The corporate threat to democracy by lindayy


More Info

The corporate threat to democracy
                       Sharon Beder.               BEN MALINA                    grave danger. However, having read
  Global Spin: The Corporate Assault        Ben Malina is a science graduate the book, I am also much more aware
                on Environmentalism.         with an interest in social issues.  of the situation, and much less likely
          Scribe Publications, 1997.            He currently works for an        to fall for the thin veneer of credibili-
                                               environmental organisation.       ty/integrity/independence that cor-
   ‘This is such an important book that                                          porate interest attempt to purchase for
   I would put it on every school cur-                                           and apply to their self serving argu-
   riculum’                 John Pilger                        ments. Awareness is basically the only way to combat
                                                               the threat to democracy posed by the action of vested
   ‘The most important contribution to the environ-            (economic) interest, and the only way to save this soci-
   mental debate I have ever read’ David Edwards               ety from destroying the natural environment upon
                                                               which it depends. This is precisely why this book is so

R    arely does a book live up to the songs of praise important, and also why it is so disturbing that the pub-
     printed on its back cover. This one does. Sharon lic forum, particularly the mass media, has been so com-
Beder has written a very important and disturbing book. promised.
I urge everyone to read it — because it is not ‘just about        With all this talk of vested interests, subversion of
the environment’ (although it is a very important envi- the democratic system, and the compromising of the
ronmental book), it is about how our democracy is being integrity of the public forum, it is hard to escape the
subverted. It is about why we feel increasingly power- conclusion that the book is about a conspiracy. As much
less in our own society. Reading the book — being aware as I would like to avoid the stigma of such a claim, I
of what is happening — is the first step we, as citizens cannot, for this book is very much about how corpo-
in a democracy under threat, can take to regain control rate interests have conspired against the public’s
of our future.                                                 increasing concern for the environment in order to fur-
   In exposing the corporate assault upon environ- ther and protect their own ends.
mentalism Sharon Beder documents how the law is                   The 1995 edition of the Australian Concise Oxford
being systematically abused for political ends and how Dictionary defines conspiracy as ‘a secret plan to com-
corporate interests have compromised the integrity and mit a crime or do harm, often for political ends’. The
diversity of opinion expressed in the public forum. Thus corporate activity detailed in the book is secret in the
the book is one of several that deals with the corporate sense that it is rarely reported and certainly not publi-
subversion of the democratic system, placing Beder cised (though I don’t know how often the protagonists
amongst the likes of Noam Chomsky, John Ralston Saul meet in deserted warehouses). The ends are definitely
and John Pilger. Her work complements the work of political, and they certainly involve harming or defeat-
these esteemed thinkers, in that she focuses upon a spe- ing democratic principals, systems, and processes. Some
cific issue which corporate interests feel threatened by of the methods are verging on the criminal, in the sense
— the public’s increasing awareness of and concern for that they break the spirit of the law (though perhaps
the environment — and documents the corporate not so often the letter).
response. She provides reasoned, elegant, and impec-              However the important and interesting distinction
cably argued theories regarding the threat to democ- is that although, particularly at the smaller scale, many
racy posed by increasingly powerful and unregulated of the outcomes are very much part of a plan (ie a result
corporations not only with evidence of their subversion of the conscious and coordinated efforts of individu-
of the democratic system, but a veritable case study of als and organisations), some of the outcomes, particu-
how their power over democracy is gained and how it larly those at the larger scale, are probably not planned
is used to hinder those democratic movements (in this as such (ie not the result of a conscious and coordinated
case the environmental movement) which corporate effort) but rather a more cultural phenomenon, an emer-
interests perceive as a threat.                                gent property of inherently selfish acts. For instance, if
   After having read this book I am convinced that the allowed to, those in powerful positions tend to appoint
democratic system and thus the environment are in underlings that will further, or at least not hinder, their

