The battle has already begun to “spin” the meaning of what appears to be Talisman Energy’s impending sale of its Sudan asset to India’s ONGC. Talisman is, of course, getting major help from the high-priced Hill & Knowlton public relations firm in putting a happy face on what will be a stinging defeat. But they’re also getting help from the Canadian news media, and the National Post (Canada) in particular. The NP published two notable pieces today—one mindlessly tendentious and egregiously ill-informed piece by Ezra Levant, celebrating Talisman’s presence in southern oil concessions as an unambiguous good for Sudan. Another, by Tony Seskus and Claudia Cattaneo, clucks worryingly about the loss of development opportunities to places like Sudan. Their fear is that the Talisman example will scare off other Canadian oil companies from operating in the midst of war zones and exacerbating conflict for the sake of corporate profits. To which the only possible reply is, “yes, that’s precisely the point.” Talisman’s exit is only part of an answer in stopping the civil conflict the company has so exacerbated; but it will serve notice that unacceptable costs will confront those who are willingly complicit with a fascist regime in scorched-earth warfare against innocent civilians.
Eric Reeves [June 24, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
Aside from the extraordinarily compelling reportage from the oil regions by the National Post’s Charlie Gillis (November 1999), the NP has been an especially accommodating news lap-dog for Talisman. It has failed miserably in offering useful news coverage of human rights reports on southern Sudan’s oil regions, reports that have appeared steadily over the entire time Talisman has been in Sudan. It has for the most part offered a narrative account of Talisman in Sudan that might have been scripted by PR powerhouse Hill & Knowlton, which has of course worked relentlessly to obscure the realities of oil development in Talisman’s concession areas.
All in all, it has been a shameful performance by the National Post, given the human stakes in the oil regions of southern Sudan. But sometimes even bad journalism gets enough right to be useful—or gets things so badly wrong as to be illuminating of what the truth actually is. So with today’s pieces in the NP.
Let’s start with Ezra Levant’s article, since it is so ill-informed, so obtuse in its strident defense of Talisman’s presence in Sudan, that its “usefulness” is readily distilled. After conveniently, if absurdly, conflating all who oppose Talisman’s presence in Sudan as “G8 Protestors,” Levant declares that for those who really care about human rights in Sudan, “Talisman’s exit from Sudan is the worst news imaginable.” This is so, Levant would have us believe, because Talisman’s presence serves as a beacon of enlightenment, as a bastion of Western values—and because the company can wave its elaborate “corporate ethics” brochure for all to see.
But turning from Levant’s mindless reprise of 19th-century colonial rhetoric to the truth, what is the human rights situation in southern Sudan and the oil regions in particular? As a starting point we might note that the present UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Sudan, Gerhart Baum, has recently—and repeatedly—declared that the human rights situation in Sudan, and in the oil regions in particular, is deteriorating. And that oil development in which Talisman is participating is an engine for expanding human rights abuses. Does Levant know of these findings? And if so, does he regard them as irrelevant—or just inconvenient?
In reaching his conclusion, the UN Special Rapporteur is supported not only by his distinguished predecessors but by every single credible human rights report on oil development in Sudan—every one of them. This includes the assessment of the Harker Report (commissioned by then Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy), as well as authoritative reports from Amnesty International (May 2000), Human Rights Watch (annual), Christian Aid (March 2001), the especially detailed and thorough Gagnon/Ryle report (October 2001), and numerous others.
None of this troubles Levant because he obviously hasn’t read or hasn’t retained the findings of these reports. But to speak about whether or not Talisman has been a force for the good of human rights in Sudan obviously requires precisely such knowledge. The fact that ignorance is no obstacle to Levant and the National Post tells us a great deal about how they view the obligations of news reporting and editorializing.
Levant’s only other substantive point before he resumes his real sport, ridiculing “G8 Protestors,” is to note that Talisman has spent a few million on very local health care projects (a pittance when compared to the profits Talisman is extracting directly from Sudan’s ongoing agony). What Levant of course does not talk about is the nature and human cost of the scorched-earth warfare that is all that allows Talisman to remain in Sudan and fund these very modest projects. This information is also in the human rights reports that Levant seems incapable of accepting as relevant to the issue he presumes to speak about.
