Extinction Rebellion’s virtue-signalling hypocrisy undermines climate crisis cause

GUEST POST: Stephen Lynch is a PR and Public Affairs Consultant, and former Press Adviser to The Conservative Party. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Extinction Rebellion are now censoring the press in their pursuit of halting mass extinction. It’s also a peculiar time to stretch the precious resources of the emergency services, and deprive family newsagents of income during the prolonged menace of Covid-19. 

Former Labour ministers reckon that XR’s latest stunt comes out of the fascistic authoritarian regime playbook. Days after attacking the free press and its freedom to publish, the group’s latest email has the chutzpah to praise the “freedom to speak truth to power” as a hallmark of a “healthy democracy”.

Ironically, XR prevented readers of The Sun newspaper this weekend from hearing Sir David Attenborough’s thoughts about how to tackle the climate crisis. The mission of tackling the climate crisis needs those who can build alliances, not alienate them.

XR risks being irrevocably labelled as a left-wing, anarchist group of affluent activists more concerned with parading their morality on social media than effectively dealing with the complexity of the climate crisis. They face being officially classified as an organised crime organisation, with all the invasive surveillance that entails. Their blockades of printworks risk damaging the very cause the group is supposed to be supporting.

XR’s website says their struggle is not about left or right, yet they targeted every right-of-centre newspaper in their salvo against the “crooked billionaire press”. Their literature claims that XR avoids “blaming and shaming” any one individual, yet their recent emails attack Rupert Murdoch and “corrupt media moguls and dodgy politicians.”

XR misleadingly pushes the illogical notion to their followers that the UK government is sanguine about, or otherwise deliberately accelerating climate change. 

Prior to Covid-19 and after leaving the EU, achieving net zero became one of the government’s two overarching priorities, along with “levelling up” the nations and regions. Last year, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law ending its contribution to global warming by 2050; the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G20 country; it is the world’s biggest producer of offshore wind energy; it has cut emissions by 42 per cent since 1990.

There is always more to do, and few in Whitehall or in industry are complacent about sustainability.

Next November, 30,000 delegates, including heads of state and climate experts, will gather in Glasgow to agree coordinated international action for tackling the climate crisis at COP26. 

It will be the first time that the UK has taken on the presidency of this UN conference, and our government will want to lead the gathering with a powerful pledge and a message to other countries that it is time to step up.

The international community also hopes we will lead with a strong commitment on our own emissions so we will have credibility in encouraging other countries to follow suit.

The Met Office’s State of the Climate report this summer illustrates that over the last decade, summers and winters have been around 12 per cent wetter. Four new high-temperature records were registered in 2019, including the highest UK temperature.

Despite the UK’s achievements, there is a compelling case for action, especially as global carbon emissions have more than doubled since 1971. The question is how best can we make a genuine difference on this planet?  

China is responsible for more than one-quarter of all global carbon emissions, and along with the United States, India, Russia and Japan, the biggest polluters account for over half of all emissions.

This seems like a good place to start if you are serious about creating change.

The delayed COP26 also gives XR the opportunity to potentially influence a new administration in Washington, and one that would be more committed to the Paris Agreement at that.

Joe Biden has pledged to integrate climate change fully into US policy on trade and foreign affairs. A stronger believer in alliances, if he is elected president, he could also opt to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the UK to form the world’s greatest trading bloc, where the environment is an integral aspect, not an optional add-on.

XR should form partnerships with NGOs in these highest-emitting countries and seek to influence in a more convincing, mature, and legal way.

The global spotlight on Glasgow will help focus delegates’ attention, laser-like, on the task at hand.  

XR’s first demand is for the media and politicians to “tell the truth” about the global ecological emergency. Dale Carnegie’s best-selling books on persuasion do not recommend starting a negotiation by publicly questioning the other side’s honesty and integrity.  

XR can engage more effectively and professionally with the proceedings – coffees, meeting agendas and informed discussion rather than handcuffs, tantrums and disruption motivated by self-appointed moral superiority. Lobbying is making the right argument, to the right person, at the right time. XR can make a strategic shift away from civil disobedience and towards civil engagement and debate in Glasgow, Scotland’s Dear Green Place, next year.

Protest can put critical issues on the agenda, but you need lawmakers and policies to make the change. We have the means to act. The UK is in prime position to coordinate, cajole and enable the substantial political will required. We can begin to finally turn the tide against decades of complacency, for which there may be an awfully high cost.

XR can be a help, not a hindrance in a long campaign that will ultimately be won with advanced diplomacy, persuasion and technology – not by casting aspersions on the intelligence of the people whose support you need, or on the motives of the people who will legislate the change.

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This piece was written for The Independent.

Don’t mention the C-word!

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

Great Britain? Seemingly, the British are even ‘great’ at censoring and cancelling, rather than conserving, things. The shame! Certain foods, people, statues and words – there are too many to cite – have all made the banned inventory. Now, as reported in The Sunday Times, “The BBC is discussing whether to drop “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” from the Last Night of the Proms in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Don’t even go there, my friend.

Be that as it may, I do like a good trend and – since absolutely everyone’s doing it – I’m going to jump on the bandwagon. Let’s ban that hideous C-word… No, not that one! Nor conservatives, communications, Christianity or cancer. I’m referring to Coronavirus, Covid-19, or as President Trump (and others) often refer to it: the China, or sometimes Chinese, virus. You’ll be glad to know this blog isn’t about semantics.

Whatever your preferred turn of phrase, the alternative Big C has overtaken the weather and Brexit as the most talked about topic – of the year, decade, century and perhaps millennium – and is no doubt the biggest trend in Google search history. It’s all our relatives, friends, colleagues and clients are discussing. Whenever you switch on the radio, pick up a newspaper or scroll social media – morning, noon or night – it’s there. Non-stop. Enough already!

As much as I wanted to take part in the Great British Staycation (with God as my witness) – I had my heart set on South Wales or Cornwall – we decided to swap England for A Room with a View in Italy to avoid the perpetual drip, drip, drip of doom and gloom. I’m guessing Boris, Carrie, Wilfred and Dylan are wishing they’d done the same too! What a sad state of affairs that the British Prime Minister can’t enjoy a break in these Isles after a very eventful few months.

And so, we headed to Lombardy – the European epicentre of the disease – and from there we toured Umbria, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Here’s the thing: the Italians have mastered face-covering and hand-washing; they’ve incorporated them into daily life. Few moan about it. The same cannot be said of Italian driving: indicating is an optional activity and tail-gating remains a national pastime! Point being, the Italians are living again and Brits should follow suit.

It’s great that folk are taking advantage of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme (which is due to run out next Monday), retail sales are above pre-pandemic levels and some businesses are encouraging employees to go back to the office. Oh my goodness we need to crack on dot com. But, while the government, companies and media have roles to play in setting the mood, planning for the future and not sensationalising news, individuals need to accept some personal responsibility. In my opinion, it starts by banning the C-word!*

*I realise this isn’t a realistic proposition, however.

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This piece was written for our website.

The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

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This piece was written for our website.