The London Times: This week of hate is depressing for the idealists: “…we know about Shell’s mistakes in Nigeria and marketers of high-price sportswear that used unacceptable sweatshops in Asia”: “On Tuesday the European Court of Human Rights ruled that two “environmental and social campaigners”, who were sued successfully for spreading untrue libels against McDonald’s, had been wronged.” (ShellNews.net) Posted 19 Feb 05
By Graham Searjeant, Financial Editor
OPTIMISTS have a vision of how poor countries might develop without suffering all the trauma and degradation of those who pioneered the industrial revolution. Multinationals have the capital, expertise and marketing power to speed development. They can enjoy the benefits of cheaper labour and land and transfer Western standards of technology, quality, social and environmental responsibility and working conditions. And they can help local people to root out stultifying corruption by refusing to make bribes.
Big companies will do this for two reasons: patchily because those who run the companies hold these values; more systematically because they will be held to account by Western consumers and savers. We now have access to information about what is happening on the ground from domestic media, churches, charities and pressure groups.
That is the ideal. Before the age of global communications, that did not happen. The Bhopal chemical accident would not have happened back home in America. Today the ideal still happens rarely. But we know about Shell’s mistakes in Nigeria and marketers of high-price sportswear that used unacceptable sweatshops in Asia. They will not dare to do the same again.
In time, we should find out about those who think they are getting away with boosting their margins by keeping suppliers poor. The global mining industry has adopted new codes of conduct and practice and expects to be held to them. This is the new accountability. If we exercise it well, it can make business the agent of progress in pursuit of profit.
Unexpectedly, this opportunity came across strongly at the Johannesburg summit on responsible development. For all who cling to that ideal in the face of cynicism, however, this is a depressing week.
On Tuesday the European Court of Human Rights ruled that two “environmental and social campaigners”, who were sued successfully for spreading untrue libels against McDonald’s, had been wronged. The judgment was on a narrow issue. British taxpayers had a duty to pay for a high-priced defence team. At this level it is just another case of once high-minded lawyers acting as the marketing arm of their own trade association.
The implications are more serious. The court found it unfair that the “McLibel two” should have to prove all the allegations they spread and that the libel action had disproportionately interfered with their freedom of expression. Their pro bono lawyer said that Britain should now “give more protection for campaign groups”.
The triumphant campaigners claimed: “Now we have the right to scrutinise rich and powerful corporations.” But this kind of campaigning is not about scrutiny. One explained: “Social responsibility policies are just greenwash. They are there to give the impression that companies are concerned but their fundamental business practices are the same. Profit for their shareholders is all they care about. As long as McDonald’s exists, we will continue to campaign against them.” Corporations are incorrigibly bad.
Public scrutiny could be improved by ending abuses of theft laws and confidentiality contracts that prevent company documents being used to back criticisms. It would help if whistleblowers were no longer persecuted, for instance by senior European commissioners. Under this new tyranny of liberalism, however, no clear line is to be drawn between researched fact and propaganda smears. So what are consumers with budgets and savers who depend on the returns on their pension funds to believe? Whatever suits their pockets, cynics will say.
McDonald’s was unlucky to become a hate symbol of American culture. We can already see campaigns beginning against Tesco, Cadbury Schweppes, food manufacturers, drug companies and most of all oil multinationals without necessary regard for truth. They are all fair game.
The Kyoto Treaty, which came into force on Wednesday, provides a wonderful pretext to attack Western consumers and multinationals. The treaty was nobly conceived as a global cooperation to combat what was widely viewed to be dangerous global warming caused largely by excess emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. But it has gradually come to appear that by choosing an exceptionally convenient base date, by continuing to run down nuclear power, by exempting the grossly polluting development of China and India and by doing little to stop forests being destroyed, it had turned into a political game. Western oil, gas and motor industries are targets, not climatic change.
Greenpeace’s actions in London symbolised this bathos. Greenpeace was once a noble organisation whose members risked direct action to save mammals from slaughter, to stop a needlessly damaging nuclear bomb test, to stop North Sea installations being sunk at the end of their life and to stop unwanted experiments in genetically modified crops.
On Wednesday, activists celebrated the Kyoto age by trying to disrupt trading on the International Petroleum Exchange.
They later poured wine on tables at the Grosvenor House hotel to spoil an oil industry dinner. Greenpeace had become just another jolly club pour epater les bourgeois. Activists complained that IPE traders did not seem interested in their arguments and had set upon them instead. The traders had grasped the situation well.
When the ambition of channelling the force of free markets to make a better world degenerates into the statement that oil is bad, the only decision you have to make is whether you are for or against business.