Who is grooming who?
On Monday 30th July we witnessed one of the most unsavoury episodes to date in the Public Relations war that is being waged against fracking protesters here in the UK.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (which describes itself as being “made up of the ten Greater Manchester councils and Mayor, who work with other local services, businesses, communities and other partners to improve the city-region”) published a report on Monday 30th July from their “Preventing hateful extremism and promoting social cohesion commision (sic)” called “A Shared Future”.
This report included a case study on a child referred to as “Aaron”. It described how
“Aaron 14 year old “A” star pupil was referred to the Channel programme by his school, due to concerns about his extreme beliefs in relation to the environment, specifically issues around fracking. Having recently signed an online petition, Aaron had been targeted via social media and encouraged to participate in local protests, hand out leaflets, etc. by local activists. These approaches became progressively more aggressive to the point where Aaron was on the periphery of engaging in criminal behaviour and frequently reported to the police as missing by his parents.”
It went on to describe how the police’s actions successfully extricated “Aaron” from the clutches of these extremists, and how
“A few months later, Aaron is more settled at school, his attendance has improved and he is engaging with appropriate peers.”
That afternoon The Guardian published an article headed “Boy, 14, referred to anti-extremism scheme over fracking activism”. The story was also picked up by the Daily Telegraph who ran with “Student, 14, referred to terror prevention programme after he was ‘groomed’ by anti-fracking activists”.
This is not of course, the first time that the authorities have tried to link anti-fracking protest to extremism. Back in December 2016 the Observer reported that the City of York came under fire for placing anti-fracking protesters on a list of “key risks”, along with Islamic terrorists and far-right extremists in documentation provided as part of their Prevent strategy, forcing the Home Office into an embarrassing climb-down.
This was by no means the only connection made in the Prevent Strategy as Drill or Drop also reported:
It is also not the first time that prominent authority figures have tried to link anti-fracking with extremism as we can see from this headline on MP Kevin Hollinrake’s blog.
It should have been abundantly clear then, to anyone in a position of authority, that equating anti-fracking protesters with extremism was unreasonable and not something that should be done without evidence. What happened here though was far worse than that.
As the story broke, horrified anti-fracking protesters began fielding enquiries from journalists, hungry to join the feeding frenzy, about this unacceptable behaviour. Questions began to be asked. The answers, when they emerged, were hard to believe, but were eventually confirmed by the very journalist who broke the story.
She wrote “according to Greater Manchester police, the boy in question was never involved in the anti-fracking movement. He had been targeted by an entirely different group of activists, the force said. The detail was then changed without their knowledge, ostensibly to protect his real identity.”
More than 20 hours later, and in spite of multiple and repeated requests, the Daily Telegraph still showed the original article with no correction and no retraction. It eventually issued a correction at about 2 pm on 31st July, but not before several complaints had been lodged with Press Regulator IPSO, and not before the same story had been reproduced in its print edition.
The Telegraph we should remind you was forced to issue a retraction for claiming, wrongly, that there had been “a dozen arrests related to verbal death threats and physical assault” against workers at Cuadrilla’s site in Lancashire, so they do have form here. On that occasion they at least removed the inaccurate article from the site.
So the GMCA knowingly published a report that was factually incorrect and traduced the general reputation of anti-fracking protesters. Given the sensitivity of the issues raised previously about the links being made by the “Prevent” program it beggars belief that the Police or the GMCA could have unintentionally been so stupid. The Police are on record above as saying they had no knowledge of the change, which rather leaves the GMCA hung out to dry here.
As fracking protester Tina Louise Rothery told the Guardian, the anti-fracking protest is a peaceful one and the people you see protesting at fracking sites wouldn’t be anywhere near it if there was even a hint of extremism. So why did they choose to add a totally unnecessary lie about anti-fracking protesters into this report? The coincidence that one of the contributors to the report has also worked for a fracking company didn’t go unnoticed by one commentator
There is something about this story that has the putrid smell of dark PR about it. The story, as must have been expected, has now got a life of its own and is extending its reach around the world. It has even been seen on the chat forum of an Australian mining company.
No amount of contrition or correction from the Guardian journalist who broke the story can ever change that now, and in some people’s minds anti-fracking protestors will forever be linked to extremism. In the court of public opinion the GMCA has, apparently intentionally, set up the anti-fracking protest movement as potential terrorists, preparing fertile ground for further fake news to take hold in the future.
It would appear, therefore, that it is not vulnerable teenagers who are at risk of grooming from grandmothers armed with knitting needles, but the general public who are being groomed to be receptive to further untruths by those in power. For those of us brought up to respect the law and the authorities this feels like a shocking betrayal of trust.
If there is one thing to be learned from today’s appalling episode it is that journalists need to check their sources before routinely accepting what they are told about protesters. It simply is not good enough for them to wring their hands after the event – by then, as we have seen today, the damage is already done. With regard to that damage we call upon the GMCA and Mayor, Andy Burnham, to investigate this matter fully and to take appropriate action against those responsible. This is not the sort of behaviour that can be tolerated from a public body.
Meanwhile, Cuadrilla continue to lavish money on competitions in schools and kid’s football teams and Ineos continue to sponsor “the Daily Mile” in primary schools throughout the UK. What was that they were saying about “grooming” children?