A radio programme which claimed it would to set the record straight about reporting of 2013 anti-fracking protests in Balcombe has itself attracted “many complaints” about accuracy and bias.
People made formal complaints about What Really Happened In Balcombe both before and after it was broadcast on Radio 4 this morning.
The programme, in the series The Corrections, sought to revisit a news story which, it said, left the public with the wrong idea about what really happened.
The broadcasters argued that the media reported protests against fracking in summer 2013 even though the site operator, Cuadrilla, was not fracking at Balcombe at the time.
But listeners were quick to accuse the programme of ignoring factual evidence about Cuadrilla’s intentions for Balcombe.
The presenter, Jo Fidgen, said:
“We had many complaints about this programme before it was even aired”.
The editor, Richard Knight, said:
“Some accused us of being put up to making this programme by the oil industry. Not true, for the record. And there were some more measured ones, explaining why residents of Balcombe might have had reason to fear that fracking in the area was, and perhaps still is, the ultimate goal.”
Within minutes of the programme’s closing credits, one Balcombe resident said:
“I am going to send v strong letters of complaint to the programme and the BBC feedback programme and I know my friends and relatives will too.”
Another villager, Emeritus Professor Lawrence Dunne, sent a formal complaint this afternoon. He said the programme had given the wrong impression. It should have set out the chronology of events before the protests, he said.
“It does not capture at all the anxiety and worry felt by residents in Balcombe about Cuadrilla’s clearly stated intention to frack. This is unfair and bad journalism.”
Another listener tweeted “Incredulous to hear extraordinary bias of @BBCRadio4” She asked: “Why were genuine concerns belittled, obfuscating the real threats to us all?
A writer who spent several decades working in BBC news and current affairs, and who specialised in energy and the environment, described What Really Happened In Balcombe as a “trivial and rather silly programme, sloppy and poorly researched.”
Frack Free Sussex, which continues to campaign against oil operations in Balcombe, described the programme as “erroneously smug” and
“this acutely ironic highly irresponsible piece of so-called journalism, which claims to be a correction”.
There is documentary evidence that before the protests Cuadrilla saw the need to frack at Balcombe.
In the 2010 planning application for operations at Balcombe, Cuadrilla included an appendix which said:
“There may be a need to stimulate a stage which flows gas/oil but at a low rate to ascertain if the gas was being held back by poor porosity or permeability or lack of natural fracture or a combination of all three.”
The appendix explained:
“Stimulation is carried out by pumping water under pressure into the the natural fractures in the shale formations to open them up to allow the gas to flow more freely. In some cases silicone sand is then pumped in to hold open the fractures once the water is removed.”
In 2011, the Cuadrilla company which held the Balcombe licence, then called Bolney Resources, wrote to the government about the need to frack:
“Bolney will need to rely, to a significant degree, on being able to undertake hydraulic fracture stimulation(s) of this unconventional reservoir.”
Six months later, in January 2012, the Guardian reported on a public meeting at which, the paper said, Cuadrilla outlined its intention to frack.
It was only after drilling the well in summer 2013 that Cuadrilla appeared to change its mind.
In January 2014, the company told villagers in a letter that analysis of samples from the well had confirmed that the target rock was naturally-fractured and fracking would not be needed.
The programme did not include this history.
Kathryn McWhirter, another villager, said in a letter to the programme editor:
“There was no fracking in Balcombe that summer because protesters held them up, and the initial planning permission ran out on September 30th 2013, before they were able to frack or to test in any way. And by January the F word had become unspeakable.”
There were also objections to the programme’s use of an interview with Cuadrilla’s site manager in which he described campaigners spitting at staff.
Professor Dunne said:
“[This] should have been counter-balanced as it left the impression that many protesters were violent when this was not the case at all. Many of the protesters were pensioners and young parents with children. Again, the bias in your programme is unfair and bad journalism.”
The programme did not include interviews with people who protested at Balcombe. DrillOrDrop has seen correspondence before the programme was broadcast in which Balcombe residents asked the editor for the opportunity to put their case.
DrillOrDrop asked the BBC how many complaints had been made before the programme was broadcast. A spokesperson said:
“We don’t give out complaint numbers, but we do publish a fortnightly complaints bulletin of issues where we get over 100 complaints. You will be able to access this at the end of next week here.”
Future plans at Balcombe
Cuadrilla cleared the Balcombe site six years ago today. Since then it did no more than routine maintenance work before handing over the operation to Angus Energy last year.
Angus gave notice on Tuesday that it would be applying next month for planning permission to carry out an extended well test at Balcombe.
In a statement to investors, the company said this would not include fracking:
“Angus do not need to use this technique because we will be producing from a limestone reservoir within the shale”.
But this has not reassured local people opposed to onshore oil and gas operations.
Since 2013, the official definition of fracking has changed to one based on a minimum volume of injected fluid. Campaigners are concerned that operations which would once have been called fracking could now slip under the threshold. There are also concerns about the use of dilute acid to release oil from limestone and sandstone formations.