Fracking with the facts in a post-truth world

fracking facts

Fracking is a process that is struggling to gain a foothold in the UK. As the companies involved scrabble to get permission to drill across vast swathes of the countryside, they are also fighting a battle to win the hearts and minds of the population, because they know that without a social licence to operate, their costs will end up being too high for them to make a profit.

So how do they go about addressing the necessary debate? Do they engage with the public? Do they inform them? Not at all! The discourse that they prefer is one in which power trumps argument and volume trumps logic. It is not important to them that what they say is true. What matters to them is that people should believe it to be true. This is the essence of early 21st century communication from Donald J Trump downwards, if downwards is the appropriate word to use there.

Hence we have a variety of facades pumping out propaganda at a furious rate. When one gets exposed and becomes a liability (as did the North West Energy Task Force last year) it is simply replaced with a shiny new version, supported by the same PR company working for the same fracking company. This is how the front group Lancashire For Shale was born, supported by Westbourne Communications and Cuadrilla. They then put up a web page full of public relations material and have no shame in calling it “The Facts”. Clearly a “fact”, these days, is whatever you want it to be. Facts used to be considered to be an objective representation of reality. Now it seems we all have our own facts, and the most robust “facts” are simply the ones that they want us to hear. We are living in a  dystopia where the Strawberry Fields fantasy “Living is easy with eyes closed” and “nothing is real” seem to be the creed.

Working side-by-side with these quasi-official front groups we have a clutch of astroturfing groups who claim to represent local residents, but who are, in fact, made up almost exclusively of business people with a vested financial interest in the industry going ahead. Typically these groups have a social media following of around three hundred followers shared between them and they serve to echo and amplify the messages put out by the more “respectable” organisations.  Meanwhile the fracking companies are able to maintain an unimpeachable distance from any questionable statements being made on their behalf.

To take a case in point, this week, we saw a local industry front group given space in our local press to pump the output of UKOOG, the fracking industry operating group. The material was claimed, with no basis in fact, to disprove the fact that the countryside would be industrialised by fracking. Amusingly the report itself didn’t even try to say that, but that didn’t matter – the “truth” that they wanted us to take in was dutifully put out there by a press who appear to question nothing and gratefully reprint every press release they receive from the industry and its cohorts. The public lap it up and then quote it on local Facebook groups. Job done!

In the same vein, a claim was made last week that demonstrations against fracking at one site on a local A-road might be costing the local economy half a million pounds a day. The claim was totally risible,  ascribing, as it did,  the entire cost of motorway delays across the whole of the UK to one A-road in the Fylde, but again the truth didn’t matter. A compliant local press swallowed the lie and dutifully regurgitated it for the local population to marvel at. We will see it repeated now for months.

The examples of this phenomenon are too numerous to list, but some of my favourites are from Cuadrilla’s own chief executive. In 2013 he was trying to persuade us that fracking was good for Lancashire business and on Radio 4 he told listeners that:

the actual spend on any development itself would run into several hundred billions, most of which, we would hope would be spent in Lancashire.”

Nobody noticed or cared that a moment before he had said, “Well the total market value … it’s about £140 billion worth of gas“. The same gentleman is continually claiming that his fracking pads will be the size of a rugby pitch (1 hectare) when the only pad he has permission for will cover nearly 3 hectares with another 3 or 4 hectares for associated monitoring stations. The press simply report the lie and “Bingo!” it’s suddenly become a fact in the minds of local readers. We can tell them they have published a lie but they simply ignore that new information, because it isn’t convenient.

Should you try to engage with their “Community Information Line” (staffed of course by a Public Relations company) with an awkward question they will find a reason to withdraw, but the company will continue with their baseless claims of being an active stakeholder in the community. The truth doesn’t matter. The surface is everything. The post-truth carapace hides the hollow interior, which reeks of arrogance, indifference and self-interest. Say whatever you want. Say it loud.  Say it clear. As long as you drown out the opposition’s words you’ll have nothing to fear.

Before I became interested in investigating the claims made by the fracking industry I was blissfully unaware of the extent to which lobby groups use the power they have to drown out the truth with a barrage of misleading and often untrue statements.  I was also unaware of how complicit the national and local press (with a few occasional honourable exceptions) are in helping them to establish their narratives. You have to leave the gentle foothills of the familiar mainstream media before you start to find boutique sites like Drill or Drop, where you can find unembellished information curated by enthusiasts who are on a mission to inform rather than to convince. Even there though, anonymous individuals dominate the comments pages, desperately retailing the industry’s factoids to anyone who will fall for them. The filaments of the lies spread inexorably like a honey fungus across the substrate of the debate, strangling the possibility of the truth flourishing.

What is abundantly clear here is that, when the truth becomes a casualty, any possibility of a sensible or balanced dialogue becomes impossible. Those with the power understand this but they don’t care, because a reported factoid trumps the truth every time and serves their purposes as well if not better. They can, after all, mould a media factoid even if they can’t change the objective truth.

We are continually being enjoined to speak truth to power, and many of us do our best to do so. Sadly as long as those with power don’t need to care about the truth we are outgunned man-to-man. It’s a good thing that we can make up for this, at least to an extent, by having far superior numbers. We have armies of people who monitor the output of the echo chambers and expose their lies on social media.

The truth will out – we just have to keep pushing harder to get it seen. Surely, if I can write a whole article on post-truth Britain without once mentioning Brexit, then anything must be possible?