The Risk-Monger

The BBC website announced today (20 June 2011) a “shocking decline” in the state of the oceans. With lines like: “The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now” or that we are ‘heading for a sixth mass extinction event’, my eyebrows got raised by the source of the shock factor that the BBC was reporting as fact.

The BBC correspondent, Richard Black, based the entirety of his article on a report by a hitherto unknown organisation known as IPSO. He did not check other organisations, investigate IPSO or get other views from other stakeholders. Was Mr Black naive, too pressed for time or agenda driven? One thing is for sure, the BBC surely is not responsible in this type of shock reporting based solely on NGO activist sources. This is sadly becoming routine for the BBC (they seem to subcontract much of their environmental reporting to Greenpeace). I am slowly considering the BBC more as an environmental – political activist organisation than a credible news source.

So what is IPSO and how did they manage to score a BBC exclusive? I am afraid IPSO smells a little like another NGO front group that presents itself as international and then worms its way into UN bodies where they can better spread their influence. IPSO stands for the International Programme on the State of the Oceans – a name which sounds like a UN body, but is a UK registered NGO. They produced a report which the BBC claims will be presented to the UN at a conference later this week (sounds influential, maybe I’ll present my blog to the UN later this week as well!). At the bottom of each page on a glossy gloom report, they have a catchy footer byline: IPSO: run by scientists for the world. Into their ocean awareness raising, they weave other campaigns (climate, overfishing, plastics) – they will be busy.

Something over fishy!

This seemed all too Greenpeacish for me, so it got me wondering: who works for IPSO? Their well-produced website says precious little about who funds them, who are all of these scientists for the world. They describe themselves as a “unique consortium of scientists and other Ocean experts — including those from the legal, communications and political arenas”. All of the academic work and blogs seem to flow through Professor Alex Rogers, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Zoology in London. Only his name and that of Mirella von Lindenfels appear on the website. It didn’t take too long to learn that Mirella von Lindenfels was once the media head for Greenpeace … ouch! (Note to BBC journalist, Richard Black: Google is a search engine that can provide some useful research information for your articles). Now I understand how their website can claim: Everything that IPSO does, it does to preserve our Ocean so that life as we know it can continue. I think I read that on a Greenpeace site (or was it the BBC?).

This is just the reality we are in today. Environmental lobbyists are far better than other groups at communications and government influencing, coordinating their networks to create an air of authority that sets agendas and assumes a commonality that needs no further scrutiny. The UN gets duped by these front-group activists all of the time (last week we learnt that a Greenpeace director was the lead author in an IPCC report on renewables). But shouldn’t journalists be a little more street smart and be able to sniff out facts from fantasy? Unless of course environmental activists have wormed their way into the BBC editorial staff as well …

In the week after the BBC had to apologise to Primark for lying in their Panorama report, shouldn’t BBC editors give a stronger credibility sniff to the sources of their shock journalism? Otherwise their own credibility and integrity again becomes the story.

Postscript: within hours, the Black article was re-tweeted or posted on Facebook more than 9000 times. This is textbook activist campaigning that I teach in my lobbying lectures – plant an article in a major news source, use your network to spread it virally, and voila, instant news. Tomorrow, we can expect other news organisations to be pressured to pick up the BBC report and widen the network to gain momentum all the way to the UN meeting. It does not matter if there is any factual basis at all to the information – an agenda is generated and diffused and the BBC has become the patsy.

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  1. Dear friends,
    You wrote

    “It does not matter if there is any factual basis at all to the information – an agenda is generated and diffused and the BBC has become the patsy”
    it’s a pity that people and organizations interested in saving our planet are criticized, while there are people who do not care for ecology

    Kind regards
    Anna

  2. Thank you Anna for keeping your comments civil (I could not publish several comments received today by people who think that protecting the planet means insulting me and my mother). There is no doubt that ecologists believe they care for the planet, but caring does not mean that they should win arguments without facts or have policies based on good intentions. Others care about poor people or developing countries – people who have facts, but not the same lobbying force in policy debates or decisions about scarce resource allocations.
    The only fact I find interesting here is that this is a concerted lobbying campaign by two people – a former Greenpeace media director and a scientist who I have since learned did work for Greenpeace and WWF. They pretended that their organisation was international and governmental, duped the BBC and since then have taken the campaign viral – within 24 hours, the BBC article has been shared or re-Tweeted 20,600 times. That does not happen accidentally or through a spontaneous outpouring of care. These are not caring people, sorry, but aggressive lobbyists out to win (and let’s be honest, they are very good at that!) – and they even have you convinced that they are fighting evil industry lobbyists. I am not paid to write this blog.
    Ecology is something we must care about, as well as the proper use of our resources so that we can help those less fortunate. Please don’t say I don’t care because I want facts to have an influence n these decisions rather than deception games played by IPSO or the BBC’s Richard Black.
    When people think they can do whatever they want because they believe in the moral propriety of their crusade, and society largely supports them, we have lost virtue and respect for knowledge.

