How the G8 is spun

LONDON Freelance Branch invited Lucy Michaels of Corporate Watch to set the scene for the G8 summit in July. We got an info-blast about the G8. As journalists, we need to be aware of the analysis that for the past year the Scottish media have been busily winnowing protesters into a "good" camp that supports Blair and Brown but just wants them to try harder - and a "bad" camp that sees capitalism and the G8 itself as the problem, not the solution. We need to pay more attention to the small print in the agreements: how much privatisation of health, education and essential services is the price of the debt relief in the press release top paragraph, for example?

I've been asked to give some background on the G8, and the media coverage and political spin surrounding its forthcoming Gleneagles Summit. I will also give you some background on my research on direct corporate involvement in the G8 process, which explains some of my scepticism around the whole process. I work with Corporate Watch. We are a small independent research group based in Oxford who aim to expose and highlight the behaviour of large corporations. We recently joined the Oxford Branch of the NUJ which makes it especially exciting to be here today.

What is the G8?

The G8 has been part of the architecture of global governance since 1975, when six countries met in Rambouillet, France to discuss the turbulence in the global economy as a result of the 1974 oil shocks. Canada joined in 1976. The G8 is not a policy-making body; rather a forum for building consensus between the seven most industrialised countries in the world and Russia (with its huge oil reserves).

Despite the serious political differences between the world leaders on a raft of issues, the G8 meetings and the communiqués and declarations that come out of them are intended as a way of reassuring everyone that ultimately they all agree. Its these images beamed across the world, of the world leaders looking relaxed in their linen suits, that are supposed to reassure us - and the markets - that everything is just fine. This is why the media presence at the G8 is vital to the proper functioning of the event, which will see 5000 of the world's journalists descend on Gleneagles.

The nature of the G8 as a photo-opportunity is reinforced by the fact that the company hired to run the media centre, which will be at the Equestrian Centre in Gleneagles, is Jack Morton Worldwide. This "experiential marketing agency", based in New York, is part of the massive PR conglomerate, Interpublic. In its own words, JMW "creates experiences to improve performance, increase sales and build brands". Other clients include: General Motors, Bank of America, IBM, Pfizer, Gillette, McDonald's and CNN. This is the same company that orchestrated the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Athens: I'm sure we can expect some razamatazz on the PR front.

Leaders' place in history

In recent years, especially since the massive Jubilee 2000 demonstrations in Birmingham, the G8 has also been an opportunity for the world leaders to establish their place in history through tackling the pressing global issues of the day. This is certainly true of Tony Blair, who seems desperate to win some kind of agreement on Africa and on climate change. One might say cynically that this would ensure that his legacy was not the disastrous Iraq War and its aftermath. Having won an agreement at the weekend to write off 100% of the debt in 18 of the poorest countries, he is now shuttling around the world on a charm offensive to press for a commitment on further aid to Africa.

The main G8 process has been active since the beginning of the year, with ministerial meetings around the country and the world. The Africa Commission started work last Spring. This has produced a "will they, won't they?" dynamic - and a "will he, won't he?" dynamic in the case of Bush on climate change. That helps produce a sense of things building up to an crescendo with the Summit in Gleneagles in three weeks' time.

The British media, and especially the Scottish media, have certainly been building up for this since last year. They have found plenty to talk about. In recent weeks, both the right-wing and the left-wing media has enjoyed pulling apart the Make Poverty History coalition and Saint Bob Geldof.

Shall burning wood come to Dunsinane?

The story that has obsessed the right-wing Scottish media - particularly The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald - for the past year has been the shadowy anarchists who are coming up to Scotland to cause destruction. Stories of infiltration, intimidation and Molotov cocktails have filled their pages. This blatant misrepresentation and exaggeration seems to be aimed at everyone except Make Poverty History campaigners: especially G8 Alternatives, a coalition of socialist groups, including Globalise Resistance and CND; and Dissent!, a mobilisation of non-hierarchical activist and anarchist networks. If the media stopped and listened, they would find out that Dissent! is mainly focused on several exciting positive community-based projects highlighting alternative ways of organising society contrasting with the G8 and the neoliberal economic system.

Of course, all this talk of rioting is not the message that the Scottish Executive has been wanting to promote: that is that the G8 coming to Scotland is a great opportunity to showcase Scottish business. Last week Jack MacConnell, the Scottish First Minster, actually called on the media to "stop winding people up" about the potential for violence at the Gleneagles summit.

I believe these confused messages about the possible nature of the protests have actually been an orchestrated spin campaign by Blair and his spin doctors. The aim is to ensure that the Make Poverty History protesters come across as the "good protesters" supporting the UK government in its efforts to persuade the other world leaders to support the New Labour cause for greater aid, debt relief and trade for Africa. The "bad protesters", who have an equally legitimate right to protest, are the ones who suggest that that it is the current economic system that has contributed to impoverishing Africa and creating climate change - and that the G8 is a cornerstone of that system.

