Last week I attended the climate camp – a week-long protest at Heathrow airport (which you probably have heard about if you haven’t been hiding under a rock).
Click here to read my piece in The Toronto Star about it. Check out Plane Stupid, Hacan, and the camp’s official site for more information. Click here for some photographs of the final night my friend took for the Indymedia.
I interviewed many of the leaders of the protest for several days before I visited the camp on the 14th. They were all incredibly well-informed (many of them academics, scientists and professionals), incredibly nice, and incredibly generous with their time. I had a delightful time speaking with all of them, in particular Isabelle Michel, John Stewart of Hacan, and Glen Thompson of Plane Stupid.
As always, when researching a story, you end up with an enormous amount of great information that you just can’t include – you can’t write 10,000 word news pieces. These three individuals have very few (if any) quotes in the story I ended up writing, but, for what it’s worth, I want it to be known that they gave me wonderful interviews, and I would have quoted them each 500 words apiece if it had been possible.
Throughout my phone interviews, I said to each and every one of them that I’d be visiting the camp for a full day on the 14th (my deadline was the 15th, so one day was all I could manage), and described what I looked like and that I was very excited to meet them all and experience the camp. They said, in short, sounds great, see you then.
When I arrived on the 14th I did my official press tour along with journalists from The Economist and Reuters. Dr. Simon Lewis, of the University of Leeds, was my tour guide. A forest ecologist, he knew his stuff. It was a real pleasure to meet him.
He mentioned that somebody from The Evening Standard had snuck in the previous day, masquerading as a protester. This is the story that the charlatan wrote – it’s quite nasty (and inaccurate), as everything The Evening Standard has done about the camp. This part is particularly offensive:
“The advance party of activists, mostly in their twenties or thirties – a typical bunch of students, mature students and perennially unemployed.”
Typical: lie, exaggerate and sensationalize in order to create something juicy and inflammatory so you sell more newspapers. Forget about reporting on the real issues (the impact of aviation on climate change) – that would require actual work (and might offend the shareholders – tsk). As a journalist, sometimes I am embarrassed to call myself one.
Unfortunately, by the time this story had been written, the damage had been done. The mainstream British press picked up on the bullshit, and took it for real news. If you’ve been following the story in the British tabloids, you will have seen a constant spate of stories portraying the demonstrators as nothing more than violent, drug-addled, scrappy youths, bent on nothing more than ruining the holidays of nice middle class families.
At the press conference the camp held after the media tours, the spokespeople for the camp were inundated with the most ridiculous questions, mostly from The Daily Mail and some jerk from Channel Four (I don’t have a TV, and I can’t remember his name).
“Why are you plotting on leaving fake bombs around the airport, won’t this ruin your ability to bring your message to the public?” (The answer being that the “fake bomb” report the Evening Standard had run was probably completely fabricated – the camp said they would personally make the editor of the ES a cup of tea if she could provide them with any proof. Needless to say, nobody from the ES went to the camp on this day, or any other day, as honest reporters.)
“You sound like you have all different accents, from different parts of the world – have none of you ever flown?” (For the love of… Look. This isn’t rocket science: they aren’t arguing that nobody should ever fly, they are just pointing out that we need to fly less. It’s ridiculous that a plane ticket to Scotland costs less than taking the train.)
“Why have you advised people to come in smart clothes and to bring costumes to the camp on your website.” (Because it’s FUNNY you knob. GOD.)
I was absolutely appalled by the way the campaigners were being treated by the media mob. I know the British tabloid press have a reputation for being among the scummiest in the world – but really. It was atrocious.
After the press conference we were then told we’d all have to leave the camp. Immediately. As they herded us towards the gates, I said to one of the campaign spokespeople that I desperately wanted to stay. I was going to be doing an in-depth piece on the camp, and really needed to stay for the whole day to soak up the atmosphere without the other media around. I planned to attend John Stewart’s workshop. And – above all – I’m a thoroughly ethical writer, I’m completely benign, you can check out my website in the Wifi tent… *sniff*.
Alex, a Canadian member of the media team, said, “Oh, are you Zoe?” She had checked out my site and remembered me. She asked another leader, Ben (in the photo above) to speak with me. He understood that I was trustworthy and would have liked to let me stay, but they had a strict policy now, considering the debacle with the Evening Standard: media are allowed in only for two hours a day. They couldn’t make any exceptions, they couldn’t let some people in and not others, it wouldn’t be fair.
I had to accept their decision. Even if I had been unethical enough to sneak back in and pretend to be a regular protester, with my hair and accent (and considering that I’d met all the leaders) I’d stick out like a sore thumb.