  3. Dear Donna,

    I’m not paid to write here, what interests me is the ecology and as I live in Europe and I am defending European values
    Europe has fought for democracy, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech or give our views
    There are very nice people who do an outstanding job and I congratulate them for their work. First of all is become aware of urgency of ecological problems and the peril that runs our planet, I think
    Now, there are people who are interested in more so-called pure politics, power or money
    I insist that we must not forget that a people who are not aware of the problem and sometimes are not serious or not interested in the responsibilities that we have
    I did not have much time but I would like to say you that I loved too much your answer, thank you
    Have a nice day
    Anna

  4. Actually, Alex Rogers is a Professor at Oxford University. Even if you haven’t heard of IPSO, surely you recognize Oxford’s academic and scientific integrity. Also, if you look at the list of participants of the workshop, you’ll find many more academic scientists on that list. I understand the concern about NGOs, but lets not belittle scientists or the important work they do to help us understand the world around us.

    1. I don’t belittle scientists, but we should be wary of people who pretend to be more than they are (and here I am not referring just to two people pretending to be an international programme of the UN stature). The 26 people that they tout as the international scientists and experts who contributed on oceans was well described in a blog to be only eight experts (and a lot of activists and campaigners) – and of those eight, it is not sure what role they played in the production of the campaign documents. See http://www.climate-resistance.org/2011/06/the-fishy-wishy-washy-ipso-report.html for an eye opener. As for Alex Rogers himself, see his personal profile at http://www.zoo.ox.ac.uk/staff/academics/rogers_ad.htm. I don’t know how he has time to lecture with all of his activism work. Working in the academe myself, I would warn you not to be overly impressed with affiliations – egos and intellects are not the same.

  5. Dear friends,

    It is a pity this discussion
    I have read
    Of the 26 contributors, we can immediately exclude half of them as non-experts
    1) he a scientist, or an activist?
    2) a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Institute of Zoology
    3) Professor of Fisheries at the University
    I have read a comment of

    Donna Laframboise , who says for defending someone

    He has worked with both Greenpeace and the WWF over the past 17 years
    And so on
    Unfortunately I haven’t much time because it is very interesting for me to read these articles
    Have an excellent weekend
    Anna

  6. People like Dan Laffoley and Daniel Pauly, which you and the other blog list as non-scientists due to the fact that they’ve “worked” for NGOs (by the way, IUCN – Dan Laffoley’s employer – is a UN body, not an environment activist group) is misleading. Many scientists provide scientific advice for NGOs and this is not the same as being on their payroll, nor does not make them non-experts. The IPSO report clearly states its authors are Alex Rogers and Dan Laffoley, both of whom can be considered experts because they have published many scientific papers in credible and even prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Just because the conclusions of scientific research support the “environmental agenda” does not mean they are invalid.

  7. Actually, apologies – my mistake, IUCN has observer status at the UN but may not actually be a UN organization. Still, it doesn’t make sense to assume someone is a non-expert without first doing a search for the literature they’ve published.

  8. One last thought! Neither this blog nor the other one you referred me to have made any attempt to analyze the science presented in the report, or the large quantity of literature it references. Although it is wise to consider the motivations of authors as one factor in critiquing a piece of research, it should certainly not be the only factor. I find the argument that ‘we shouldn’t believe these people because they have some ties to environmental groups’ a lot less convincing than I would an actual discussion of the contents of the report, how they reach their conclusions based on the evidence they provide as support, etc. It would be really great to see that sort of discourse in the blogosphere, and I’m sure it would do just as much (if not more!) service to the public.

    1. Thank you for your comments Elizabeth – there are some good points worth considering.
      One issue I have a problem with is how the UN-NGO collusion effect has been cemented. NGOs like IUCN (and their sister group, WWF) have created a fast-track promotion and networking system with UNEP. I can understand how NGOs, working in basically flat organisations, can see the UN bodies as natural career progressions (more than academics or industry people who have deeper career matrix opportunities and dream less about a career in a bureaucratic heavy organisation) but what you get in the end are UN organisations that are becoming more and more biased towards activist agendas. Take Pachauri, who seems to be running TERI out of the IPCC (or the IPCC out of TERI). He is preaching to his choir which surround him and reinforce his thinking, and so when he states that the next assessment report will look more at the societal aspects, he is so protected by like-minded activists that he cannot hear the outrage from the scientific community. There should be a study on the number of former NGO activists employed in high positions at UN bodies.
      Can NGO science be reliable? I hope some day that it never has to be questioned. But too often in the past, the political elements get in the way of good science (GMOs, nuclear, chemicals, organic, wind – hearts win over minds on these issues and science becomes a ‘nice to have’ but not necessary). There was good science on climate, but the politics of agenda driven groups in high places (like WWF’s unsubstantiated Himalayan glacier claims that became IPCC fact) have poisoned the well. IPSO has more non-scientists with their fingers in the pie than credible scientists, and we see them using oceans to extend their other campaigns (plastics, climate change, over-fishing …). Would IPSO lead a campaign for increased aqua-culture as a solution to stop over-fishing? Probably not, as some of their activists are running campaigns against fish farms. That is not science, that is activism, and it should be identified as such, … even in the UN.

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