                                       AUSTRALIAN RATIONALIST • Number 50                                     PAGE 39
cause (for example a powerful media tycoon is unlike-          highly credible and damning information. Indeed her
ly to approve of the appointment of an editor who views        book is in a sense the investigation of a conspiracy the-
lack of media diversity as a threat to democracy). This        ory.
is precisely one of the phenomena John Ralston Saul               The content of the book could hardly be more cur-
talks about in his book The Unconscious Civilisation, the      rent — consider, for example, the following recent
fact that, historically, the rich/powerful/influential tend    events:
to reward and to surround themselves with (and hence           • the unmasking of deals between radio presenters and
be surrounded by) like minded individuals. Conse-                 financial institutions (and various other associations)
quently, because of their vested interest in the status quo,      to get favourable editorial coverage;
they are all likely to be in consensus regarding the           • the waterfront dispute mentioned above, brought
importance of furthering their own interests (often at            about by the federal government allegedly conspir-
the expense of the interests of others). So that the people       ing with corporate interests (the MUA website has
that the influential and powerful have day to day con-            some very telling documentation);
tact with are all likely to be pursuing similar political      • the National Association of Forestry Industries
ends.                                                             (NAFI) attempting to stop the sale of a book detail-
   Conspiracy theories are, by their very nature, diffi-          ing how you can build with eco-friendly timbers;
cult to substantiate. Currently our society seems to be        • the decision by the world heritage committee not to
enamoured with them as forms of entertainment (eg The             place Kakadu on the world heritage in danger list
XFiles, Matrix). Many of them in popular culture are so           despite the fact that all the reports from its inde-
convoluted and lacking in credible information that sup-          pendent scientific advisory board recommended that
ports the premise that they are probably furphies. Thus           it do so (after extensive lobbying by the Australian
people are becoming increasingly sceptical about such             government using approximately $1 million of
theories, and more ready to dismiss them out of hand              Australian taxpayers funds even though over two-
(myself included). However, the fact is that conspira-            thirds of the Australian population oppose the mine);
cies do occur, and some conspiracies that have been            • continuing attempts to privatise the Victorian edu-
alleged, but not substantiated or properly (ie fully and          cation system under the guise of ‘self-governing
publicly) investigated, are disturbing (eg from the still         schools’ and the fact that in at least one recent and
unresolved asassination of JKK to the recent case that            controversial case (Blackburn High School) the Vic-
the MUA filed against the government and Patrick                  torian Minister for Education brought forward the
Stevedores alleging conspiracy with regard to an                  implementation of the school council’s disputed deci-
attempt to destroy waterfront unions — unfortunate-               sion after having been presented with a petition
ly the related industrial dispute was settled separate-           signed by a significant proportion of the parent pop-
ly and part of the settlement was that the MUA would              ulation asking that the implementation be delayed
end its legal action so the evidence for conspiracy was           so that the school community could further inform
never subject to the public scrutiny of the courts).              themselves about the consequences in order to dis-
   In a democracy it is vital that alleged conspiracies           cuss and re-evaluate the decision;
are fully and publicly investigated so that real con-          • the watering down of freedom of information laws
spiracies are exposed, otherwise public confidence in             in order to protect ‘sensitive’ corporate information
‘the system’ will inevitably wain (I would suggest pub-           being threatened by the public interest (should the
lic confidence in our society is declining). We should            premier be reminded that corporations do not exist
not be paralysed by paranoia and spend all our lives              without a public, not the other way around, so the
investigating every conspiracy theory ever suggested,             public interest should be paramount?);
nor should we dismiss all theories out of hand. Ocams          • attacks upon the powers and independence of attor-
razor (the simplest explanation is usually the correct            neys general, public prosecutors, and government
one) can be a useful aid in working out which theories            auditors, etc.
are worth investigating and which are worth discussing.           Beder’s book starts by putting the current environ-
However conspiracies are not always simple and I               mental debate, or rather the lack thereof, into per-
would rather err on the side of investigating too many         spective. It provides a brief history of the fluctuating
rather than too few conspiracy theories. In the end you        fortunes of the environmental movement, sets the scene
just have to make the best decision regarding their plau-      by documenting the corporate response to each new
sibility based upon the credible information that you          turn, and reveals the extent to which that response influ-
have at hand, yet this is precisely what is classically the    enced future changes. It then launches into an exposé
trouble with regard to conspiracy theories: the lack of        of corporate front groups and focuses upon the US ‘Wise
credible information. This is why Sharon Beder’s book          Use’ movement as a prime example of groups funded
is so important. In it she unearths and presents a lot of      by corporate interests, spouting corporate propaganda,

