Whose agenda do reports of ‘eco-terrorism’ serve?



On 9 November, 2008, the Observer published an article by its crime, defence and legal affairs correspondent Mark Townsend under the title “Police warn of growing threat from eco-terrorists”. The article, co-written with an elusive Nick Denning, was a stunningly uncritical piece that seemed to be little more than a rehashed press release from the National Extremist Tactical Coordination Unit.


The article focused on the supposed threat of genocidally violent ‘eco-terrorism’ from environmental direct action groups like Earth First!. A solitary piece of evidence for this supposition was cited and its source was none other than NETCU, which has apparently been monitoring activist blogs and web traffic. The agency claims it has “found statements that four-fifths of the human population has to die for other species in the world to survive.” The tone of the article implies that environmentalists or, as the NETCU source describes them, ‘a lone maverick’, might be willing to carry out attacks to cull the human population in order to save the planet. Scary stuff! Quite, apart from the fact that the above statement does not imply anything of the sort Townsend admitted, in an interview with SchNEWS, that he had not actually seen the statement himself but that NETCU said they’d read it in someone’s blog.

When questioned by SchNEWS about the motives behind the piece, Townsend’s response was instructive in its defensiveness and its myopia: “Of course I don’t have a fucking agenda. I’m a national newspaper journalist – why would I have an agenda?”

Well, let’s be kind to Mr Townsend for a second; let’s imagine that his article was simply a piece of lazy sensationalist journalism, a juicy scare story gleaned from an exclusive interview given by the his ‘contact’ at NETCU. There is certainly a very clear agenda on the part of the police. NETCU’s agenda is to ‘support the business sector’ from exposure to public dissent. Their primary focus has been the animal rights movement but they are interested in any effective campaign that challenges the power and profits of corporations. A glance at their news archive shows that they have had their eye on the anti-G8 protests in Gleneagles, the Smash EDO campaign in Brighton and, more recently, the Camp for Climate Action at Kingsnorth.

It’s clear from NETCU’s website that one of their main aims is to attack public support for groups involved in effective direct action. They are not shy of expressing support for protest groups who share their agenda. For example superintendent Stephen Pearl, head of NETCU, expresses unqualified solidarity for Pro-test, a small pro-vivisection group in Oxford. Apparently, whether you’re an extremist or not depends upon whether you share Mr Pearl’s agenda.

Part of NETCU’s effort is to feed information to the mainstream media. The unit also have a particularly close relationship with civil lawyer and corporate stooge Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, to whom they pass confidential information about campaigners. Journalists like Nicola Woolcock of the Times (and now, it seems, Mark Townsend) make a career out of copying and pasting inaccurate alarmist reports from NETCU and Lawson Cruttenden and Co.

So when Townsend says the “rise of eco-extremism coincides with the fall of the animal rights activist movement” and quotes his NETCU source boasting that “the animal rights movement is in disarray”, the implication is clearly that the smear campaign will be redirected to environmental protesters. Ten years ago, animal rights activists enjoyed wide public support and even some positive media coverage. Years of concerted work by the state, however, has normalised the use of terms like ‘extremist’, ‘violent’ and ‘terrorist’ in the media to describe a movement which has never killed anyone.

Environmental campaigners are still the darlings of the media and of public opinion. This can be seen clearly in the acquittal of a group of Greenpeace protesters, charged with criminal damage, because they persuaded a jury that they were acting to prevent greater damage to the environment. The new police smear campaign is an attempt to limit public support for a growing movement. The long-term strategy, it seems, is to pave the way for more repressive legislation. An article in The Independent by Andrew Grice on 17 November about GM crops cited government sources expressing determination to protect the industry’s latest attempt to launch new GM trials. Ministers are quoted as “drawing a parallel between anti-GM protesters and opponents of experiments on animals. The law was changed in 2005 to give police new powers to prosecute activists.” The clear implication is that the same repressive legislation, some of which currently only relates to animal rights campaigners, could be expanded to encompass environmental campaigns.

All of this attention could be taken as a compliment for the animal rights and environmental movements. Despite a concerted police smear campaign, arrests, prosecutions and hefty prison sentences, animal rights campaigners are still mobilising against Huntingdon Life Sciences, Novartis and Wickham labs, to name just a few. The success of the campaign against GM trials and the growing movement around climate change means the state are beginning to see the environmental movement as the next threat. Maybe this time we’ll see through the police spin aimed at undermining our movements.

Stop Press – After this article was written the Observer’s readers’ editor, Stephen Pritchard, unreservedly withdrew Mark Townsend’s piece which he said gave ‘no evidence whatsoever’ to substantiate NETCU’s claims. The paper had received many complaints from readers about the article. The piece is no longer visible on The Observer’s website.


NETCU Watch: http://netcu.wordpress.com
Other critiques of Mark Townsend’s article:

SchNEWS: www.schnews.org.uk/archive/news6551.php
UK Watch: www.ukwatch.net/blog/merrick_godhaven/civil_disobedience_is_a_terrorist_threat