Required reading

There has been particularly bad media coverage of the Rossport/Shell protest and case.



A small, rather parochial consolation for the scandalous loss of the Centre for Public Inquiry from the nation's life is that Frank Connolly is available to join us at Village, céad míle fáilte. It's a particularly small consolation because the diabolically bad media coverage of the Shell-in-Mayo controversy in recent days suggests that the CPI might as well never have existed at all.

The Centre was nothing if not generous last November with media copies of its impressive, quite comprehensive report on the Corrib Gas Project, and no doubt it sits on the shelves of many of the pundits who can be read and heard all over Irish newspapers, and broadcasters talking absolute pig-ignorant rubbish about Rossport.

There is simply no excuse other than the basic fact that sustains this weekly column – that journalists are mostly lazy, cowardly bluffers with a herd mentality – for anyone to say, for example, "the pipeline has been through the whole planning process". It hasn't: it was exempt from planning – only the terminal was subject to county council and Bord Pleanála review. Or that "the Rossport Five are just a small rump of resisters and most affected locals are onside with Shell". Wrong: most of the land-length of the pipeline-route passes across the fields of those defiant men and their families.

On Marian Finucane's Sunday show, the panel talked learnedly about compulsory purchase orders, as though Rossport were like a road project. But actually Shell isn't looking to buy the fields, just to pay a per-metre fee for access to the route while the land remains in local hands. That's what it has got unprecedented compulsory power to do.


Pressure of Times

It's particularly infuriating to see Irish Times editorials spouting half-truths about Rossport when that paper has probably the best national reporter on the story, Galway-based Lorna Siggins. Her reports and analysis have been fair and well-informed, but the leader-writers don't seem to read them.

Even when other papers could no longer resist the "local heroes" line of last summer and autumn, the Irish Times was begrudging. And last week, when Shell spokesman Andy Pyle suggested the company's plans might be open to negotiation, the paper's editorial essentially counselled Shell to buck up and push ahead "with dispatch. This project needs to move forward."

It was not made clear in the leader why the Irish Times is in such a hurry, except perhaps that it annoys the paper's higher sensibilities to see objectors' "inflammatory language and extreme and improbable scenarios" causing delays. Since the Irish people have no stake in the project in terms of shares or royalties, and since we're not exactly out of gas, the paper can scarcely be motivated by public concerns.

Even Shell is hardly troubled by the hold-up. It's got the gas, after all, and will eventually get it to shore somehow. Meanwhile the trajectory of global energy prices means that for the company the offshore field is like a bank that pays the highest interest rate in the world.

In this context, the widespread media sympathy for Shell, especially after Pyle's wee act of contrition, is both logically astonishing and all-too-predictable in light of the press's prostitution to PR and its built-in bias toward corporate interests. (One of the CPI report's bravest sins was to point out that Tony O'Reilly is among those with interest in offshore exploration.)


Beware the backlash

The impatient Irish Times leader-writer's unfortunate choice of words ("inflammatory" indeed) typifies the sickening insensitivity to what the Rossport protesters clearly regard as a matter of life and death, rather than a matter for "dispatch".

Nonetheless, while corporate PR generally has the desired effect on the sheep in the national media, for popular movements it can actually be encouraging and galvanising: if Shell is stepping up its game, it's because the company knows it has to – the local resistance remains strong. The Shell to Sea campaign will take the PR offensive as a compliment, and keep working away, not only resisting the pipeline, but highlighting the dangers and damage already being caused by work at the terminal site, eg to local drinking water.

The protest does not require the support of Irish Times editorials, never exactly required reading in Erris anyway. The other snobs and protest-haters in the media may be tired of this story, but it will not go away.