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 arcticready.com, 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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.