But, the organizers were nice enough to give me an extra interview with one of the media team, in private, so I could get more information – which was really quite nice, considering how busy they were setting up. I spent about half an hour sitting in the grass with Danny Chivers, who measures carbon footprints for a living, and who was very kind.
I would have quoted Danny much more in my piece, but alas, there’s only so much space. I want to print a few of his comments now however. He has a lot to say, and more of it needs to be heard.
I commented that the vibe at the camp is really fun.
“I wouldn’t want to be part of any movement that wasn’t having fun along the way and I’m sure other people wouldn’t either – it’s a really powerful tool for getting people to stay involved,” he responded. “We don’t have this message that you have to give up everything you like, and you must live in a shed, and you must only use burning cow dung for fuel – this is nonsense too. It’s about showing people how to re-structure communities so that there are more interesting things to do rather than sit slumped in front of the TV for hours. It’s actually about interacting with real people, which ultimately is what makes us happy.”
Having fun, being with other people, and working communally with other people, he said, was totally central to the way the camp worked – and why it could succeed.
“We can’t wait for businesses and governments to sort out our carbon emissions, because they are locked into these economic models based on endless economic growth on a finite planet. Based on the idea that we can somehow shop our way out of climate change [with the rise of “green” consumer products]. Based on the idea that we can somehow use various dodgy scary massive technofix solutions [such as the recent idea of chucking iron particles into the sea], or that we can set up carbon markets that so far haven’t made the tiniest amount of difference on emissions while allowing everyone who is rich to stay rich. Essentially they are defending their interests. That’s only going to be challenged by building a movement from the grassroots. And that’s what it feels like. The only place I have ever felt that was at the climate camp – last year and this year.”
Chivers was a very inspired young man. Idealistic, perhaps. But informed and inspired. It was hard to disagree with him. We had a lovely time talking. Although I did not get to stay and enjoy the energy and the experience of the camp, he did infuse me with some of the optimism and positivity that everyone else who visits it enjoys. And I thank him for it.
On Saturday, long after I had filed my piece, Danny called me, very distraught. “I’m so sorry,” he said. What on Earth for? “Oh, haven’t you seen the Independent today?”
Johann Hari (whose comment pieces for The Independent I always enjoy) had written a huge front cover story, with the headline (strangely absent from the online edition) “The only journalist invited inside the camp.”
What Danny says happened is this: Hari asked to be allowed into the camp, and promised that he would not write a piece about it. They stressed that they had turned away many sympathetic, well-informed journalists (like yours truly) so if he was going to come and camp he’d have to do so as a normal protester only.
Danny (and the other leaders I’m sure) was furious. And he was beside himself – very apologetic that I had had to leave only to see this piece in the Independent. Knowing what journalists are like (I’ve seen the profession turn genuinely sweet people into scum), I had no trouble believing Danny, and I told him not to worry. He said people at the camp were so upset about it that they were considering having no media whatsoever next year.
I didn’t say this to him on the phone at the time, it was not the right time to say this, but I’ll say it now.
For the love of god. Don’t ban all media. To do so would be, well, naive.
To ban all media would be utterly futile. They will find ways to sneak reporters in – there are always new, unknown, ambitious journalists willing to do the dirty work to get ahead. And to ban all media would make enemies of otherwise neutral or sympathetic writers. Just check out this piece by the Guardian’s excellent writer John Vidal to see what I mean.
There are a lot of scummy journalists out there – but there are a lot of good ones as well. To exclude us all from the camp would prevent the message from reaching the good ones, those who specialize in delivering important information to the public at large. Moreover, to try and draw a distinction between “corporate” and “independent” media is an utterly false dichotomy. The line between the two is blurry at best. I write for The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star – but I also write for Shameless (for free) and for This Magazine (for a pittance). So what does that make me, Indy Star or Corporate Scum?
I know the media can be shifty and untrustworthy – believe me I know.
But climate change is, truly, the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced. This isn’t hyperbole, this is fact. The important thing is to get the message to as many people as possible, to motivate as many people as possible to act. This isn’t about principles or ideology – this is about being pragmatic, and doing whatever needs to be done to get the information out there and to find solutions (fast). And I’m afraid the only way to do that is to let in the bad with the good, the tabloid trash with the responsible reporters. The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail may have published a load of rubbish – but along with them there were many good reporters who delivered the real message to the entire world.
Which is pretty spectacular, isn’t it? They numbered no more than 1,500, huddled in a field in the rain, drinking herbal teas and debating the best way to make a compost toilet. And their message reached the entire world that they were trying to save.