from the Sunday Herald, 2 September 2018
‘Virgin's wildlife orgy campaign labelled tasteless’ was the headline on 13 October 2007. It reported on a viral marketing campaign for Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains featuring a “sex party” video of pantomime animals “simulating vigorous and varied sex acts”.
There was a tenuous connection to climate change, suggesting that rising temperatures would make animals mate earlier and more often. But it’s real and somewhat tacky purpose was to boost Branson’s transport business.
Looking back over the Sunday Herald’s 19 years covering environmental issues, the story stands out as one of the few that might have raised a wry smile. Most have been depressing: polluted air and water, wiped out wildlife and wrecked environments.
We visited India in 2014 to report on the 30th anniversary of the horrific toxic gas disaster that killed more than 25,000 people in Bhopal. The same year we also reported from Japan on the 25,000 people who will never go home because of radioactive contamination from the Fukushima nuclear accident 2011.
We wrote about the persisting radioactive pollution of Scottish uplands from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986. We revealed numerous blunders, leaks and accidents at Scotland’s nuclear power and weapons facilities, and helped expose some of the multiple follies of Trident.
Every year we charted the faecal contamination of Scotland’s prized bathing waters, measured the climate-disrupting carbon belching from power and petrochemical plants and named the companies worst at pollution control and the councils worst at waste recycling. We repeatedly listed the city streets so polluted with traffic fumes that they would damage your health.
We disclosed how seals, beavers and mountain hares were shot, how birds of prey were poisoned and how marine mammals suffered. We exposed how pesticides contaminated our food, harmed bees and polluted lochs.
We highlighted the nature conservation areas being trashed, the landscapes being scarred and the communities being betrayed by opencast coal companies. We exposed weaknesses in Scotland’s national parks, uncovered transport policy flaws and questioned how well our regulators regulate.
We often wrote about the dreadful things that might happen: the nuclear bomb convoys that could crash, the nightmares that global warming could bring, or the dangers posed by fracking.
Sometimes the stories annoyed the powers that be: successive governments, ministries and ministers, local authorities, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage. We’ve not been popular with the oil industry, would-be frackers, power companies, landowners, banks, property developers, polluting corporations or fish farmers.
We once seriously irritated Donald Trump by reporting on his unsuccessful bid to evict local residents to make way for his golf development at Menie on the Aberdeenshire coast. From Trump Tower in New York, he suggested in 2009 that our story was “asinine” and “stupid”, while his senior aide accused the Sunday Herald of writing “shit”.
It might surprise some to learn that we have also upset powerful wildlife and conservation groups, political parties across the spectrum and almost everyone we’ve dealt with over the years. That is, of course, all as it should be with a free press holding power to account.
But it’s not all been doom and gloom. Occasionally we have highlighted the heroic efforts of those that struggle, fight back and campaign, providing maybe a little cathartic relief.
Crucially, we’ve shown that the consequences of accentuating the negative can sometimes be positive. Putting the media spotlight on bad things can actually make them go away - or at least lessen their impact.
In 2004 we travelled to Harris to hear the French multinational, Lafarge, tell islanders that it was abandoning its controversial plans to dig a superquarry into a mountain. “I felt quite choked up,” said local hotel owner, Patricia Martin, at the time. “I felt a huge sense of relief.”
Our exposés in the early 2000’s of how often officials from government and non-government organisations used polluting short-haul flights instead of trains caused them to modify their travel behaviour. Harping on about the problems of the Cairngorm funicular railway, resulted its public finances coming under the official microscope in 2010.
The Sunday Herald played an important role in helping to bring a series of major environmental arguments to an end. These include the cancellation of a planned coal fired power station at Hunterston in 2012, the introduction of a moratorium on fracking for underground shale gas in 2015 and the abandonment of a scheme to set fire to the coal under the Firth of Forth in the same year.
In 2016 we reported how the Duke of Buccleuch had come under fire for failing to protect residents and ramblers from toxic waste ponds left by lead mining near Wanlockhead in the Galloway hills. Locals told us that the landowner subsequently agreed to fence off the ponds.
This year the Royal Bank of Scotland - long a target for its environmentally and ethically unfriendly lending policies - announced it would no longer help finance new coal fired power stations, oil sands projects or drilling for oil in the Arctic. And, after heated rows, Scottish ministers called in plans for a golf course on the Coul Links wildlife area near the Dornoch Firth.
Perhaps most important of all, our sustained coverage of climate change and how it is impacting Scotland and developing countries has helped shape the political debate in Holyrood. The adoption of what ministers liked to call “world-leading” targets to cut carbon pollution by the Scottish Parliament in 2008 was the result of an effective pincer movement by campaign groups and opposition parties, helped by the media.
“Over nearly two decades the Sunday Herald has been the best place to expose government sloth and corporate failure on the environment,” said Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“The paper has been at the forefront of making sure that politicians and company bosses know that the public want their environment safeguarded and enhanced. The Sunday Herald team can be proud of the positive difference they have made.”
Dave Morris, a veteran outdoors campaigner and vice president of the Ramblers, praised the paper for leading media coverage of the environment. “It has been the first port of call for anyone with a concern for the protection and enjoyment of our fragile planet,” he said.
But he warned there was still “a huge mountain to climb” to protect wildlife and the natural beauty of the hills. “The Sunday Herald has set the environmental agenda that must guide these changes,” he said.
Another environmental veteran, Lang Banks from WWF, still has a copy of the paper’s first edition in 1999. "The Sunday Herald set a new benchmark for the way newspapers reported on environmental issues in Scotland,” he said.
Newspapers often big themselves up too much, and such praise may well be exaggerated. As always, it’s for readers to form their own judgements.
Sometimes, for sure, we have failed to make much impact. Eagles, harriers and hares are still killed so that red grouse can be shot for profit. Fish farms still pollute. Developers like Trump are still threatening environmental damage, while the man himself has become one of the world’s most powerful and dangerous leaders.
Worst of all, dark-bellied Trident submarines still sneak out of the Clyde ever ready to unleash nuclear annihilation.
There is no doubt that there are more environmental stories to be written, and many tough challenges to face. “Many species remain at risk of extinction and our global climate teeters on the edge of stability,” said Banks. “If we are to deliver a safe climate, fix our broken food system, and restore nature we need to ensure there are newspapers and media outlets willing to hold companies and decision-makers to account.”
- 2004: cancellation of Lafarge super quarry on Harris
- 2005: land law reformed
- 2007: officials cut back on flying
- 2008: cancellation of ship to ship oil transfers in the Forth
- 2009: beavers reintroduced
- 2009: world-leading climate targets adopted
- 2010: spending on Cairngorm funicular condemned
- 2010: release of nuclear weapon safety reports
- 2012: plan for coal-fired power station at Hunterston dropped
- 2012: leaked letter outs Trump as wind power supporter
- 2013: partial ban on bee-harming pesticides
- 2014: Ministry of Defence agree to decontaminate Dalgety Bay
- 2015: Scottish Government moratorium on fracking
- 2015: Trident whistleblower goes AWOL, is arrested and discharged
- 2015: Plans to burn coal under the Firth of Forth dropped
- 2015: Loch Lomond national park board member resigns over gold mine shares
- 2015: release of Prince Charles’s letters to Alex Salmond
- 2016: Ministers drop pro-fracking consultant
- 2018: RBS cuts coal and oil lending
- 2018: Coul Links planning application called in by ministers