Friends of the Earth to sell soul to the devil – no, it’s just Sky

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The UK’s most high-profile environmental charity is in the midst of an internal feud over a 3-year deal its directors have signed with Sky. Last month a group of 77 FoE staff members, including most senior campaigners, signed a petition to the charity’s board calling for the Sky bid to be withdrawn.

The bid is an attempt on the part of FoE executives to set up a joint climate change campaign with BSkyB, giving the charity direct access to 8.6 million subscribers. Directors called it an “unparelleled opportunity” to reach a mass audience; Sky claims its programmes are seen in a third of UK homes.

However, there are grave concerns within the environmental community that a partnership with a company run by James Murdoch, whose father Rupert owns the conservative Fox News channel, could damage FoE’s integrity and reputation. Since it was first established in 1971, FoE has prided itself on retaining its independence by refusing corporate sponsorship and ensuring that over 90% of income comes from individual supporters. Their reputation is absolutely crucial and they have a lot to lose by alienating grassroots activists.

BSkyB’s CEO James Murdoch is a convert to the climate change cause and has branded BSkyB a carbon-neutral company, cutting its emissions by 20% and devoting more broadcast time to environmental issues. Last year he also successfully persuaded his father to screen Al Gore’s climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Trust, at a News Corporation summit, which resulted in other Murdoch titles including the Sun, the UK’s most popular national newspaper, adopting the global warming message.

Partnering up with Sky would give FoE a huge increase in exposure and publicity. FoE’s campaigns co-ordinator Roger Higman stated that this was a valuable opportunity which it was FoE’s duty to explore: “Climate change is an absolutely massive issue and we have got to persuade the British population to back, or at least accept, action to cut emissions by 90% over the next 50 years.” Sky could be “potentially very influential” in achieving that aim.

Around 170 other charities have also applied to become BSkyB’s charity partner: the deal has earned current partner Chickenshed Theatre Company approximately £1.7m in donations. Partnerships like this have become increasingly mainstream in our commercial, brand-conscious society since 2002 when the global environment group WWF secured a record $50m (£24.47m) sponsorship deal with the HSBC bank.

FoE’s dilemma lies between reaching wider audiences and gaining influence on the one hand, and maintaining their reputation as an independent campaigner on the other. This move follows an extremely high-profile lobbying success at the end of 2006, when FoE’s The Big Ask campaign achieved its aim of persuading the Government to introduce a Climate Change Bill. BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson commented that this showed that it is possible for campaign groups to make a real difference to politics.

By teaming up with the mainstream media at this point, FoE risks alienating its supporter base and puts its income in jeopardy, whilst dispute and in-fighting distracts time and publicity away from key campaigns. Other environment groups have already distanced themselves from the offer, with Greenpeace commenting that “We’ve an absolutely cast-iron position that we don’t take any money from corporations. We’re entirely funded by our members, so we wouldn’t do that.”

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