BP: Beyond Poisonous Spin
Tracey Barnett ©June 2010
Watch not what they say, but what they do.
This column has nothing to do with the massive oil gash bleeding into our oceans for the last 38 days in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s got nothing to do with errant technology or bad politics that have failed to prevent this disaster—though the blame for that is already rolling in like its own black tide.
This story is about the immorality of the lie that masquerades as public relations. It is about the tragedy of containment. I don’t mean oil. I mean the devastatingly effective containment of information that works directly against what is true. There is no other way to say it more plainly.
Deepwater Horizon crewman Stephen Davis told The Guardian he had been watching television in bed for 15 minutes before the first explosion hurled him 5 metres into a wall. Struggling to the deck, “It was like we walked straight into hell,” Davis said. Screaming men were sliding through the mud, panicked at the fireballs erupting behind him.
“They would look at you and just jump into the water”, a distance 18 meters below, Davis said. Davis made it to a lifeboat and eventually to a nearby supply vessel, but survivors would be held in isolation for 40 hours before they were allowed off their ship, reports The Guardian. For that period, crewmen were denied access to the onboard satellite phones or radio to call their families. Some were furious, others just numb.
Lawyers for the survivors say the crew was told they had to sign statements denying they were hurt or had witnessed the explosion before they were allowed to go onshore. Davis had been awake for 50 hours at that point. He signed. Most men did. That was only the first lesson of containment.
Desperate local fishermen lined up immediately to help BP erect ocean barriers, knowing their home waters would soon be turning to ink. There was only one small catch; they had to sign BP’s forms. What a pyrrhic choice. Either sit in dry dock and watch helplessly as your livelihood sinks into black poison for years, or sign away your rights and go help.
The BP public relations machine mobilized as quickly as its disaster crews. BP set up town hall meetings along the coast, ostensibly to give locals information. A litigation mitigation team—certainly not BP’s phrasing—told locals they didn’t need to hire a lawyer. Instead, just call BP’s hotline where residents could get up to $5,000 cash if—you guessed it—they just sign BP’s little form. Local mayors saw red.
By May 2rd, BP’s ‘containment efforts’ had gotten so heavy-handed Alabama’s Attorney General stepped in to tell BP to stop circulating these agreements.
“That was an early misstep George, frankly,” admitted BP CEO, Tony Hayward in a television interview for Good Morning America, reassuring viewers that the company has now put a stop to that practice. “We were using a standard contract. We’ve eliminated that.”
BP’s art of information manipulation is so much deeper than the paid bloggers that have magically popped up to mention how BP is not doing a bad job, under the circumstances.
It took 30 days of pressure from scientists and Congress before BP agreed to stream the live video feed of the ocean floor oil plume. The less we see, the better. The less experts see—is big money for BP.
BP knows that payouts from the Exxon Valdez were partially based on the volume spilled. Is it any wonder then, that BP initially told the world 1,000 barrels of oil were leaking a day? That is, until independent experts finally saw video and satellite footage and calculated more than 10 times BP’s estimates. Worse case estimates now fear this spill could be nearly 13 times bigger than Exxon Valdez. Fishing waters for 48,000 square miles have now been closed.
Local volunteers wanting to clean wildlife and collect data on the spill have been turned away for contract BP employees only. BP has huge financial incentive not to get independent damage measurements happening quickly.
BP-employed clean up workers have been specifically told not to talk to media, though many have. Some angry ones reported that BP initially told them the crude they were swimming around in to move barriers early on was red tide or dishwashing-liquid runoff, reports Mother Jones.
BP CEO Tony Hayward told website viewers, “I am absolutely clear that we will be judged by our response…and I am determined that we do the right thing, we do it in the right way and we communicate in an open and transparent way to all of our stakeholders, and that’s what I want to be judged by and I’m sure all of BP wants to be judged by.” Those were BP’s words.
BP’s actions: This week the company planned to turn off the video feed of the seabed cameras during the ‘Top Kill’ procedure to contain the spill. The Obama administration had to force BP to keep it on. It was as transparent as the waters of the Gulf.
Start judging now.