  PAGE 40                               AUSTRALIAN RATIONALIST • Number 50
posing as public interest groups, and largely mistaken          tain, as opposed to inform, and the increasingly short
by the mass media as a independent ‘grass roots’ organ-         attention span of the viewer).
isations.                                                          Finally Beder presents a brief look at the effect all of
   Beder then examines how corporations systematically          the above are having upon democracy and the impli-
abuse the law for political ends by employing Strate-           cations this has for the environmental movement. The
gic Law Suits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) to          main, and only significant, criticism I would make of
silence public expressions of concern regarding the effect      the book is the lack of a coherent overview — partic-
of corporate activities upon the environment.                   ularly of how the various PR techniques and strategies
   Conservative think tanks, their                                                    tie in with the media.
funding sources, and their influ-                                                        I will concentrate upon the
ence upon both the general politi-                                                    abuse of the legal system — main-
cal agenda and the environmental                                                      ly because it serves as a succinct
debate in particular are exposed.                ❛corporations                        example of Beder’s style and con-
Misrepresented in the media as
independent academic organisa-               systematically abuse                     tent. I will then (very) briefly
                                                                                      examine Beder’s case for the man-
tions, and frequently quoted as
‘independent experts’ (thus lend-             the law for political                   ner in which the PR industry and
                                                                                      the mass media have compro-
ing a detached academic facade to
corporate propaganda) they have               ends by employing                       mised the public forum, which
                                                                                      forms the bulk of the book.
largely succeeded not only in cast-
ing doubt upon the urgency of
                                             Strategic Law Suits❜                      ABUSE OF THE LEGAL
environmental problems, but also                                                       SYSTEM
in defining the debate regarding                                                        Abuse of the legal system is the
possible solutions. The place of                                                        most obvious/least covert strate-
both the ‘academic’ and ‘grass-roots’ corporate front           gy employed by corporate interests; one which none the
groups in the wider corporate Public Relations (PR)             less damages the political/democratic process.
strategies are examined together with various other                The tactic used by corporations to directly prevent
media techniques.                                               environmental and community groups from partici-
   The fluctuating fortunes of dioxin regulation in the         pating in the political process is the ‘Strategic Lawsuit
USA serves as a dramatic example of how effective a             Against Public Participation’ — or SLAPP. They are
corporate assault on environmental regulation can be.           defined by Penelope Canan and George Pring (the aca-
In this case scientific uncertainty was not only exploit-       demics from the University of Denver who coined the
ed to its fullest (ie total disregard for the doctrine of the   term and have been studying such cases for over a
precautionary principle) but actually manufactured.             decade) as court actions alleging that injury has result-
Industry funded research, found not only to be biased,          ed from the efforts of non-government individuals or
but fraudulent, was successfully used in a compre-              organisations to influence government action on an issue
hensive campaign by the chlorine industry to defeat             of public interest or concern.
effective regulation of dioxin, despite the fact that not          They are generally filed in order to prevent the pub-
only did most of the other research indicated that it was       lic expression of opposing points of view, and strate-
one of the most toxic chemicals known to man but the            gic in the sense that they often have very little legal merit
public also had a healthy fear of it.                           — ie the case against the defendant (typically a com-
   Advertising techniques are next to be exposed, reveal-       munity or environmentally minded individual or
ing its central role in consumer culture, the hypocrisy         group that has publicly voiced their concerns regard-
of ‘green marketing’, the insidious influence of corpo-         ing a proposed development) is at best tenuous. Con-
rate sponsorship upon the curriculum of schools, and            sequently such cases rarely win in the legal sense. Most
the widespread use of corporate propaganda as ‘envi-            are dismissed (ie thrown out of court). Of those that are
ronmental education’.                                           heard, 77% are won by the defendants, and less than
   Corporate control over the media (not only via the           10% are ‘won’ by the accusers. According to legal experts
advertising dollar, but the fact that media outlets are         quoted in the book ‘One would be hard pressed to find
themselves corporations driven by profit) is discussed          another area of the law in which so overwhelming a
together with its implications for the culture of the mass      proportion of defendants brought into court are even-
media, the consequential lack of diversity in reporting         tually vindicated’. Thus, it would seem that the pur-
generally and environmental reporting in particular, and        pose of filing the case is not to win compensation, but
the increasingly trivial manner in which important social       to ‘harass, intimidate and distract their opponents’ —
issues are portrayed (a consequence of the drive to enter-      ie. the aims are political. Beder provides an apt

