Freedom of the press – defend it!

Most of my readers over the years think of me as an oilfield journalist and commentator, but I began my career as a general reporter and feature writer. As such, I feel the need to run up the flag to campaign for freedom of the press. The events of this week in which certain reporters were denied access to a Downing St briefing are very scary and reminiscent of what is going on on the other side of pond in Washington. Johnson and Trump are now well and truly lumped together like a ball of clinker.

Few people will know that I was subjected to a similar ban about 25 years ago by BP. I had written a number of articles in Subsea Engineering News reporting on how BP was screwing up the Foinaven project. It was all true because my source knew exactly what was going on. Colin McLean, then BP’s West of Shetlands supremo, told the BP press office that no one was to have any contact with me besides providing press releases and should not answer any questions posed by myself. Later on during the development of the second WoS project, Schiehallion, I was denied an invitation to view that development’s fpso being built at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast on the premise of security, because at that time I travelled on a US passport. That was an excuse – or maybe a big fib? – to keep me from speaking to any project personnel and gathering additional information.

I could not really complain about not being invited to H&W as site visits are always at the behest of the operator and if BP did not want me there, so be it. And there was nothing I could do about not being allowed to ask questions.

What happened afterwards is absolutely fact and legend. I was invited to lunch by Roddy Kennedy, then head of BP’s press and communications department, who asked me very politely to stop ‘picking on’ BP. I was stunned. I published a specialist offshore newsletter with a few thousand readers at most and one of the industry’s top five biggest companies was asking me to lay off. I could hardly believe it.

There was more to come to prove the efficacy of what I had been writing. McLean was subsequently relieved of his responsibilities for the WoS area and reportedly sent to Australia to undertake the important (!) task of decommissioning a refinery. No one ever confirmed that, but I had no reason not to believe it to be true. BP then shared out the oversight of the WoS, an important area of new developments for the company, amongst a number of managers so that no one person could wield as much authority as McLean had at the beginning of the Foinaven project.

I recount these events to suggest that at one time trying to muffle a journalist – whether a not very well-known specialist like me or someone more eminent like Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein – was not a good idea. It was likely to come back to bite you. Nowadays, many ‘populist’ politicians – I actually prefer despotic as more appropriate to describe Johnson, Trump, Erdogan, Orban, Putin, Netanyahu, et al – can actually get away with being deliberately antagonistic towards mainstream journalists because they think that their supporters don’t care. And they may be right.

I will now descend off my soapbox and get back to the task of writing something about the history of subsea production. Sorry if this is not what you expected. Tough.

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