MAC: Mines and Communities

Sold Down The River

Published by MAC on 2006-02-13
Source: London Calling ()


Sold down the river

by London Calling

13th February 2006

London Calling finds the British fourth estate in quite an abject state

A whale loses its way and flounders in the River Thames. Thousands of citizens turn out, urging it back to sea. The media has a right royal blow-out. London’s leading daily, the Evening Standard, splashes four pages on the mammal’s struggle and eventual demise. (That’s about as much as it would devote to an English World Cup victory over Brazil). So, was January’s news coverage really excessive? Isn't compassion for this icon of the oceans what sets us Brits a moral peg above those harpoon-crazy Japanese and Norwegians?

Ponder this, however: not a million miles away from the stranded leviathan were a posse of other endangered species, and hundreds of offended tribal people, whose own rivers and territory have been usurped by another alien beast. For almost three years, this malign homunculus has poached and encroached, in flagrant violation of the national law - and it’s British. Yet, has any UK journalist touched it with a pen or camera? Not a one – or hardly any one.

Medialens, a group monitoring the integrity of the UK press, recently described a typical UK journalist as one who “consistently traces a path around the issues that would land them in trouble with owners, parent companies, advertisers, potential future employers, and key news sources...Even normally honest and rational British journalists find fault with the American press, but not with the British press. Or they find fault with the right-wing but not the 'liberal' media. Or they find fault with the BBC but not their own newspaper.”

Take Robert Fisk who's widely recognised as one of the bravest and most objective of our reporters. He declares that his own newspaper, The Independent, is “.the British equivalent of what the Washington Post should be.” According to Fisk: “… people in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, the United States, Canada and many other places, are finding that a British journalist can write things they can't read elsewhere, but which must have considerable basis in truth because otherwise it wouldn't appear in a major British paper.”

Apart from being highly patronising, Fisk’s assertion just isn’t true.

Let’s confine our comments to mining (and for the moment leave aside the current, craven, pro-US British press condemnation of Iran).

Last year, The New York Times weighed-in strikingly against Freeport-Rio Tinto’s exploits in West Papua. Yet the latest British condemnation of Indonesian oppression in the territory doesn’t mention either company (and this was in The Independent). The Bangladeshi press has carried demands to halt London-based Asia Energy's vast Phulbari coal project - but not been a squeak from the British media. Close readers of this website will be familiar with several Indian reports implicating Tata Brothers in January’s Kalinganagar massacre. This massive Mumbai-based conglomerate also controls Tetley - literally a UK household word, as the bestselling brand of teabags. Tata might as well be filling samovars in Siberia for all the attention Fleet Street has paid this appalling event.

But these omissions seem mere pecadillos compared to the willful refusal of the “street of shame” (traditional synonym for Fleet Street) to take on Vedanta, the City’s newest mining enterprise. Ironically, one literal translation of this sanskrit name is “the end of knowledge”: so far as British print journals are concerned, basic intelligence gathering hasn’t even started.

Two years back, London Calling was the first news medium, outside of India, to trace the guile and deceit of India’s Sterlite Industries as it morphed itself into Vedanta Resources plc on the London Stock Exchange. Last month, this shady vehicle for the numerous plays of multi-millionaire Anil Agarwal and his family released its third quarter results. They were spectacular: Vedanta now seems headed for a listing on the elite Financial Times 100 index, and a doubling of consolidated earnings over the previous nine months.

Readers needing to refresh their minds about the company’s exploits can do so on this website (http://www.minesandcommunities.org/Company/company.htm#V). We have no reason to modify the damning appraisal of Vedanta, made by “Ravages through India” in August 2005 by a number of Indian and UK analysts and activists. If anything, the outlook is now worse. Agarwal and his fellow directors have dismally failed to refute virtually all the accusations made in this detailed report.

At the very least, you’d expect the UK press to reference these claims, since they cover “world class” mines and plants across four continents and in three countries formerly under British rule (India, Zambia and Australia).