                                        AUSTRALIAN RATIONALIST • Number 50                                       PAGE 41
description of the SLAPP straight from the mouth of a          courage others, who are not actually named in the writ,
judge presiding in one such case:                              from taking any political action. It is with reference to
  ‘The conceptual thread that binds [SLAPPs] is that           this threat to democracy that Beder provides more
  they are suits without substantial merit that are            damning testimony straight from the judgement in
  brought by private interests to stop citizens from           another SLAPP case:
  exercising their political rights or to punish them for        ‘[W]e shudder to think of the chill … were we to
  having done so ... The longer the litigation can be            allow this suit to proceed. The cost to our society in
  stretched out, the more litigation that can be                 terms of the threat to our liberty and freedom is
  churned, the greater the expense that is inflicted and         beyond calculation … To prohibit robust debate on
  the closer the SLAPP filer moves to success. The pur-          these questions would deprive society of the bene-
  pose of such gamesmanship ranges from simple ret-              fits of its collective thinking and … destroy the free
  ribution for past activism to discouraging future              exchange of ideas which is the adhesive of our
  activism.’                                                     democracy.’

    It is by exploiting the least desirable component of           Typical of Beder’s style, she presents a case that is
the present day legal system — the fact that involve-          not only impeccably argued and well referenced, but
ment in the courts is generally both time consuming and        documented. She cites a litany of disturbing cases —
very expensive (to the extent that it is generally beyond      from a woman being sued by a company (for $5 mil-
the means of most citizens) — that the SLAPP gains its         lion US) for referring to a landfill site as a ‘dump’ (which,
political effectiveness. Beder points out that the SLAPPs      a couple of years later, when the company closed down,
that make it to court take an average of three years to        was investigated by the EPA as a hazardous waste site
conclude, and even when the defendant wins it can cost         and required cleaning up), to another company that filed
them tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Indeed        a law suit against every single person that attended a
in its judgement on one such SLAPP, the US Supreme             town meeting to discuss a proposed development. Most
Court itself recognised that the defendant ‘will most like-    of the cases being dropped some time into the legal pro-
ly have to retain counsel and incur substantial legal          ceedings after the companies had achieved their polit-
expenses’ even if the case against them has little legal       ical objectives (ie. after those in the campaign dropped
merit, and consequently legal action (or the threat there-     out from fear or financial/emotional/mental fatigue),
of) can be used ‘as a powerful instrument of coercion          or being dropped shortly before actually going to court
or retaliation’. Thus the lawsuit is cleverly used by cor-     in order to avoid public scrutiny.
porate interests as a very effective means to achieve              Probably the most famous case is what became
political ends.                                                known as the ‘Maclibel case’ — where McDonalds sued
    Firstly, the mere threat of legal action may induce the    two unemployed activists, Dave Morris and Helen Steel,
‘defendants’ to concede to the political demands               for distributing leaflets that accused the company of,
placed upon them.                                              amongst other things, exploiting its workforce, target-
    Secondly, if the ‘defendants’ make a stand and take        ing kids in its advertisements, cruelty to animals, pro-
it to court they are then, as a matter of legal process,       ducing food of poor nutritional quality, and encouraging
often prohibited from their political activities and even      the destruction of forests through promoting cattle
if not legally prohibited they are at least distracted by      ranching in the third world. Unlike others in the UK
expensive and time consuming (not to mention stress-           that McDonalds had threatened with law suits, such as
ful) legal action for as long as they choose to continue       the BBC, Chanel 4, and the Guardian newspaper, the
their stand.                                                   activists, despite being less financially able to defend
    Thirdly, the stress (financial, mental, emotional, etc.)   themselves, decided not to be intimidated into apolo-
of the court case may eventually wear them down and            gising for and withdrawing the comments. As they had
the defendant may settle out of court just to bring an         little in the form of financial resources they ended up
end to legal proceedings.                                      representing themselves in court. It became the longest
    Finally, SLAPPs threaten the political / democratic        trial in UK legal history.
process at the societal level by discouraging other indi-          Under British libel law the accused has to prove that
viduals from publicly voicing their concerns — ie dis-         each of the supposedly libellous statements are true
couraging them from participating in the political             (unlike in the US, where the filer has to prove that they
process. Indeed research conducted by Canan and                are untrue). Despite the fact that they were up against
Pringle has shown that knowledge of the existence of           McDonalds best lawyers, the trial judge found that, in
SLAPPs makes people less likely to speak out publicly.         the end, Morris and Steel had sufficiently substantiat-
Furthermore corporate bodies often include ‘unnamed            ed several of the statements, such as the targeting of
persons’ in their writs, in an attempt to further dis-         McDonalds advertisements at children, the low wages

