Sydney Morning Herald
February 28, 2001
Corporate spin and lies: a spymaster's lament, and a warning to us all
John le Carré has issued a timely warning that international conglomerates don't always consider the public's best interests, says Paul Sheehan.

Feeling brainwashed? The world's most famous spy, John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) thinks you should be.

"We have become the creatures of these people. Advertising as news. It's prevalent in every aspect of the press. It's very skilfully done. The amount of energy and money and ingenuity applied to corporate spin and corporate lying has never been greater or more effective than it is now."

"These people" are big corporations. "The biggest delusion of our time is that great corporations have an ethical centre. They have absolutely no ethical or moral centre," he told me during a visit to Sydney this week. He's not just talking about marketing and branding and corporate spin-doctoring. In his new novel, The Constant Gardener, he argues that big pharmaceutical corporations have blood on their hands while, on the surface, everything they do is according to law.

In his conversation with me, he cited big oil companies: "The civil war in south Sudan now is being fuelled, literally, by the oil industry. The deal that the oil companies have cut with [the Sudanese military government in] Khartoum is that Khartoum will let them build runways, let them explore for oil, and in return will receive royalties and get to use the runways for its aircraft to bomb villages. It gets money for guns and soldiers to go and shoot the Africans in the south...

"And how the hell did Shell Oil get away with what they did in Nigeria? It is exactly the way I saw it in The Constant Gardener: you delegate responsibility to local management. You even sell off various concessions so that you basically disown them. And what happens on the ground, that's explained away as the local ethic: 'When in Rome'; 'We don't interfere'; 'We're terribly concerned that things should be done fairly and constitutionally according to the law of the land'. That was what happened in Nigeria under that monstrous dictatorship."

Did he say Shell Oil company?

One of the world's biggest energy conglomerates, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, is attempting to take control of Australia's largest energy development, the North-West Shelf natural gas and oil field via the takeover of Woodside Petroleum by Shell Oil. Everything about this deal is big. Royal Dutch/Shell is a British/Dutch corporate behemoth, with a market capitalisation of $US206 billion ($391 billion). That's almost as big as the entire Australian stock market. For Shell Oil, this is another strategic asset play. For Australia, the North-West Shelf is the nation's largest energy source, its largest development project, and it will have an impact on the nation's balance of payments for a generation.

It does not help Shell that in 1996 a former company official, Bopp van Dessel, the former head of Shell's environmental studies, went public with this claim: "They were not meeting their own standards, they were not meeting international standards. Any Shell site that I saw was polluted. Any terminal I saw was polluted."

Also in 1996, The New York Times reported that Shell may have damaged the reputation of a prominent Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, prior to his execution by Nigeria's military government. Saro-Wiwa had led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni Peoples, which campaigned against environmental damage caused by Shell and other oil companies in the Ogoni region and against human rights abuses committed there by the Nigerian military.

Shell suspended operations in the Ogoni region in 1993 after civil unrest, but it continued to produce about half of Nigeria's crude oil output. The company put out a statement that it was "not for a commercial organisation like Shell to interfere in the legal processes of a sovereign State such as Nigeria".

Sounds like a John le Carré novel. Which brings us back to the decreasingly sovereign state of Australia. The choice now is whether to send a signal that might discourage foreign investment. Or would Australians prefer that the key decisions about the North-West Shelf be made in boardrooms in London and the Hague, or in Australia?

For most Australians, that's a rhetorical question. As the two recent State elections have shown (yet again), the natives are restless. They want blood. And oil.