In May 2010, Rory McKinnon and I broke the story that Glenn Inwood, a lobbyist for Japanese whaling, was running an astroturfing campaign for Imperial Tobacco in New Zealand. Inwood operated a group called the Association of Community Retailers, which claimed to represent small retailers, but was in fact bankrolled by Big Tobacco to fight tobacco regulation and taxes (among, ominously, other things).
Imperial Tobacco admitted to a Select Committee that they paid Inwood to do this, and this fact was widely reported.
We were mightily pleased with ourselves.
But the ACR continued to put out press releases as if nothing had happened. I thought Glenn Inwood was just doing it to save face. I mean, why would you continue to spend money on an organisation which was thoroughly exposed as a fake? It's not like our journalistic establishment would just *forget* that the press release supposedly from Murray of Murray's Barbershop and Beauty Salon in Timaru is actually from a professional PR company paid for by Big Tobacco.
Um, right? Guys?
Since our original story (and excluding those original stories on Inwood and Imperial Tobacco's admission), 36 stories were published in mainstream media which mentioned the ACR or one of its spokespersons.
8 of these were credited to NZPA. After writing about Imperial Tobacco's admission, they forgot about it a month later and started doing copy-paste jobs with ACR press releases. And when they didn't do copy-paste jobs, it was even worse. In this story, they took the ACR press release and went back to ACR for more comment so they could flesh out a 400-word story with no opposing voice, and no mention of ACR's backers.
Then, in September 2010, news broke that Australian Big Tobacco spent $6m on an astroturfing group called the Alliance of Australian Retailers. This reminded NZPA that the same thing happened here. The wording they used in that story was:
[the ACR] was also revealed to have received support from the tobacco industry.
On 3 November, it was watered down to:
The ACR has faced accusations of being a front for tobacco companies. It has said no tobacco company has a say in its public and political strategy of the ACR.
On 4 November:
There has been speculation about links between the ACR and the tobacco industry.
And then they were simply "retailers".
The confession became revelation, then accusation, then speculation, then nothing. The fact that Imperial Tobacco said they paid a PR company to run this group simply faded from NZPA's institutional memory and ceased to be fact. Though to be fair to the late NZPA, no other organisation even mentioned the Imperial Tobacco/Inwood link since the original story.
And that was the last time the Imperial Tobacco/Inwood link was mentioned. There's been 18 stories about the ACR since 4 November. For all intents and purposes, the ACR was once again a genuine grassroots group of community retailers.
Radio New Zealand needs to cop some flak too. Their bulletins desk also churned out 8 stories on the ACR during this period, 3 of them lifted straight out of ACR's press releases. (3 November 2010, 4 November 2010, 14 July 2011. These were RNZ Newswire stories, which are not available online.) Their saving grace was that they were short.
The most dishonourable mention goes to the Timaru Herald, which ran 6 ACR stories during this time. It's no coincidence that one of the ACR's founders, Murray Gibson, is based in Timaru. Gibson is often quoted in the Timaru Herald as a local tobacconist, even as he recites his ACR lines. It's not like they didn't know: They ran a story which was a lengthly denial from Gibson about the Imperial Tobacco links, after Imperial Tobacco's admissions.
It seems that the Timaru Herald made a conscious decision that Gibson and the ACR were okay; that Imperial Tobacco only paid Inwood to provide "support" and ACR was really an independent group representing retailers.
Inwood's firm is a PR firm. It's just not plausible that the "support" Imperial Tobacco is paying for is anything *but* PR. (Though Inwood does provide some literally above-and-beyond premium services.)
It's not plausible that this steady stream of press releases is written by someone who doesn't do it for a living. It's not plausible that Richard Green, Murray Gibson, Ashok Darji and Dipal Desai all have perfect grammar, write to 400-word word-limits in 50-word paragraphs, quote themselves in news style, and use the Oxford comma.
The words that comes out of the ACR are clearly written by a PR firm paid for by a tobacco company, for the purposes of fighting tobacco control laws for the benefit of that tobacco company.
To report their words as "retailers say" is fundamentally a lie.
It's not a coincidence that, just like in the rest of the world, the ACR main messages are that "tobacco control won't stop smoking" and "tobacco taxes = organised crime". It all comes from the same playbook.
And it's not a coincidence that they just happen to be in small towns. Using small town shopowners is a deliberate strategy that's been used in the UK, Australia and America. It allows them to easily build relationships with soft local media, which sets them up as good 'talent', which then allows them to go on national media (like TVNZ's Breakfast) as good honest country folk.
But TVNZ, if it makes you feel any better, the *BBC* does it too. Here is Debbie, talking to BBC Business about her tobacconist shop in Whitstable, a seaside town in Northeast Kent. Here is her Twitter feed, where she is self-described as:
Owner and manager of an independent family-owned shop. As well as running the business with my brother I campaign on small business-related issues.
And this is the homepage for the UK Tobacco Retailers Alliance. Look on the left, just below their Youtube channel. Debbie's Twitter feed *is* the TRA feed. She is basically TRA's avatar - and she has some serious PR juice. And who is TRA? No prizes for guessing:
The Tobacco Retailers Alliance is funded by the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA) which means we can offer a free membership to all independent retailers who sell tobacco, and we campaign on issues of relevance to both their businesses and to the industry.
Unlike the ACR, they're pretty transparent about being wholly funded by Big Tobacco. Yet, even the BBC didn't bother to Google her name, or they made a decision similar to the Timaru Herald's.
The story was about the black market for tobacco - an issue that Big Tobacco push hard on. It's in their interest because a) smuggled cigarettes are a direct competition, b) it allows politicians to "do something" about tobacco, without hurting their profits, c) it lets them set up the story as organised-crime smugglers vs responsible corporate tobacco - and lets them be the good guy for once.
When I first did this story, I was caught up with the subterfuge aspect (which, being honest, was way more fun than counting news clippings). We only had the story because Inwood used his own PO box for the ACR. Without it, they could tell whatever lies they wanted, and we couldn't have known - let alone prove - anything.
It seemed like quite a problem, the idea that so much of our news comes from groups which could be hiding all kinds of interests and agendas.
Turns out, the problem isn't "what are they hiding?", but "does anyone give a shit?".
What this has shown is that even when the agenda is Big Tobacco's, even when the connection is the second result on a Google search, even when their own organisation has reported on it, even when it's stated plainly on their website, even then, the PR industry can get their stories printed with no scrutiny.
It's a complete and utter rout.
You know, some of my best friends are journalists. And I like to think that they are the better ones. They always complain that they're under pressure and under-resourced, and that this sort of shit slips through the cracks.
I'm sure it's true, but here we are, at the point where our biggest news organisations run stories without spending 10 seconds on a Google search, or asking if something makes any goddamn sense.
If Richard Green says new laws will cost him $10k for shelves, they run it. If Richard Green says new laws will cost him $27k for shelves, they run it (RNZ newswire, 14 July 2011).
How many of the facts reported in our media are this dodgy? And if there is so much that we can't trust - and we can't distinguish between what can and cannot be trusted - at what point should we simply give up?
Man, this post took a LOT of work. If you think this sort of work is useful and valuable, please consider funding it. I've started a Givealittle page for the purpose.