  PAGE 42                               AUSTRALIAN RATIONALIST • Number 50
of the McDonalds workforce, that the animals destined           marily by a kind of ideological ventriloquism — putting
to be McDonalds hamburgers suffered cruelty, and that           the arguments into the mouths of people/institu-
the hamburgers were of poor nutritional quality.                tions/authorities with important sounding titles that
However as the judge ruled that Morris and Steel had            appear to be independent of those forwarding the argu-
failed to sufficiently substantiate some of the other state-    ments. PR in this sense is nothing short of an attempt
ments, the pamphlet was declared libellous, and the             by those that can afford it to buy credibility, integrity,
defendants ordered to pay £60,000. This is actually a           and/or independence for arguments that stem from self
very unusual example of a SLAPP in that:                        interests — essentially an attempt to hide the self serv-
(1) it actually made it to court (ie the ‘defendants’ did       ing nature of the arguments. Ultimately this is only suc-
     not capitulate to the superior economic and hence          cessful if the purchase is unnoticed.
     legal force arranged against them, nor did the cor-           For instance, now that the PR deal between John
     porate interest elect to withdraw the legal action at      Laws and the banks has been exposed (thanks to the
     the last minute in order to shield their actions from      ABC’s media watch program) it is unable to buy the
     public scrutiny, nor was the charge actually thrown        banks credibility for the arguments they would have
     out of court because of a lack of legal merit), and        liked John Laws to put forward on their behalf. Hence
(2) having made it to court, the ‘defendants’ were not          the deal has been cancelled. I do not for a minute sup-
     totally vindicated.                                        pose that the deal was cancelled in order to protect the
   Whereas some American states have enacted legis-             independence of the media (or rather the illusion there-
lation in an attempt to deter such legal abuse, Beder           of). Now that the propaganda generated by the banks
notes that recent political developments in Australia —         and put forward by Laws can be identified as self serv-
particularly the cutting back of legal aid to low               ing, it destroys any credibility that Laws may have been
income litigants and the fact that, regardless of their legal   able to bestow upon the arguments, and thus there is
merit, corporate bodies can
claim legal expenses as tax
deductions — will only
serve to encourage such
frivolous legal actions.
Compromising the integri-
ty and diversity of opinion
in the public forum is the
most insidious, covert, dis-
turbing, chronic, and per-
vasive tactic employed by corporate interests.
                                                                no point in continuing with the agreement. The banks
   The bulk of the book is dedicated to revealing just
                                                                may as well just do press releases — which may in the
how extensively the public forum, particularly the mass
                                                                end be just as effective because of the increasing ten-
media, has been compromised by corporate interests
                                                                dency for the media to use them as unacknowledged
to the extent that it no longer serves its role as a corner-
                                                                sources of information (more on this later).
stone of democracy. Beder shows that the integrity and
                                                                   This is exactly the type of thing Sharon Beder dis-
diversity of opinion expressed in the public forum has
                                                                cusses in depth and documents as a common occur-
been compromised both actively , through deliber-
                                                                rence. The bulk of her book is dedicated to investigating
ate/conscious actions of the Public Relations industry
                                                                such PR and advertising strategies, ranging from front
and passively through the action of vested interest upon
                                                                groups and think tanks, to the use of the teacher as an
those who own/control the mass media.
                                                                independent front, to exploiting scientific uncertainty
(a) The public relations industry                               and vested (economic) interest to their fullest.
The public relations industry has basically compromised
the integrity of the opinion expressed in the public            (b) The Mass Media
domain by giving the illusion of independence to argu-          The diversity of opinion expressed in the public
ments that are essentially self serving. This is done pri-      forum has basically been compromised by the action

