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How did a natural disaster take us closer to Brexit?

Updated Tuesday 10th April 2018

The framing of the national debate around Brexit owed a debt to coverage of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, says Rahel Cramer.

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: US Coastguard Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon.

The British decision to exit the European Union in 2016 came as a surprise to many. In the lead up to the referendum, nationalist discourses were successfully mobilized to promote a vote for the anti-globalisation campaign. Nationalism proved to have an ongoing appeal in our global world.

But these nationalist discourses did not come out of nowhere in 2016 nor were they solely emanating from the sphere of politics.

In a recently published paper, “‘The BP is a great British company’: The discursive transformation of an environmental disaster into a national economic problem”, I examine the relationship between discourses of corporate responsibility and nationalism in the media coverage of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Surprisingly, nationalist discourses featured heavily in reports about that disaster.

The media play a powerful role in shaping our perceptions of global issues, including environmental disasters. The media may obstruct or support interests of various stakeholders, and do not necessarily educate us in an uninterested way.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the worst industrial disaster in US history and 4.9 million barrel crude were released into the environment. In addition to the huge immediate damage, long-term effects are as yet unknown but are likely to include oil remaining in the food chain for generations to come.

The disaster was the fault of BP (short for “British Petroleum”), a multinational corporation headquartered in the UK operating the oil well, who was found to be “primarily responsible for the oil spill because of its gross negligence and reckless conduct.”

So how did the media represent corporate responsibility in their coverage of the event?

From perpetrator to victim

Comparing UK and US media, I found that the former were less concerned with the environmental impact than the consequences for British interests and even cast BP in the role of victim rather than perpetrator. The Telegraph, for instance, headlined: “Barack Obama’s attacks on BP hurting British pensioners.” The article continued:

Barack Obama has been accused of holding “his boot on the throat” of British pensioners after his attacks on BP were blamed for wiping billions off the company’s value.

The corporation was metaphorically described as a person and depicted as vulnerable and in need of protection:

We need to ensure that BP is not unfairly treated – it is not some bloodless corporation.

It is not unusual for corporate responsibility to be obscured in the media, particularly if no individuals can be clearly identified as “bad guys”. However, British media went beyond that by casting BP as victim rather than perpetrator, and making it stand for a particularly vulnerable segment of the population, namely “British pensioners”.

As a consequence, solidarity was not rallied with the victims of the disaster but the perpetrator:

I want to see the UK government defend the company while it is under this attack.

This blame-shifting where the perpetrator turned victim meant that another scapegoat had to be found to fit the conventional narrative. In this case the head of another state, US president Barack Obama, was cast in that role. This further enhanced the economic and nationalist framing of the environmental disaster:

Although fund managers accept that BP must pay compensation for the oil spill and the damage it is doing to parts of America’s coastline, they argue that the cost to the company’s market value from the president’s criticism is far outweighing the clean-up costs.

In sum, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was told in some UK media as a national-economic problem for Britain rather than a global environmental disaster. In the process, corporate responsibility was obscured and readers were led to see the issue as one of national threat to themselves. Reporting the news in this way aligns the readers with corporate economic interests by framing these as national interests.

This framing was then available to be mobilized in the Brexit campaign five years later.

Beyond the British case, my study is also relevant to the revival of nationalist and separatist discourses in other contexts, which similarly obscure that nationalism is entirely irrelevant to the big issues of our time as they pose existential threats to life on this planet. Like an oil spill, these do, after all, not stop at national borders …

This article was originally published by Language On The Move under a CC-BY licence

 

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