The Guardian’s not-so-subtle bias against Arctic development

August 21, 2015 in Blog

As plans for Arctic drilling continue to progress, coverage and debate on the subject has intensified. One publication in particular, the Guardian, has devoted a significant amount of attention to the issue. The paper proudly touts the “critical acclaim for both the quality of its journalism and … innovation” it has received. Further examination however, suggests that its reporting is anything but objective.

Since January 2015, it has produced 27 articles about Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic.  Of those, almost 80% were either explicitly opposed or negatively orientated to development. These include no fewer than 5 opinion pieces where the paper expressed strong opposition to what it termed as “Shell’s disastrous Arctic drilling”. While more than half of the paper’s coverage has focused on protests against drilling, it has not featured a single pro-development piece, nor given relevant information to the value in newfound energy and the associated jobs.

Several themes are evident throughout its coverage, most of which serve to spread misinformation, exaggerate risks or give more credence to green groups than industry regulators. For example, environmental NGO Greenpeace is a mainstay in coverage, mentioned 44 times and featured in 19 out of the 27 articles written.  To put that in perspective, the government agencies responsible for approving Shell’s drilling plans and ensuring safety were quoted only eight times.

Another tactic used to generate uncertainty is to continually reference hypothetical scenarios as if they are guaranteed to happen. In one telling statistic, the Guardian mentioned “spills” 57 times, while intimating on several occasions that a catastrophic accident was essentially imminent.

To substantiate that claim, the paper cited a report from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) that stated a spill was 75% likely to occur if drilling proceeded in the Arctic eight times. Missing from its coverage was the fact that the study has been so frequently misunderstood that the agency itself published a subsequent fact sheet clarifying the findings.  At no point did the paper confirm that the 75% statistic does not refer to Shell’s Arctic drilling plans, nor did it cover BOEM’s clarification. The clarification states clearly that, “Even in BOEM’s hypothetical scenario, the data suggest that a large spill in the exploration phase is very unlikely”.

While the paper has referenced the potential reserves predicted by the US Geological Survey (estimated as 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas resources) eight times in its coverage this year, those reference have been outweighed by the 14 descriptions of the possible threats to the “sensitive” and “fragile” environment. On a further 14 occasions it has suggested that Shell could suffer financial failure as a result of the project, an almost 4:1 ratio in total, against development.

Perhaps the most telling proof of the publication’s agenda comes in the shape of its “Keep it in the Ground” campaign.  In a section featured prominently on the environmental page, the paper makes crystal clear its view: “The coming debate is about two things: what governments can do to attempt to regulate, or otherwise stave off, the now predictably terrifying consequences of global warming beyond 2C by the end of the century. And how we can prevent the states and corporations which own the planet’s remaining reserves of coal, gas and oil from ever being allowed to dig most of it up. We need to keep them in the ground.” Running a paper as an opinion piece bullhorn is hardly news.

Despite its claim to top quality journalism, it is clear that the Guardian’s articles place less emphasis on fair and objective reporting and more on advocacy. Using its platform to promote its own views, it deliberately and systematically skews the evidence and in so doing makes it impossible to have a genuine debate about the merits of Arctic oil and gas development. In short the paper’s position bears little resemblance to the word journalism as we know it.