                                        AUSTRALIAN RATIONALIST • Number 50                                     PAGE 43
of vested (economic) interest upon the mass media and             circumstance, occasional aberrations, and by treat-
its culture — resulting in a form of self censorship that         ing adverse environmental impacts as isolated and
limits the scope of ‘public’ debate in the mass media.            atypical events, the media are implicitly affirming the
The constant threat of losing big advertising contracts           legitimacy of the (western) system. She makes the
means that stories that threaten corporate sponsors               insightful observation that this was not the case after
(advertisers), whether it be directly or indirectly, are less     the fall of the Soviet Union when the western media
likely to get aired. However, because of the increasingly         ‘exposed’ and portrayed the environmental disasters
corporate/conservative/tabloid culture of most ‘suc-              in the East as ‘an inevitable by-product of a cen-
cessful’/profitable (ie mass) media outlets these stories         tralised, totalitarian system’. Is the disaster at Long
are often deemed unimportant or uninteresting in the              Island inherently different from that at Chernobal?
first place (thus the censorship is commonly not even             Are the thousands of superfund sites in the US inher-
conscious). After reading the book one realises that              ently different from the sites of toxic contamination
regarding the current day mass media, particularly tele-          in the eastern block? There is no rational justification
vision, as ‘the public forum’ is itself a threat to democ-        for making such artificial distinctions — the west-
racy:                                                             ern sociopolitical systems are as much the cause of
• Much of its content is often nothing more than rewrit-          environmental problems in the west as the socio-
   ten press releases — making it a very useful PR tool.          political systems of the eastern block were to blame
   Beder quotes studies finding that even a supposed-             for their environmental problems. Yet this fact is not
   ly prestigious journal such as The Wall Street Journal         discussed in the mass media.
   often takes upwards of 50% of its content directly           • It is trivialising. Beder is one of a growing number
   from press releases (often word for word), without             of thinkers (eg Ralston Saul, Chomsky, etc) who show
   acknowledging the inherent bias in the source. This            the trivialising nature of the mass media, particularly
   provides PR strategists with exactly what they strive          television. Increasingly concerned with entertaining
   for — a way to publicise propaganda where the inher-           rather than informing, the media are not only trivi-
   ently self serving nature of the arguments is not self         alising important information (eg presenting ‘sound
   evident.                                                       bites’ rather than informed and in depth discussion
• It is unrepresentative and biased in favour of the sta-         of often complex social issues) but also giving undue
   tus quo. This is backed by numerous studies — one              importance to trivial information (eg the growing
   found that of the guests on a highly regarded US cur-          prominence of ‘infotainment’ and ‘advertorials’, not
   rent affairs show 80% were professional, government,           to mention ‘current affairs’ shows doing things like
   or corporate representatives, 5% represented public            using ‘lie-detectors’ to ‘investigate’ whether or not
   interest groups, and less that 2% represented labour           certain couples have lied to each other regarding their
   or ethnic organisations; 89% were male and 92% were            fidelity — hardly ‘an expose’, except in a voyeuris-
   white. Another study concluded that ‘while there               tic and hence disempowering sense).
   were exceptions … public television did little to high-
   light the voices of organised citizens, relegating           CONCLUSION
   activists along with members of the general public           In conclusion it can only be said that there are so many
   to the margins of political discourse’.                      reasons to read this book. It is about very and impor-
• It seems inherently unable to criticise the politi-           tant and current issues. It is a scholarly work — both
   cal/economic/corporate system of which it is part.           well written and well referenced (Beder cites over 600
   For example, Beder notes that environmental disas-           references). It is simultaneously disillusioning and
   ters in the west are always depicted as exceptional          empowering. Read it.

  PAGE 44                               AUSTRALIAN RATIONALIST • Number 50

To top