The Camp for Climate Action pounced cheekily onto RBS’s back garden last Wednesday night, setting up tents, marquees, wind turbines and compost toilets in the very grounds of the bank’s global headquarters. Their mission: to highlight the links between finance and climate change, to expose the fact that RBS is the UK bank with the biggest investment in fossil fuels (including the disastrous Tar Sands extraction projects in Canada), and to challenge the bonkers notion that endless economic growth is possible on a finite planet. All of this stuff was laid out in a rather good newspaper-style pamphlet that the protesters have been dishing out around the country for the last couple of months – there’s an online copy here.
This aerial photo shows the section of the Camp nearest to RBS HQ - there's more of the camp behind the trees (photo by kriptick, from the Climate Camp photo pool)
You'd know little of this from reading the newspapers, especially the Scottish press (I’ve not seen or heard any TV or radio coverage, but I don’t suspect that they’re wildly different). It pains me to link to any of it, but there are some pretty typical (and terrible) examples here and here. I’ve attended all five Climate Camps (six if you include the G20 camp), and while there have been plenty of examples of bad media along the way I think this one's had the greatest disconnect between what actually happened on the ground and the way it was reported. To spend five days in the company of such gentle, compassionate, and inspiring people, and then see them described across the media with such a weird mixture of bile and ridicule (strangely, climate activists seem to be dangerous radicals and spoilt student wannabes at the same time) – even though I know I shouldn't be surprised, I still find it pretty upsetting.
Scary, dangerous threats to society, setting up a campsite in a particularly terrifying fashion (photo by Amelia Gregory, from the Climate Camp photo pool)
The Climate Camp wasn’t perfect. There are still plenty of things that need improving in this energetic and slightly chaotic action network – but the Camp and its participants bear little resemblance to the caricatures presented by large chunks of media this week.
Here are five things that you may not have picked up from the mainstream coverage:
1) The “oil spill” was nothing to do with the Climate Camp
In 2007 it was “hoax bombs” (invented by an Evening Standard journalist). In 2008 it was “a weapons stash” (a bag of cooking and camping equipment, discovered by the Kent Police) and “70 injuries to police officers” (about a dozen cases of heatstroke, backache and bee stings). In 2009, we were told that the police were just trying to help Ian Tomlinson and the protesters got in the way (the video footage, of course, told a very different story, with protesters among the first people to try to help Mr Tomlinson after the vicious police attack). This year, we’ve got an “oil spill”.
According to a police press release, they found “a substance similar to diesel or vegetable oil” spilled onto two major roads in Edinburgh. No evidence of any kind has been presented to link this to the Camp, and no-one from the Camp has claimed any knowledge about the event. The police have provided little information on what exactly the substance was or the quantity involved, and have released no pictures of the “spill”.
Compare this with every other piece of direct action that the Climate Camp has ever been involved in (I’ve documented many of them on this blog in the past). In every case, the target of the action was a corporation or government, never the general public; no-one’s safety was ever purposefully put at risk; and each action was cheerfully claimed by the Camp and usually put into a press release.
I’ve been in enough Climate Camp meetings to know that there is no way that an “oil spill” action like this, if it existed, would be condoned or supported by the Camp. There is a good understanding between everyone involved as to what kind of actions are beyond the pale, and anything that puts the public at risk would definitely fall into that category.
So what actually happened? Giving the police the benefit of the doubt and assuming there really was some sort of spill, there are several possibilities:
Possibility a) It wasn’t an oil slick at all. Considering how many groups of people were carrying large amounts of molasses and treacle around Edinburgh that weekend (see below), it’s not hard to imagine that some could get accidentally spilt while crossing a road. "Climate activists accidentally spill cake ingredients" isn't quite so exciting a headline though.
A protest outside Cairn Energy on Monday. Note to police: this is not real oil. (photo by Amelia Gregory, from the Climate Camp photo pool)
Possibility b) It is incredibly unlikely – but just within the bounds of possibility - that some unknown person or persons purposefully poured something onto the road. Even if this happened (and I don’t think it did), and even if it was meant to be something to do with climate change (in some incredibly tenuous way) I think it would be incredibly unfair to blame the Camp for this. The network has spent the last five years training and supporting people to hold sit-ins, lock-ons and non-violent occupations, but has never done anything to encourage people to take actions that would endanger the public. On the rare occasions that I’ve heard anything along those lines suggested in a meeting (usually by an undercover journalist), it would be instantly and unequivocally rejected by the other participants. Action training sessions at the Camp stress safety above all else - the safety of both the participants and the public. If anyone had come up with an inappropriate or dangerous plan at the Edinburgh camp, the “Action Support” team would have gently but firmly steered them away from the idea. In fact, the training, education, and action support provided by the Camp over the past five years (along with other action networks such as Plane Stupid, Rising Tide and Climate Rush) has probably made UK climate protest far safer, and greatly lowered the risk of unsafe actions.
Possibility c) Whatever it was, it was spilt by someone else. All sorts of stuff gets accidentally spilt on busy roads all the time – and just think how many tens of thousands of vehicles must have passed along those roads during the Camp. This is the most overwhelmingly likely explanation.
So how the hell did this unrelated event become the focal point for all the mainstream media this week, an oily stick for beating Climate Camp? Sadly, all the usual explanations apply. The police decided to link the “spill” to the Camp and put it in a press release, where it was seized upon by a sensationalist media looking for a thrilling angle. This plays neatly into the police’s hands – all of the negative press coverage and legal cases last year after their G20 behaviour was exposed has forced them to police the Camps more lightly in 2009 and 2010, but the more that protesters are demonised in the media, the easier it will be for the police to get a free (heavy) hand again in the future. This doesn't necessarily mean that the "spill" rumour was invented by the police – it was probably just part of their usual ongoing PR assualt, of unscrupulously seizing any opportunity to portray activists in a bad light, and they just happened to score a direct hit with this one. Sadly, the media have gone back to their pre-G20 habit of automatically believing everything the police say, and treating the protesters’ side of the story with suspicion or dismissal.
Other circumstances didn’t help – the fact that the Camp’s media team were more used to dealing with the London-based media, and so had few friendly contacts in the Scottish press; the fact that quite a few of the protesters were not Scottish, but were targeting a financial institution with “Scotland” in its name; the fact that, unlike Heathrow or Kingsnorth, the climate activists were not standing together with a directly affected local community. Overstretched Camp volunteers may have got a few things wrong too, such as putting a "guide to dealing with the media" - that casts journalists in a rather unfavourable light - online where journalists were bound to read it. Plus, of course, the corporate media are rarely going to report fairly on an action movement that attempts to directly challenge the power of corporations and wealthy elites.
All of these things have added up to a largely undeserved couple of bad media days for the Camp for Climate Action - which is a shame, because back in the real world the Camp was, overall, a positive experience and some pretty important things happened. I’ll detail some of them in a separate post, because the first of my “five things” has turned out rather longer than expected! Stay tuned for points 2 to 5, which I promise will be a bit more upbeat...