Not a bit of it. No-one seemed to care when the Armenian government last November indicted Sterlite Gold for a caboosh of contractual, environmental, and health & safety violations. Some financial commentators took the board of HSBC to the cleaners last November, for appointing John Bond its executive chairman in violation of corporate good governance rules. Agarwal had done exactly the same thing earlier in the year, but escaped blot-free. (True, Kenneth Gooding mentioned it in passing in his Mining Journal column, last April: but no one else took it up).

No Guardian angel

In fact, the Vedanta reporting scandal - we defy anyone, after scrutinising the evidence to use a less damning description - dates back to February 2004. It was then that Roger Moody of Nostromo Research returned from a field trip to India where he had inspected two of Vedanta’s enterprises. He found that construction of the Lanjigarh alumina refinery in Orissa involved forcible destruction of two villages (one of which had been “cleared” in front of his eyes), while a putative bauxite mine nearby posed a massive threat to Khond villagers, elephants, tigers and other species. As for the Tuticorin copper smelter in Tamil Nadu, Moody declared that this was one of the most dangerous and polluting he'd ever come across.

Moody’s first port of call, back in London, was John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian, whose readiness to take on UK mining companies stretches back many years. Vidal’s response on hearing the litany of Vedanta derelictions was immediate: “I’ll fly out there tomorrow!”

Of course, we didn’t expect him to do precisely that - and he didn’t. However, nor would we anticipate a virtual silence lasting a year, interrupted only by one emailed message from Mr. Vidal saying he’d passed the story on to the Guardian's Delhi correspondent, Randeep Ramesh who‘d failed to follow it up (something Ramesh later denied). When Moody was about to leave for a much deeper investigation of Vedanta’s operations in March 2005, John Vidal jumped again: why didn’t Moody himself do a story?

The commission was accepted. Along with Nityanand Jayaraman, one of India’s most experienced environmental investigators, Moody wrote an expose of Vedanta’s operations in Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and Orissa, which was accepted by Vidal in May 2005. Over the following four months, and on three successive occasions, Vidal continued fudging: yes, it was a story that should be told but no, he couldn’t find space for it as yet.

In September, a committee of India’s Supreme Court published a damning report on Vedanta’s Orissa bauxite/alumina project. Soon afterwards Randeep Ramesh phoned Roger Moody from the Guardian’s Delhi office, saying he planned his own investigation. Since then, not a word of criticism has been directed against this most roguish of UK mining companies by the host country’s most respected “liberal” daily.

Silence too, both from Fisk’s Independent and the BBC. Although this “voice of free nations” did commission a short environmental slot on Vedanta from a UK filmmaker last year, she pulled it when the producer refused to have the company named on-air. The one minor exception has been the Financial Times, with partial criticisms of the Lanjigarh project, tucked away in a special aluminium supplement on November 2 2005. However, attempts to get the FT to highlight the issues further have met a wall of apparent indifference.(See below: “How the world's leading financial daily fell out of love with the truth - and into the arms of a liar).

A hidden lack of agenda

Medialens may have a valid point when it attributes the cowardice of UK editors to corporate pressure. London Calling remembers a disgraceful episode during the eighties, also centred on The Guardian. After a particularly fulsome period of slamming Rio Tinto, the newspaper's editor was threatened by the company with withdrawal of its advertising. For several years afterwards hardly anything critical appeared. Nonetheless, it’s surely stretching the point a column too far, to claim that (with the notable exception of Rupert Murdoch’s titles) UK editors are directly dictated to by the ultimate owners. In the case of their abject failure to expose Vedanta, editors rather seem to be following an unwritten set of rules:

If a culprit company sports a well known brand name, then it’s media fair game. If it’s recognisably British (not just registered here), all the better. Let it sell coffee, GM “foods”, cotton goods (or have the potentially corruptible ear of a government servant) and no self-respecting investigative reporter will ignore accusations of corporate malevolence. Should it be rattling the mighty chains of Greenpeace, WWF, or Oxfam, then journalists will fall over themselves to join the critical chorus.

However, if it’s just a mining company with a strange title, owned by a benign-seeming Indian gentleman, and ravaging a dimly perceived, far-off territory, then UK correspondents will always find other fish to fry.

One dying whale in the Thames is worth more than a thousand villagers thrust to the limits, or any number of quadrupeds and flighty creatures trembling before bulldozers in eastern India.

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