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Wednesday 5 August 2009

A Stroll across the Astroturf – 2

Hardly had Andrew Adonis pronounced in favour of more high speed rail links, than the aviation industry rounded on him in typically forthright style. Leading the charge of the independents has been Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, who is keen to accuse the rail industry of being subsidised, while becoming a terribly sensitive soul when the question of financial inducements to keep his planes flying into some smaller airfields is raised.

However, the main critical thrust has come from an organisation called Flying Matters. Who they? Well, a look at their website shows the strapline “The national campaign for flying”, which suggests a grass roots organisation. But it is nothing of the sort. Flying Matters is yet another Astroturf group: it’s a lobby organisation supported by airlines, tour operators, plane makers and sundry hangers on. Heading up this motley convocation is former energy minister Brian Wilson, but the real lobbying nous comes from director Michelle Di Leo, a skilled PR hand who has also resorted to the pseudonym Bella Regazza.

Flying Matters says it is “taking climate change seriously”, which is a bit rich for a body defending an industry that routinely indulges in serious carbon dioxide generation. But this is part of the PR: it’s what is often called Greenwash – a stance or impression of environmental concern used to mask a desire to carry on business, free of scrutiny or interference. The group warns that cutting back on airport expansion would result in job losses, that taxing flying would cost MPs in marginal constituencies their seats and be unfair to poorer families, and that raising long haul ticket prices will rob ethnic minority Britons of contact with their extended families.

Put directly, Flying Matters wants the aviation industry to be allowed to carry on as it is, thank you very much. And, as with other Astroturf groups, it gets its message into the broadcast and print media – and the blogosphere – on a regular basis. But into this comfortable world a little rain must fall: to countervail the Flying Matters line are real grass roots groups like Plane Stupid, which, whatever your views on its tactics (these include non-violent direct action), at least causes people – and those who feed them their media diet – to think twice before unquestioningly swallowing the product of yet another lobby group.

Meanwhile, the case for rail still needs making. We can’t rely on Christian Wolmar and Roger Ford to do it on their own.

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