tent on the edge of a drilling site are hardly the most informed, rational group, especially if they let themselves get dragged away by a few police officers.
Media portrayal conveniently glossed over Police involvement in the repression of the protests, opting instead to speculate on the madness of the protesters. It’s admirable that Green MP Caroline Lucas was willing to get arrested after she felt democratic channels offered had failed. Yet, little or no focus was given to the role of the Police in suppressing protest. A press release from No Fracking In Balcombe Society (No FiBS) from 26th July states the Society is “deeply disappointed in the police role in facilitating the drilling for Cuadrilla when they have an obligation to facilitate protest.” Coverage of the arrests should have made this the focus; instead protestors were reduced to vagrants and radicals.
However, from the city offices of media bosses the green fields under threat certainly would seem very far away. Apparently, most fracking sites in the North of England are “desolate” and fair game for destruction, as Conservative peer Lord Howell of Guilford would have us believe. Regardless of the apparent state of the land, or the state of the campaigners, widespread fracking across Britain would have extensive consequences and the public should be informed of this. Instead of exposing the rifts that fracking itself threatens to make in the community of Balcombe, and across Britain, media coverage has exaccerbated tensions between residents and activists.
Indeed, the British public could be forgiven for thinking these protests unique from the reactionary coverage in the media, but the United States has seen even more widespread resistance to fracking than the UK. A variety of grassroots protests have sprung up across America, most notably over the New York Legislature’s deliberations over the option to legalise the transportation of toxic fracking wastewater. Arrests have been made, and US activists have called for a ‘Global Frackdown’ on 19th October 2013 for worldwide solidarity efforts against fracking.
What impact has this superficial coverage of the Balcombe protests had on public opinion and perceptions of fracking, and of protesters? Kathryn McWhirter, spokesperson for NoFiBS, gave the Review this quote, stressing both the benefits and costs of the coverage: “We have been up against the PR machinery of the government and the industry and their repeated falsehoods – for example that fracking will lower gas prices, will create jobs, and that this modern type of fracking has already been done in Britain hundreds of times…It has been annoying that the right wing press, and often the BBC, have portrayed the protesters as scroungers and scoundrels; in reality we are a very complex conglomeration of people from all walks of life, all intent of stopping this dangerous rush to fossil fuels whether here in Balcombe, elsewhere in the country, or elsewhere in the world. The publicity has been worldwide…All publicity is good publicity. We are satisfied that we got our message out there.”
For most of the general public, unless fracking is happening on their back doorstep, they won’t have given too much thought to the issue, why not just leaving it up to the eco-enthusiasts to save the planet? Moreover, the fear of rising gas and energy prices can easily be manipulated by the Government, the media and energy companies alike, to whip the public up into a terrified, austerity-fuelled frenzy. However, there is no research guaranteeing that the burden of energy bills will be lowered for the average homeowner under fracking. Government ministers claim fracking our own energy resources will reduce our reliance on oil from the Middle East, but does this warrant the unbridled drilling of one of Britain’s most important tourist attractions, it’s landscape? The lack of information circulated in the mainstream media about the consequences of fracking may be a symptom of a perceived lack of public interest in fracking, or, as I argue, the lack of nuance within the media coverage has directly resulted in a lack of engagement in the debate. If all we are shown in the media are simplistic depictions of rent-a-mob hippies and NIMBY eco-warriors with crude handmade signs, the scope of possible debate is seriously limited. While protesters have made progress in exposing the dangers of fracking, we need to further expose the relentless propaganda of the energy companies and government, fuelled by the media. Yes, the protesters’ methods may seem radical, but are some things in life are not worth taking risks for? The preservation of the environment for future generations is surely one of these.