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ShellNews.net: Financial Times guest columnist (and Royal Dutch Shell consultant) David Bowen replies to our criticism

23 November 2006

By John Donovan

Mr David Bowen, a “website effectiveness consultant”, and regular guest columnist for the Financial Times and FT.com has responded to the criticism we levelled at him in our recent article. It is pleasing that an expert in such matters has gone on record as stating that my efforts at being a “thorn in the flesh of one company” are “highly effective”. His response is published with his permission.

Two examples of recent Internet related FT articles authored by Mr Bowen, including the article immediately below which triggered the correspondence:

ShellNews.net: Online Greenery?: Online Greenwash (or whitewash) would have been a more truthful headline

Financial Times: It’s a “wiki” world out there

The response from Mr Bowen received today:

Dear Mr Donovan

Thank you for your email. Apologies for the delay in replying – I did not receive it when you initially sent it. I am writing at some length as it is essential to me that I am not only independent, but am also believed to be independent.

As both a columnist and a consultant, I sometimes have to make tricky decisions about covering organisations who are also clients. The easy way out is not to mention them, but in the 200 or so columns I have written for the FT since 1998, that is not always possible. My brief is to write about commercial and other use of the web in a way that is relevant to readers, and one of the best ways is to ‘hook’ it to current news. In the week that I wrote that piece, there was much coverage of environmental issues, and also of the criticism BP was facing, especially over the Alaska pipeline it runs.

I said that I worked for BP because I knew I would be covering it as a central theme. That did not however mean I was going to be polite about it. My key paragraph was a criticism:

“All this though at a time when the group has been getting a hammering on environmental issues such as maintenance of its Alaska pipelines. Is its flaunting of environmental awareness on the home page a green flag to a bull? To be fair, it does have an ‘Alaska update’ on its US home page, but I would have thought it should be speaking to its global audience.”

I hope this is enough to show that I am quite capable of maintaining my independence in my columns. If I did not, I would be very surprised if I kept the column  (you my be interested to know that your letter to the FT is the first of that kind ever sent in eight years of fortnightly columns).

I considered saying that I had worked for Shell, but decided not to simply because my mention of it was in passing: my reference to Tell Shell was half a sentence; the other half mentioned Chevron’s forum. Frankly it would have read rather oddly if I’d lumbered the sentence with a reference to Shell being a client, and would have sounded more like showing off than anything else. Furthermore, my comment was supposed to be factual rather than praise: “Tell Shell, an uncensored forum set up eight years ago, is currently offline.”

To the vast majority of people, that is about as bland as you can get. I know that you do not read it like that, because you have a long running interest in Shell, but I hope you won’t mind me suggesting that your Shell antennae are far more sensitive than most people’s. I am of course familiar with your name, not least because I have been following the Tell Shell forum for a long time.

As for whether Tell Shell is censored or not, I don’t know. Shell told me it wasn’t; until I saw your email, I had seen no suggestion that it was otherwise. I’m afraid your pointing me to the Wikipedia article tells me more about Wikipedia than it does about Shell. The reference to ‘a prophetic article by Shell critic Alfred Donovan’ was posted, Wikipedia’s history page tells me, at 13.45 on June 5 2006 by ‘johnadonovan’. You are clearly using Wikipedia as assiduously as you used Tell Shell Forum, and in your role as thorn in the flesh of one company, you are clearly highly effective. Interesting that Shell hasn’t tried to edit back the pieces critical of it, isn’t it though?

As I say, I have no knowledge of who is telling the truth. I should explain that my consulting role is deliberately as an outsider. My company specialises in benchmarking websites, and identifying best practice, to hep them improve. Usually (and this was the case with Shell), we put ourselves in the place of different ‘stakeholders’ (who would include critics such as yourself), and make a point of not talking to people within Shell. I know vastly less about the inner workings of the group than you do.

The reason I pointed to the Tell Shell forum was that it has carried material that I do not think any other group would, which makes it notable.  Whether it has changed its policy recently is therefore irrelevant to my piece, which as I have said is designed to be helpful to all potential readers of the FT (who are likely to be business people, because they are the paper’s target). The archive of Tell Shell was available until very recently (it seems to have been taken down in the last few weeks). I have kept screengrabs of it, which I use as examples, so I can quote from a post placed in 1999 and left on the site. It says that Shell “has turned the Nigerian military into a private ‘Gestapo’ police force”, and that it “has a savage contempt for the law”. Regardless of whether the sentiment is accurate, the fact that Shell allowed this to be published, and left it there, is I’m sure you will agree, quite impressive.

I hope this answers your points.

Kind regards
David Bowen

Response from John Donovan

Hello David

I am grateful to you for taking the trouble to reply and for the polite way you have reacted to our blunt criticism. Your comments will be published unedited.

I would be happy to supply you with a copy of the email from Shell General Counsel Richard Wiseman admitting censorship of the Tell Shell Forum if you would like to see it. You will be able to see that he also wanted us to censor our own website. Mr Wiseman made an implied threat in respect of a feature involving President Putin, Jeroen van der Veer and the Sakhalin II project. For some reason this was rather a sensitive subject.

I note your comment about the removal of the Tell Shell archive. This is almost certainly connected with the next hearing in a draconian defamation action brought by EIGHT Royal Dutch Shell companies against a former employee of 29 years standing, Dr John Huong. The next hearing, in which Shell is pursuing an application for my 89 year old father to be cross examined in the Malaysian High Court, is just days away. At the same time as demanding his presence in the witness box, Shell lawyers have also taken action to ensure that if he does travel to Malaysia, he will run the risk of imprisonment for contempt of court. This is not an appetising prospect given his age and medical condition. The court will also be dealing with an application by Shell for Dr Huong to be thrown into jail, also for alleged contempt of court. The original defamation action relates to three articles published under the name of Dr Huong on our website. Embarrassingly for Shell, the offending articles were also published (by us) on the Tell Shell Forum and remained there for over a year, accessible on a global basis. From what you say they have now vanished. As you may be aware, Royal Dutch Shell purports to support the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to freedom of expression. The persecution of an unemployed former Shell geologist – a humanitarian gentleman of the very highest integrity, speaks volumes about the continuing mendacity of Shell senior management (we all remember the reserves fraud).

Finally, if you check further into my contributions on the Wikipedia page about Royal Dutch Shell, you will be able to confirm that I am also the author of the sections about Shell LiveWIRE, The Whistleblower Helpline and The Shell Foundation. I added these positive aspects about Shell to provide a balanced view. No one else had bothered to do so.

Thanks again for your comments.

Regards
John

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