Nor does Levant mention the present suspension of all humanitarian aid to the oil regions of Western Upper Nile by Talisman’s partner, the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum. This suspension, endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, is directly tied to oil development in which Talisman is participating. Moreover, Khartoum’s war effort is funded by the oil revenues Talisman and its partners send directly to the regime. This in turn has convinced Khartoum that it can prevail militarily in the war—a deep disincentive for them to negotiate a just peace.
And the humanitarian costs of the war that Khartoum for its part is waging on behalf of Talisman and its partners? It easily exceeds US$1 million/day. In a little over a week, these costs exceed everything Talisman has contributed to date in its areas of its operations.
None of this fits Levant’s script, so he concludes by again conflating all who oppose Talisman’s presence in Sudan with “G8 Protestors”:
“This anti-Talisman campaign—like so many of the G8 protests—has always been about the protesters’ own political ambitions in North America, not about solving human rights problems overseas.”
It would appear that only Levant and Talisman really care about human rights. If one wants to know the view that animates the National Post’s coverage of Talisman in Sudan, here it is—distilled to an irreducible essence of ignorance and arrogance.
But the typical National Post coverage of Talisman in Sudan is better represented in a piece today by Tony Seskus and Claudia Cattaneo. Unlike Levant’s rabid opinion piece, the article purports to be a neutral account of what is represented by the public relations nightmare that Talisman has endured as their complicity in genocidal destruction has been repeatedly highlighted by human rights groups, church groups, and others, as well as in news venues less blinkered than the National Post. The divestment campaign against Talisman, though undiscussed by Seskus and Cattaneo, has been the common front for many groups and organizations, and has battered Talisman share price to the point where an exit long ago became inevitable.
What the Seskus and Cattaneo “news” piece is really concerned to push is a veiled warning to human rights groups: “Push too hard on companies like Talisman and look what you’ll be doing: reducing investment in developing nations—and then who will you have to blame for poverty and underdevelopment in such nations?”
Of course for all the reasons that Levant refuses to discuss, international investment is not inherently good—it is quite capable of wreaking enormous destruction, as is so clearly the case in Sudan. It would seem too obvious to need highlighting, but the National Post has again made such highlighting necessary: what is good for the bottom-line at Talisman Energy is not, by some stroke of economic necessity, good for the indigenous populations of southern Sudan, who have been displaced and slaughtered mercilessly for years as Khartoum has eyed the oil reserves under their tukuls since the late 1970s.
But this National Post “warning” comes packaged in what is really some very useful information about how the Talisman example has played out as a warning in the Canadian “oil patch” and among other international oil companies. They’ve evidently seen what’s happened to Talisman and are concerned enough to become much more cautious about entering war zones and countries where their presence might actually make the situation worse. For many who’ve worked to force Talisman from Sudan, this of course has been the largest ambition—this is a global success. And so if our success can be reported only in such indirect fashion in the National Post, that’s better than nothing. It’s good that, whatever tendentiousness animates the reporting at the National Post, they will still let us know that:
“[Canadian] firms, disturbed by Talisman’s public relations nightmare, are also evaluating where and how they do business against a new set of standards that place greater emphasis on the risk of negative publicity and ensuring there’s no conflict with their corporate values.”
The challenge remaining is to insure that those “corporate values” include, at the very least: a refusal to enjoy security that takes the form of scorched-earth warfare and civilian displacement and destruction; a refusal to allow company infrastructure to be used for assaults on innocent civilians, such as Talisman has permitted the Khartoum regime with its helicopter gunships attacks from company airstrips; a refusal to send revenues blindly to one party, the obdurate party, in an immensely destructive civil war. If even these “corporate values”–so conspicuously absent from Talisman’s concerns in Sudan—can be made part of Canadian business culture, then driving Talisman from Sudan will be an event of historic significance.
Unfortunately, history—like meaningful business ethics—will have to be reported someplace other than the National Post.