They speak of Africa and golden joys

From my research into the G8 and the likely outcomes, I have found very little to convince me that, despite the debt relief recently announced, things are really looking up in terms of poverty reduction and social justice in Africa and for climate justice. I'm afraid, Ladies and Gentleman, I am a bad protestor.

The reason I have very little faith in the G8's proposed solution to these problems, is that despite their disagreements, all the world leaders agree that corporations and industrial growth will be Africa's salvation and the solution to climate change.

Take climate change. Last September Tony Blair announced, "there are immense business opportunities in sustainable growth and moving to a low carbon economy". His view is reinforced by a G8 communiqué on climate change, leaked a few weeks ago, that focuses on the technological "opportunities" offered by climate change - such as hydrogen power and low carbon vehicles. There will be G8 funding for companies to develop these technologies and clear commercial opportunities. Much to the dismay of environmentalists, the communiqué contained no concrete targets for G8 countries to cut carbon dioxide emissions, no calls for "no new oil" to be extracted and nothing about the "developed world" rethinking its consumption levels.

With Bush's well-known scepticism on climate change, if no agreement is forthcoming, this issue will be quietly dropped from the agenda. Of course, there will be no mention of the fact that 6 July is anniversary of Piper Alpha, the worst offshore oil disaster in history and a clear example of corporate negligence that saw 167 Scottish lives lost.

Take Africa. Haiko Alfeld, Africa Director of the World Economic Forum, recently commented that "Business has an enormous interest if $25bn per year is to flow into Africa... clearly, that will unleash enormous potential and business opportunities on the continent". Business is clearly thrilled by the outcome of Blair's Commission for Africa (CfA), which essentially recommends that the continent should embrace free trade and make itself a perfect climate for investment.

The CfA also proposes funding for African governments to form Public-Private Partnerships with multinationals to develop their infrastructure. It totally ignored the strong and unambiguous critiques of forced trade liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation in Africa made by the UK development NGOs in formal submissions.

It is interesting that this weekend only Inter Press Service News Agency bothered to read the final declaration of the G8 Finance minsters. It was widely reported that the G8 will be writing off 100% of the debt of 18 of the world's poorest countries. But there was hardly any mention of the fact that this comes as part of a raft of measures calling on those countries to "boost private sector development and attract private sector investment both domestic and foreign". Countries, like Nigeria, that have instigated International Monetary Fund "Structural Adjustment Programmes" - that include privatisation of public services, and in Uganda charges for school attendance - are given extra sweeteners.

Big Business couldn’t have got much of a better deal if it had written the report itself. But then that’s actually not far from the truth.

Corporate involvement in the Commission for Africa

The US-based Corporate Council on Africa represents 85% of all US private sector investment in Africa. It commented in January, "This is the first time a G8 president has formally sought ideas from the U.S. private sector to shape discussion at a G8 Summit".

As the CCA suggest, corporations have had unprecedented access to policy-making at this G8. In July 2004, a "Business Contact Group" was established by Gordon Brown and Reuters chairman, Niall Fitzgerald, to involve corporations in the CfA consultation process. The list of the 16 or so corporations involved on the Business Contact Group is a roll-call of some of the most destructive and exploitative corporations who operate across the Continent including De Beers, Rio Tinto, Shell, Unilever, British American Tobacco, GlaxoSmithKline, Anglo-American and Diageo.

Anglo American is a company who have taken a leading role shaping the CfA. Last week they co-hosted the Africa Business Summit along with strategic partners including Coca Cola, Pfizer and Microsoft. The aim of the Summit was to promote the business opportunities presented by the Commission for Africa. But the week turned into a public relations disaster for Anglo American, when it was accused by Human Rights Watch of developing links and making payments to a warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to gain access to rich gold reserves. Human Rights Watch claim that fighting between armed groups for control of the gold reserves has cost thousands of lives and resulted in massive human rights atrocities.

Quis bibet?

The other company that will be laughing itself under the table is UK drinks multinational, Diageo. The G8 really is their lucky day. Diageo is one of Africa's biggest corporations - recall that Nigeria is at least the third largest market for Guinness. Diageo will have unrivalled lobbying access to put across its vision for Africa, not only because of its involvement in the CfA Business Contact Group, but also because it owns the Gleneagles Hotel where the G8 Summit is taking place.

After the CfA report was published in March 2005, the "Business Contact Group" evolved into Business Action for Africa, a well-coordinated platform for multinational interests in Africa. These same companies are taking the lead at the official G8 business summit, which will be held in London on the eve of the G8 and chaired by former Shell boss and Anglo-American chairman, Sir Mark Moody Stuart. He's most famous among environmentalists for successfully lobbying at the Johannesburg Earth Summit against regulation of corporations, through the cannily similarly named "Business Action on Sustainable Development".

I hope this critique has highlighted who's really setting the agenda at the G8 and why we aren't hearing about it. Corporate Watch has produced extensive materials on corporate involvement in and around the G8 – including our report, Bringing the G8 Home: Corporate involvement in and around the G8 and our map looking at Scotland plc and the G8. We also have a long profile of Diageo on our website: www.corporatewatch.org.

Last modified: 22 June 2005 - © 2005 contributors
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