Epic Shell PR fail? No, the real villains here are Greenpeace

Since when were Greenpeace the bad guys?

For several weeks now I’ve watched endless retweets of "epic Shell PR fails" cascading down my timeline, seeming less like bullshit than the thousands of identical, perfectly-formed little packets of poo you might find behind an incontinent deer. In June came a video supposedly filmed at a private launch party for Shell’s "Let’s Go! Arctic" campaign, which showed “an obvious malfunction of the model rig that was supposed to pour drinks for guests,” a major gaffe with hilarious results:

The video was reported widely in the media, gaining half a million views within a day of its release. Then it was revealed as a hoax, a publicity stunt organised by Greenpeace in collaboration with The Yes Men and Occupy Seattle.

Then matters escalated further, with a series of intimidating legal threats sent to bloggers. Warning that “lawyers operating on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell plc. (Shell) are considering formal action,” over the counterfeit campaign launch, an email from Shell’s PR department told bloggers and journalists that: “Shell is monitoring the spread of potentially defamatory material on the internet and reporters are advised to avoid publishing such material.” A jolly good Streisanding seemed imminent, until the threats turned out to be just another layer of the hoax.

Soon after, links began appearing to, supposedly the “social media hub” for the "Let’s Go! Arctic" campaign. “We at Shell are committed to not only recognize the challenges that climate change brings,” the introduction declares, “but to take advantage of its tremendous opportunities. And what's the biggest opportunity we've got today? The melting Arctic.” The site allows members of the public to suggest their own captions for Shell advertisement, displaying the unfortunate results in a gallery of user submissions. Another hilarity-inducing epic Shell PR fail? Nope, another cynical Greenpeace hoax.

I’ve nothing against parodies – I’ve written a few myself, and they can be an incredibly useful and effective way of skewering an argument. These hoaxes are something much more cynical and dangerous. Ryan Holiday at Forbes rightly described it as media manipulation, a very deliberate attempt to deceive and mislead their audience: “It may have been done for noble reasons, but that doesn’t change the salient fact that they are manipulating the media by creating a fake scandal and lying about it to get more coverage.”

Of course manipulating the media turned out to be frighteningly easy in this case. Journalists aren’t infallible – god knows I’ve fallen for hoaxes in the past – but the speed and carelessness with which the main news sites copy and repackage each other’s content means that these errors are compounded and multiplied at a furious rate. Throw in the awesome power of social media, and one blogger’s late night fuck-up can become a truth spoken by millions before breakfast. Evolution has not yet gifted us social apes with sceptical powers to match our fascination with ‘like’ buttons.

The real villain here is Greenpeace. This is an NGO that thinks it is acceptable to lie to the public, to lie to bloggers and journalists, and to then intimidate writers with threatening emails warning of legal action. This absolutely is not okay. I don’t care if you’re saving the Arctic, rescuing kittens from YouTube’s vicious pet-celebrity training camps, or training pandas to pull famine-ridden children out of earthquake debris; to behave in this deceitful way demonstrates an astonishing amount of contempt for the public - not least for environmentalist supporters who spread their message in good faith only to find themselves forced into embarrassing retractions.

And for what? It’s not like there’s any shortage of real scandals to draw attention to. As I write this, Reuters have just reported that Shell could face a US$5 billion fine for a major oil spill off the Nigerian coast that affected 950 square kilometres of water and caused serious harm to local communities. An analysis published last year by the United Nation’s Environment Programme estimated that it could take thirty years to clean up damage to the Ogonil and region in the Niger Delta, pollution caused in part by Shell’s activities in the area. With real scandals like this to cover, inventing fake ones isn’t just unnecessary but actually quite crass.

Shell’s lawyers have sensibly steered clear of this latest fuss, resisting the urge to take any action against Greenpeace. Why bother, when Greenpeace’s message is so extraordinarily self-defeating? The message to the public is crystal clear, as Holiday observes: “Even if you think Shell is evil and will lie to achieve their goals, now you know Greenpeace is the exact same way.” Spending tens of thousands of dollars to deliberately mislead and manipulate the public used to be something the bad guys did, but here we all are watching pigs in suits drive another important debate into the quagmire.

Update 18/07/2012 15:51 Greenpeace have posted an explanation of the campaign here.


A Greenpeace activist covers the logo of the Shell oil company in protest. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.