Monday, 28 February 2011

Churning The PR Benefits

Earlier in the month, we posted about the curse of churnalism in Aberdeen's local press, and how the imperatives of the business community can, at times, cause us cognitive dissonance as the PR-driven press-release agenda spins an interpretation on events and situations altogether different from that which exists in objective reality. As well as this, we were also disquieted this month to see a sort of horrifying triumphalism in economic reporting from our local press.

Firstly, The Press and Journal reported on the Aberdeen economy's relatively high apparent rate of growth in GVA (Gross Value Added):
Oil capital only uk city to increase contribution to national economy during recent recession: Oil and gas business helped Aberdeen outshine the UK’s leading cities on a key measure of economic growth as Britain hurtled into a recession two years ago, new figures show ... Peers among [the] top 10 cities for GVA were unable to match Aberdeen’s achievement of faster growth, with all nine seeing a slowdown as the UK lurched into a deep recession in the wake of the credit crunch.
[our emphasis]
Yes, it's that use of the word "achievement" which bothers us the most. This article succeeds in that most fundamental piece of propaganda misdirection - making bad things look good. As you may remember, the financial volatility of recent years has been characterised by dramatic shifts in the traded oil price. As the original press release from Accountancy Firm UHY Hacker Young states:
Aberdeen rode the wave of a 190% surge in oil prices between January 2007 and July 2008. The momentum is likely to continue with oil prices back over $100 a barrel.
Yet our local press chooses to report this surge in an internationally-traded commodity price as "Aberdeen's achievement". They also suggest that this "achievement" has helped the UK economy via an "increased contribution" to growth. Unsurprisingly, they fail to point out that the same phenomenon of high energy prices has been elsewhere a major cause of inflation, a break on growth and a sink for wealth - draining it from economies and communities throughout the entire country and wider world. Far from helping - this growth in GVA in Aberdeen is symptomatic of a phenomenon which hinders the economy.

The article continues with the words of a Scottish-based accountant breathlessly and sickeningly flattering his potential customers in Aberdeen:
“I predict this positive trend will continue throughout 2011 driven, by the economic resolve and pioneering spirit of the city’s oil entrepreneurs.”
Elsewhere in the town's "Aberdeen Citizen" advertising freesheet, we see other symptoms of the high oil-price phenomenon being trumpeted as good news - for instance we are told that the town is "reaping the benefits" of high hotel-room prices. We would be at pains to point out that it is a handful of already wealthy individuals and corporate entities (the operators of the hotels) who gain. The ordinary Aberdeen citizen does not. Perhaps the freesheet should change its name.

Reveling in high prices, our press is speaking to local residents as if they are all capitalists. (By that we don't mean philosophical or political supporters of the system of capitalism; rather we mean acutal operators of capital.) Of course, most people are not operators of capital, being much more likely to be obliged to trade their labour for the money-tokens which we are required to exchange for the necessities of life. For the vast majority of people, high prices for necessities are unquestionably bad news. The same phenomenon which delivers affluence for a handful of already-wealthy capitalists is that same phenomenon which simultaneously impoverishes the living standards of all others through high prices for energy, food, clothing and transport. The fact that our local press fails to integrate that connection into its reports troubles us greatly.

Let us be clear, we are, of course, pleased that jobs in the North East of Scotland are safeguarded by global events, but we are disgusted that our local press does not report the connection between these developments even-handedly. We can see that it is an ill wind which blows nobody any good, and that the Aberdeen-based Oil and Gas industry happens to be the recipient of that good in this case, but we can also see that, to extend the metaphor, this is just economic 'weather'. We are fools to be seen to be reveling in something so whimsically changeable. Worse, we are bloody idiots to be trying to take credit for it. Worst of all, we are likely to be looked upon with contempt for our reveling in something which is bringing agony to others. It truly is in the very worst possible taste, and it is something which I and we at Other Aberdeen are at pains to distance ourselves from.

