Friends of the Earth is fighting off criticism from the shale gas company, Cuadrilla, and the advertising watchdog.
The Advertising Standards Authority today rebutted comments by the organisation that a complaint had been dropped against one of its anti-fracking leaflets.
The ASA’s chief executive said in an opinion blog:
“That’s not an accurate reflection of what’s happened.”
But Friends of the Earth (FOE) hit back this afternoon saying senior staff were on their way to meet ASA officers to challenge this.
Also today it emerged that Cuadrilla, one of the objectors to the leaflet, had complained about FOE to the Charity Commission. Cuadrilla alleged the organisation had misled the commission and exploited a loophole in charities law.
FOE chief executive, Craig Bennett, tweeted:
“It seems we’re facing orchestrated attack from Cuadrilla”.
Yesterday, the ASA published an informal resolution on a complaint against claims in an FOE fund-raising leaflet. DrillOrDrop report.
The ASA said Friends of the Earth had agreed not to repeat the claims, which linked fracking to health problems, water contamination and falling house prices.
Friends of the Earth responded, accusing Cuadrilla of “doing all they can to shut down opposition to fracking”.
The organisation’s campaigner, Donna Hume, added:
“It hasn’t worked though. What’s happened instead is that the ASA has dropped the case without ruling.”
In today’s blog article, the ASA Chief Executive, Guy Parker, said there was a risk that the facts of the case had become obscured. He said:
“We told Friends of the Earth that based on the evidence we’d seen claims it made in its anti-fracking leaflet, or claims with the same meaning, cannot be repeated and asked for an assurance that they wouldn’t be. Friends of the Earth gave us an assurance to that effect. Unless the evidence changes, that means it mustn’t repeat in ads claims about the effects of fracking on the health of local populations, drinking water or property prices.
“Friends of the Earth has said we “dropped the case”. That’s not an accurate reflection of what’s happened. We thoroughly investigated the complaints we received and closed the case on receipt of the above assurance. Because of that, we decided against publishing a formal ruling, but plainly that’s not the same thing as “dropping the case”. Crucially, the claims under the microscope mustn’t reappear in ads, unless the evidence changes. Dropped cases don’t have that outcome.
“Resolving cases informally, usually following our receipt of an assurance that claims won’t be repeated, is an important tool in our toolkit, allowing us to be proportionate and targeted in how we tackle problems. No-one should be under any illusion that the process of looking into these matters is anything other than rigorous.
“Advertisers of all kinds, be they commercial companies, charities or even government departments, sometimes fight tooth and nail to defend their right to promote their products, services or policies or to raise awareness of their causes or ideas. That’s perfectly legitimate. But when advertising claims aren’t properly supported by evidence and people are likely to be misled, we’ll step in to make sure they don’t reappear. What matters is advertisers are held to account when they need to be.
“Fracking is clearly a highly contentious issue that polarises opinion. Both sides of the debate want to get their views across; want to win hearts and minds. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. As an even-handed regulator, we don’t take sides. Friends of the Earth got it wrong on this occasion, but the businesses behind the fracking that it opposes also have to follow the advertising rules. Indeed, we’ve taken action before against the fracking industry for its own ad claims, when they haven’t stood up to scrutiny.
“Debates between parties with polar opposite views can become highly fractious. But that won’t get in the way of us taking action to stop problem ads from reappearing.”
Friends of the Earth statement
A spokesperson for Friends of the Earth responded to Mr Parker:
“This blog does not accurately reflect the agreement that we reached with the ASA. Our chief executive, and legal advisor, are on their way to speak to them to challenge this.”
Response from fracking opponents
Following the informal resolution, some anti-fracking campaigners said they were disappointed that Friends of the Earth had not defended the leaflet.
“I’m sickened that Friends of the Earth backed down.”
Others said there was growing evidence against the fracking industry. One tweeted:
“In 2015 FoE went beyond the then available consensus. Much of that claim is now vindicated. EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency] fracking report (2016) crucial.”
Cuadrilla complaint to Charity Commission
This afternoon, Cuadrilla confirmed that it had urged the Charity Commission to reopen an investigation into FOE.
The Commission dropped an inquiry when the organisation said claims about fracking had been made by its non-charitable arm, Friends of the Earth Limited.
In a letter sent yesterday, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, Francis Egan, wrote:
“On the face of it Friends of the Earth charitable Trust has sought to exploit a loophole in your rules to avoid regulation and sanction, in the first place by misleading you and then by assuring you of a suspension of campaigning by the charity on the politically sensitive topic of fracking.
“It appears that Friends of the Earth regard the Charity Commission as being a toothless watchdog that rarely barks and never bites.”
FOE chief executive, Craig Bennett, accused Cuadrilla of trying to silence opposition to fracking. He told The Times:
“The Charity Commission is well aware that Friends of the Earth is campaigning on fracking and was informed in early August 2016 that the charity would be leading the campaign to oppose fracking, as ending all forms of fossil fuel extraction is critical in reducing climate change.”