Three-D Issue 25: Media coverage of business and the environment

nathan_farrellNathan Farrell
Bournemouth University

The UK-based non-profit organisation Influence Map recently published a study ‘Measuring Corporate Influence on Climate Policy.’ The study ranked the top 100 companies in the 2014 ‘Forbes Global 2000’ list in terms of each corporation’s ‘readiness in the case of a shift towards a low carbon regulatory regime.’ Using data compiled from the corporations’ own websites and promotional materials, disclosures made to governments and third parties, and information obtained from media reports, Influence Map have categorised the corporations according to whether they had positive or negative relationships to the formation and implementation of climate policies.

Predictably enough, fossil fuel companies occupied the lower rungs of the list. For the Guardian, one noteworthy point was the position of BP at 89/100. Although the lowest ranking European company, BP was not deemed the worst offender among fossil fuel companies as Chevron, Occidental Petroleum and Exxon Mobil were ranked at 91, 93, and 94, respectively. At the bottom of the list is Koch Industries, a company known to be linked to political extremists in the US. The anti-progressive nature of BP’s continual efforts at ‘actively opposing almost every area of climate change regulation’1 may come as a surprise to some, particularly considering, first, how green the corporation’s logo is; second, how often the word ‘sustainable’ appears on their website and; third, the regularity with which BP patronises the arts in the UK. A close inspection of BP’s website suggests that ‘sustainability’ may sometimes refer to corporate, as opposed to environmental, sustainability, perhaps explaining why their sponsorship of the arts has been met with protest. For others, Influence Map’s findings may be perfectly explicable considering the dependency of BP’s profits on the continued exploitation of fossil fuels.

However, what is also of interest is the position of media companies in Influence Map’s list. 21st Century Fox appears in position 96, and the NGO notes both Rupert Murdoch’s efforts to downplay the significance of climate change, as well as Fox’s ‘instrumental role, though their media outlets’ in influencing the repeal of the Australian Carbon Tax.2 While this might be of little surprise, the links between fossil fuels and the media run deeper than the obvious links between Fox News and anti-environmentalism. BP’s considerable media expenditure – said to have been $96 million in the four months following the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill – is not limited to the right wing media alone and it is quite common to see adverts for petrol firms, long and short haul flights, and automobiles within the pages of the so-called left-wing media. The Influence Map story did not feature on the BBC’s website (at the time of writing). Interestingly, the most recent story concerning BP – published in the same month as Influence Map’s research – is an article in which the contents of a speech delivered by former BP CEO Lord John Browne are uncritically relayed. Ironically, Browne’s speech outlines his concerns that the relationship between business and society is becoming ‘dangerous’ due businesses’ failure ‘to engage with environmental, social and political issues’ and its tendency to bracket-off CSR from the rest of its business activities. This, Browne worries, may destroy business and he sets out his concerns in a new book – invariably a piece of conscience capitalism literature – for which the BBC article serves as unabashed promotion.

A key criteria in Influence Map’s study was the transparency of the listed companies. We might posit that a lack of transparency opens up a space for democratic media to more fully interrogate business practices, particularly in terms its role in environmental degradation and the obstruction of policies to mitigate this. However, it might be worth considering that in 2015 the Koch brothers, cited above, sponsored a gathering of top Republican Party donors and invited journalists from outlets such as the Washington Post. Although allowed to mingle with the elite intersection of business and politics, the journalists were made to promise not to reveal the identities of those in attendance. They duly agreed.

Perhaps, then, the work of Influence Map and the media’s coverage of this, along with the media’s general orientation towards business and the environment – with some exceptions – might highlight the necessity of the work of media, communications and cultural studies scholars in uncovering some of the environmental consequences of business practices and the manner in which these and the key actors involved are portrayed to the public.




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