As efforts continued in the Gulf of Mexico to stanch the worst oil spill in U.S. history, news organizations accused British Petroleum (BP) of denying access to news agencies attempting to document the disaster.
BP, a multinational energy company headquartered in London, is responsible for leasing the Deepwater Horizon well near the Louisiana coast that exploded on April 20, 2010, leading to the catastrophic spill. The company faced increasing pressure from both the U.S. government and the public to contain the spill, and was dogged since the disaster’s first days by accusations that it was attempting to control the information and images emerging from the disaster. Critics have claimed that BP was slow to allow access to video of the spill itself and blocked media from entering areas affected by it.
According to a June 9 story in The New York Times, three weeks elapsed between the explosion of the oil rig and the release of images of oil gushing from an underwater pipe on the ocean floor. When BP finally released video of the spill on May 12, it provided only a 30-second clip. More detailed images and longer video of the spill did not become public until two weeks later, when members of Congress shared video that BP had provided to them with news networks. Experts swiftly seized upon the new images and estimated that the amount of oil spilling from the well was far more than early BP estimates of 1,000 to 5,000 barrels per day. By early June, scientists suggested that a more accurate estimate was between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels a day, according to a June 20 story in the Christian Science Monitor.
“I think they’ve been trying to limit access,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who pushed BP to release more video of the spill, in the June 9 Times story. “It is a company that was not used to transparency. It was not used to having public scrutiny of what it did.”
On May 27, media organizations criticized BP for withholding for several hours the fact that its attempted “top kill” procedure to contain the spill had stalled. Several hours after BP suspended the operation to plug the well with drilling mud, government and BP officials gave the impression that the efforts were working, according to a May 27 story in The New York Times. The following day, as efforts to carry out the procedure continued, the Times reported that BP’s public statements again seemed to suggest progress. But later in the day on May 28, the Times reported, it became clear that both BP and the Coast Guard had failed to acknowledge a 12-hour suspension of operations, contradicting government and company statements that the procedure was progressing well.
As criticism mounted over the delay in releasing images and video of the spill, the first reports of journalists being denied access to airspace above the spill and oil-covered beaches emerged in late May, along with allegations that BP discouraged its employees and the many out-of-work Gulf coast fisherman in its employ from speaking with media.
On May 18, a CBS news crew reported that it was threatened with arrest as it tried to film an oil-covered beach, turned away by BP contractors and Coast Guard officials who cited “BP’s rules” in ordering the news crew to leave. The CBS crew had been trying to film a beach covered in oil in South Pass, La., when they were ordered to leave, according to a May 19 report on the CBS evening news. According to a June 9 story in The New York Times, the Coast Guard later said it was “disappointed” that the incident had occurred.
The following week, on May 24, Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland reported she was denied access to Elmer’s Island, La., turned away by sheriff’s deputies brought in to supplement local police at Grand Isle, La. McClelland reported that she was told she could only access Elmer’s Island with a BP escort. Spill workers staying at her hotel later told her that they had been specifically instructed by BP not to talk to any news media. McClelland reported that when she asked BP representative Barbara Martin about the relationship between local police and BP, Martin said that BP was in charge because “it’s BP’s oil.”
Newsweek reported that both BP and government officials were preventing photojournalists from accessing oil-covered beaches either by boat or by air. “The problem, as many members of the press see it, is that even when access is granted, it’s done so under the strict oversight of BP and Coast Guard personnel,” the May 26 Newsweek story said. “Reporters and photographers are escorted by BP officials on BP-contracted boats and aircraft. So the company is able to determine what reporters see and when they see it.” Jared Moossy, a Dallas-based photographer, told Newsweek “you could tell BP was starting to close their grip, telling fisherman not to talk to us. They would say that BP had told them not to talk to us or cooperate with us or that they’d get fired.”
On May 29, a blog called Powering a Nation, based at the University of North Carolina, posted scanned photos of a contract between BP and vessels it chartered that forbade the owners of chartered boats to make “public statements,” according to a June 3 story in The Washington Post. Specifically, the fifth paragraph of the agreement instructed vessel owners and subcontractors to keep all data (photos, sketches, maps, reports, information) discovered in the service of BP “confidential.” Article 22 of the contract stated that vessel owners and employees were not to “make news releases, marketing presentation[s], or any other public statements [about] this charter, charterer, or the services performed under this charter without the charterer’s written approval. Vessel owner agrees that such approval is at the sole discretion of charterer.” The May 29 post on the Powering a Nation blog reported that some subcontractors later received a notice that the fifth paragraph and Article 22 had been deleted from their contract. The document is available at http://news21.com/2010/06/unc-news21-reveals-bp-restraints/.
BP responded to criticism of the language in the contracts by saying that the wording was standard language designed to protect proprietary information, and that BP had allowed news media access to its “Vessels of Opportunity Program,” a program that employs local boat owners to aid in cleanup, according to the June 3 story in the Post.
Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, assigned to oversee the federal response to the disaster, issued a memo on May 31 exhorting BP and all response organizations to afford swift and complete access to media attempting to cover the spill. The best way to describe the federal policy approach to accommodating media in such a situation, Allen wrote, is “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.” In an Associated Press (AP) story on June 7, Allen said that there are only two reasons why media should be prohibited from an area in covering the spill: “If it’s a security reason or a safety reason because of personal protective equipment.”
In the June 9 New York Times story, BP and government officials coordinating the response to the spill called the instances of denied and restricted media access “anomalies,” and said that both the federal government and the company have gone to great lengths to accommodate journalists covering the story. The Times also reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revised its flight restrictions over the gulf to allow news media flights on a case-by-case basis in response to criticism about the inaccessibility of flights for journalists.
“Our general approach throughout this response, which is controlled by the Unified Command and is the largest ever to an oil spill, has been to allow as much access as possible to media and other parties without compromising the work we are engaged on [sic] or the safety of those to whom we give access,” said BP spokesman David H. Nicholas in the June 9 Times article.
However, after the release of the Allen memo and public assurances of openness from BP, media reports of denied and restricted access continued. A June 16 AP story detailed several incidents in which reporters were threatened with arrest or turned away from covering the spill in the weeks after both BP and the government promised more openness. The AP story criticized a “temporary flight restriction” put in place by the FAA, barring aircraft from flying below 3,000 feet—low enough to photograph the spill and cleanup. Before this limit was imposed, the AP reported, aircraft carrying media often flew as low as 500 to 1,000 feet. The June 16 story listed incidents that AP Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes included in a letter to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs demanding that the Obama administration improve media access to the spill. Among the incidents that Oreskes said violated Allen’s May 31 directive was a June 5 incident in which sheriff’s deputies threatened an AP photographer with arrest for trespassing after speaking with BP employees and taking photographs of cleanup workers on a public beach, a June 10 CNN video of a bird rescue worker telling news crews that he signed a contract with BP stating that he would not talk to the media, and incidents on June 11 and 12 in which private security guards patrolling the beaches of Grand Isle, La., repeatedly attempted to prevent a New Orleans television crew from walking on a public beach and speaking with cleanup workers.
Other news organizations and media watchdog groups followed with detailed rebukes of BP’s handling of media access. In a June 17 story titled “BP, Government Still Thwarting Press Access,” the Columbia Journalism Review called upon reporters to “continue their valiant efforts to cover the spill and remove the barriers that inhibit their work.”
Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald interviewed McClelland on June 28, who accused BP of working with local police and federal officials to “harass, impede, and even detain journalists who are covering the impact of the spill and the clean-up efforts.” McClelland also described an incident involving an activist who was filming across the street from BP’s spill cleanup headquarters in Houma, La. The man was told by an off-duty police officer employed by BP security to stop filming because “BP didn’t want him filming.” The man was subsequently pulled over in his car by the same officer and interrogated by a BP security official for 20 minutes, McClelland said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists published a report on July 7 that photographer Lance Rosenfield, who was on assignment for ProPublica and PBS’s “Frontline,” was detained by Texas City, Texas police and released only after his photographs were reviewed by authorities and his personal information, including his social security number, was collected.
In a July 13 press release, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) called for open, unrestricted journalistic access to the Gulf disaster. The release also announced an executive committee meeting held in New Orleans on July 24 to discuss the issues arising from concerns about access. Citing incidents in which photographers and news crews were prevented from filming and taking photographs, including the detention of Rosenfield, the SPJ news release said, “These are deeply troubling incidents that must stop if journalists are to do their jobs unfettered. News that is not filtered or skewed through government or company officials is essential to an informed citizenry. However, in times of national and natural disaster—such as now in the Gulf—the need for a fully functioning free press is even greater.”
Greenwald called reports of photographers being pulled over and threatened with detention “true police state tactics,” adding, “This is clearly a deliberate and systematic pattern of preventing access that has been going on since the beginning of the spill. And, as we find in so many realms, it is impossible to know where government actions end and corporate actions begin because the line basically does not exist.”
A June 14 USA Today editorial said that secrecy had been a part of BP’s “game plan” since the first days of the disaster in April. Although BP maintains that instances of denied and restricted access are anomalies, the editorial said, “every such attempt deepens the impression that BP, having caused the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, is now trying to manipulate what the public sees about it.” Requiring media to be “embedded” with BP or government officials is an unnecessary restriction, the editorial said, pointing out that the oil spill is “not a war.”
In the June 16 AP story, Oreskes agreed that many of the constraints placed on media seemed designed only to impede media coverage. “We think a lot of the restrictions are way tighter than they need to be,” Oreskes said. “So far, I think the government has done a better job of controlling the flow of information than of controlling the flow of oil in the Gulf.”
- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant