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Tuesday 8 May 2012

Frack Up The Spin Machine!

No matter how cautiously the words are phrased, and in spite of a range of caveats, when a former minister mentions the subject of shale gas live on the BBC, the hacks’ antennae twitch to attention and those words are instantly spun. And the Beeb’s own report hasn’t helped matters, as it has relayed the sentiments of Chris Smith, who is now head of the Environment Agency.

What you will see

Smith, recently elevated to the Peerage, has given cautious support to the extraction of gas from shale, but is by no means cheerleading: shale gas would be “potentially very beneficial for our energy needs ... it could provide energy security ... it could be affordable”. Moreover, he has stressed that the gas “has to be drawn out of the ground effectively and safely”.

Smith has stressed that this “means worrying about the way in which the drilling takes places, it means worrying about making sure the methane is captured rather than discharged to the air and it means making sure that none of the contaminated water gets into the ground water that sometimes can fill our water supplies”. He also talks of this being monitored and regulated “very rigorously”.

He also stressed that gas is still a fossil fuel, and that “we have to develop carbon capture in the storage to enable us to reduce the greenhouse gas impact that it will have”. So if that’s a yes to fracking, it’s a very heavily qualified one. That degree of caution only increases the duty on media outlets not to get carried away, but the Beeb has dropped the baton on the first changeover.

Not the most fair and balanced headline

There it is in bold type: “Environment Agency head Lord Smith supports fracking expansion”. That’s not what the man said. But the example has been set, and the Maily Telegraph, home to such thoughtful and balanced luminaries as Christopher Booker and James “saviour of Western civilisation” Delingpole, has already amended the BBC original to simply “Environment Agency boss backs fracking”.

Indeed, the Beeb’s report has even been reported more or less verbatim by the so-called Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a haven of climate change denialism, such is the coincidence with its agenda. It has been left to Jim Pickard at the FT Westminster Blog to sound a moderating note by pointing outEnvironment Agency chair not entirely sure on fracking”.

Pickard has it spot on. Chris Smith has made a less than unequivocal statement, and as the FT blog points out, he will tell of wider concerns in a speech later today. In the circumstances, the Beeb could, and should, have applied a little more thought before coming out with that headline, which has just been spun and churned by the usual suspects to make it look like a green light for fracking.

Because ideologically partisan hackery is always with us. No change there, then.

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