Arrested Development

On 18th February 2017 the Daily Telegraph published an article with the title “Cuadrilla takes shale activist row to Government as local firms lose out“.

In the article the reporter, Jillian Ambrose, states that

“Cuadrilla boss Francis Egan has raised concerns with officials in the Home Office, asking that police are given greater clarity on the laws surrounding protest action so that police are able to protect local businesses.”

However, she then went on to state that “There have been a dozen arrests related to verbal death threats and physical assault against workers at Cuadrilla’s site in the last month” and quoted Chamber of Commerce leader Babs Williams (sic) as describing the “appalling and intimidatory tactics” used by anti-fracking activists.

Anyone reading the article without better information might be excused for believing that anti-fracking protectors have been regularly arrested for totally unacceptable behaviour.

So how much truth is there in this article? It is not clear whose ear Mr Egan may or may not have been bending with his presumptuous suggestion that Police don’t know what they are doing and the implication that they should be doing much more for him – we are not told and the suggestion is very generic. I’d ask but as we know Cuadrilla refuse to engage with any questions I ask them. However, what is clear is that Lancashire Police have categorically and unequivocally denied that up to the date of publication of the article a single individual had been arrested for anything resembling the reasons given by Ms Ambrose in her article.

Independent journalist Ruth Hayhurst reported on her website this morning that “A spokesperson for Lancashire Police confirmed at 11.45am on 20 February 2017 that there had been no arrests related to verbal death threats and physical assault against workers at the Preston New Road site.

She also provided further background on her headlines page where she stated:

Arrests at Preston New Road: The Telegraph article referred to a “dozen arrests related to verbal abuse and physical assault against workers at Cuadrilla’s site in the last month”. The Telegraph told DrillOrDrop the source of this statement was Cuadrilla. The company made a statement on 20/2/2017, saying the reference was to the dozen arrests made in connection with protests at or near the Preston New Road site. Separately, a company spokesperson said that threats of verbal abuse and physical violence are “all taken seriously and have been passed to the Police to investigate and take statements”.

[For clarity we should point out here that as far as we know there have so far been 10 arrests made under Section 14 of the Public Order Act and one under the Trade Union Labour Relations Act. It is clear from Lancashire Polices response that not a single one of these involved death threats or assault. ]

So we have something of a gap here – The Telegraph appear to be suggesting that the claim about the “dozen arrests related to verbal death threats and physical assault” came from Cuadrilla but Cuadrilla are claiming that they only referred generically to some arrests and didn’t specify what they were for. Equally Cuadrilla would appear to be claiming not to have mentioned “death threats” at all.

So what can we make of this?

If this were some down at heel local rag we might charitably assume that a naive reporter got overawed by being offered an interview with Cuadrilla’s CEO late on a Friday, got what she thought was  a juicy quote and either misunderstood it or was was unable to validate it during the weekend but published anyway. However, it isn’t the local rag – this is the Daily Telegraph and the reporter concerned is “a Business Reporter covering oil, gas and utilities for The Telegraph business desk“. Somebody who presumably brings the ethics and experience of a professional journalist to bear. She is after all quite caustic about the professional abilities of others.

So maybe this experienced reporter on a quality national newspaper took two unrelated statements (that arrests were made and Cuadrilla’s claims that threats had been made) and conflated them into something more interesting than either statement was in isolation – but that seems unlikely and wouldn’t explain the very specific statement about “verbal death threats and physical assault“. After all there is a considerable difference between verbal “abuse” and a verbal “death threat“. That would be quite an embellishment wouldn’t it?

Could it be then that Ms Ambrose was actually reporting what she was told by Cuadrilla, and that she made a mistake in not confirming the facts with Lancashire Police before repeating the allegation in her article? It seems unlikely that a staff journalist on a national broadsheet would not be careful enough to cover themselves by checking the reliability of a claim that could be so incendiary before repeating it. But then when challenged, she did claim on Twitter (see below) that her statement was backed up by evidence on the Lancashire Police Facebook page. (It wasn’t)

If that’s not it then we have to ask whether a professional and experienced journalist would , intentionally or otherwise,  misquote the CEO of a company she was interviewing. That would be an unlikely things for a journalist on a national title to do, and did she not, like every other journalist I have encountered keep her own shorthand notes of the conversation? Again, it seems unlikely that Ms Ambrose does not have a recording or written record of the interview to fall back on to defend her and the Telegraph’s position regarding any statements made by her interviewee, Mr Egan.

I’m running out of hypotheses now but it seems that the gap between the statements made by both parties by way of explanation as to the origin of the defamation still remains to be filled, as the given explanations simply can’t be made to fit together in any coherent way.  Maybe an investigative journalist could ask some pointed questions to get to the bottom of this?

Today the Telegraph reporter was made aware of both her mistake with Babs Murphy’s name and the fact that the statement regarding “verbal death threats and physical assault” had been denied by the Police. The article has now been corrected as regards Ms Murphy’s name but the calumny about the “death threats” and “physical assaults” still remains. Indeed Ms Ambrose tweeted rather combatively:

This suggests that she didn’t perhaps realise the gravity of the claim she had made regarding the “verbal death threats and physical assault”.

In any event it seems that the Telegraph are currently standing by their version of events, which is somewhat surprising and disappointing in the face of Lancashire Police’s statement which flatly contradicts it and Cuadrilla’s apparent denial of being the source of the specific information regarding “verbal death threats and physical assault” .

We are aware from some (very justifiably) angry responses on social media that several complaints have now been made to the newspaper regulator IPSO, so we hope that they will be able to shine a light on what really lies behind a very unsavoury defamation of those opposed to fracking.

We honestly don’t know who is to blame, but we do know that there isn’t a jot of truth in the allegation that “There have been a dozen arrests related to verbal death threats and physical assault against workers at Cuadrilla’s site in the last month“.

Watch this space to see how this plays out.

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