The "Aberdeen Citizen" says we are "reaping the benefits". Yes, as the rest of the world suffers from the effect of high oil prices, as hunger prompts political revolution and military instability in the maghreb, as economic contraction forces hundreds of thousands of young people onto the dole at home, we're OK in Aberdeen, we're "reaping the benefits". Certainly, it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good, but we believe that it is utterly contemptible, indeed reprehensible, for our press to make merry with this phenomenon as others simply suffer, their standard of living eroded by this rapid increase in the cost of essentials, their wealth transferred into the hands of a few far-off capitalists and their close coterie of executives and major shareholders.

Aberdeen has an unenviable and unearned reputation for vainglorious conceit and for grasping avarice. While we residents of the town know this not to be true, it seems that our local press are intent on making it so, making us appear to be as our reputation paints us. Our local journal of record appears to be set on making arses of us all. This sickens us.

The high oil price is just a matter of (good or bad, depending on your status) luck. It is not the result of good judgement, it is not the product of the judicious use of capital, nor is it the outcome of the expert skills of labour. One of the problems of this windfall (for that is what it is) is that it will distract from the transfer of capital and skills towards the renewable energy sector (or other, non-energy sectors, for that matter). A necessary transfer, as the availability of wealth to suck from beneath the seabed will not last forever.

There is no amount of capital, there exists no force of man, and there is no market mechanism which can reverse the grinding certainties of geology; North Sea oil and gas production is currently declining at around 6% per year. While this might be mitigated through high-technology approaches which enhance flow rates and increase ratios of recoverable reserves - all worthy ventures - one thing is certain; oil and gas reserves are finite. The day will come when we will all, no matter our status and no matter our location, dearly wish that we had started down the difficult road of re-balancing our energy supply earlier than we have. In Aberdeen we will, additionally, wish that we had started down the road of re-balancing our local economy a little earlier too.

At Other Aberdeen we greatly fear that high oil prices, the hubris they inspire and the offensive triumphalism they provoke militates against the redirection of capital towards the development of a sustainable economy in Aberdeen, be that in the shape of the switch to renewable energy technology, the burgeoning development of the Scottish life sciences sector or other more traditional business sectors. Unfortunately, and contrasting with 'competitor' town Dundee, the opportunity to anchor a progressive arts and creative sector in Aberdeen has been so thoughtlessly as to appear maliciously squandered, so we'll leave that for others to discuss.

It is now time to get on with something else as a matter of urgency. Oil and gas is not the future and its overburdening domination of our town and its press is harming the present.


John Aberdein said...

Utterly brilliant and to the point. Gatt for Provost.

reneemargaret said...

Excellent article - I agree with you John, Some realism in the Toon's Hoose would certainly not go amiss!

Fraser Denholm said...

Great Post, Other Aberdeen.

Its no surprise really given the source of the city's "wealth" that it is very good at burying its head in the sand.

Anonymous said...

I think the local press' approach/attitude can be summarised as: "I'm all right Jack, and to hell with the rest of you!"

Phil Thompson said...

I wonder if the locals remember back to 1999 when the oil price went crazy - and the main oil companies pulled back all their contracts to 3rd party services / providers ... yes, very beneficial to "everyone's lives" in Aberdeen... It's also just wholly sad that "oil jobs" are apparently the only "viable option" for a career in Aberdeen... we've seen Newcastle, Glasgow and Sheffield's history (monoemployment source) - and yet we're not encouraged to diversify - or even try to promote "alternative" jobs (there's not much support from local press).. and, you'll get the argument "no other industry can compete financially"... as the inuit say "you can't eat money or drink oil"... or is thinking "around oil" not "progressive" enough? - I am guessing that "progress" in most conservatives eyes is "more money in my direction" .

Phil Thompson said...

.. just to clarify - I still thank that Aberdeen should "have" energy jobs - but we should be making preparations NOW (no matter how long the "oil lasts") to create a balanced economy or job source (be that less income) - but balance would certainly lessen the inevitable impact of a single industry collapse.