Daily Archives: December 20, 2011

Big Oil and the Arts (New Left Project)

New Left Project • 20 December 2011

A Social License to Operate
by James Marriott

In the wake of the news that several of major UK arts institutions have decided to renew sponsorship deals with BP, we present the first of two excerpts from Not if but when: Culture Beyond Oil, a new publication that sets out the case against oil sponsorship of the arts. Here, James Marriott from Platform discusses the dependence of oil companies on having a ‘social license to operate’ and how arts sponsorship is used to construct this.


An oil corporation such as BP combines the mindsets of an engineering company and a bank. It constantly faces the practical challenges of extracting, transporting and processing oil and gas, shifting the geology of distant lands to the cars and turbines of its customers. Like all engineering problems, these challenges are approached in the belief that ultimately they can be solved. The point of solving them is to make money, profit on invested capital.

The construction of an offshore platform is one of the most expensive projects on earth in the 21st century. Usually, it can only offer a high return on capital if oil production is maintained over two or three decades. The maintenance of this production is usually threatened by social and political shifts in the countries of extraction. Any such threat to production – or the perception that that threat might exist – can immediately undermine the profitability of a corporation. In May 2010 BP’s share value was almost halved by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, not because of the potential costs of the oil spill clean up, but because investors were concerned that the company’s future prospects in the US were being undermined by the collapse of support in Washington and in the media.

To guard against any such threat to the company’s value, BP works constantly to engineer its ‘social licence to operate’. This is a term widely used in business and government circles and usually applies to the process of engendering support for a company’s activities in the communities who live close to their factories, oil wells, etc. However it can help us understand how corporations construct public support in states far from those places of extraction or manufacture – for example how BP builds support in London.

The financial drive for international oil companies to continually increase the amount of oil and gas they extract often leads them to places of extraction that are high risk, either technically, as in deepwater offshore, or politically, as in Libya. The UK government can be of great assistance to the likes of BP in guarding against these risks. The Labour government assisted BP in gaining access to oilfields in Gaddhafi’s Libya, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government will no doubt be assisting BP in gaining access to oilfields in post-Gaddhafi Libya. In the summer of 2010, a large swathe of the British political establishment called on the White House to ‘stop bashing BP’ – support that assisted the company in persuading President Obama to say on TV: “BP is a strong and viable company and it is in all our interests that it stays that way”.

To construct and maintain this support, BP focuses on building a positive image in the eyes of politicians, diplomats, civil servants, journalists, academics, NGOs and cultural commentators. These groups are known as the ‘special publics’ or ‘clients’ in the public relations industry. The corporations often contract external PR companies to carry out this work, such as Fishburn Hedges, who won an industry award for the Special Publics Engagement Programme that it created for Shell in 2009:

“Our Special Publics Engagement Programme is a key element of our corporate communications mix and is fundamental to sustaining a positive view of Shell among key decision makers and influencers around the world. And we know it works – almost three quarters of those that come into contact with Shell through our partnerships around the world go away with an improved view of our company. Fishburn Hedges has been central to that work for a long time – and this award is well-deserved recognition for the excellent job that they do.”

Building a supportive attitude within the ‘special publics’ can be done through direct engagement and dialogue, through advertising, and through financial support – funding academic posts at universities, creating programmes in schools, financing sports such as the 2012 Olympics, or sponsoring culture.

Each of these actions is helpful in assisting the construction of the social license to operate, as well as boosting employee morale and polishing the company’s brand, as pointed out by Rena De Sisto, global arts and culture executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (that contributes $40m a year to the arts worldwide):

“There are plenty of big corporations that do not support the arts, because they labour under the misapprehension that they are something extra, instead of a key marketing tool. If more [of them] knew how effective the arts can be in terms of employee morale, client outreach and burnishing your brand, they would be surprised and delighted.”

This support is not provided as a form of philanthropy, but as an integral part of engineering the social and political circumstances that will best ensure the long-term security of those investments in oil and gas projects. Approached as an engineering challenge, the corporation tends to see all opposition to its activities as solvable with the appropriate time, capital and techniques. The sponsorship of institutions such as Tate can be understood as just one of these tactics to ensure the security of assets and the return on investments.

The success of this strategy is illustrated by the remark of Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate, in the Summer of 2010, that: “You don’t abandon your friends because they have what we consider to be a temporary difficulty”. BP had just created one of the worst spills in the history of the oil industry, and desperately need the support of allies to shore up its position. The public endorsement of arguably the most senior figure in the British cultural sector was of immense value in building support in the political establishment.

Not if but when is a single issue, limited edition publication, blending art and analysis, which can be bought here.

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Solidarity Protest outside Indonesian Embassy (London, Dec. 20)

Press Advisory 

Solidarity protest outside Indonesian Embassy

Today at 11am demonstrators will protest at the Indonesian Embassy in solidarity with imprisoned punks in the Aceh region of Indonesia. Several hundred punks and supporters are expected to block the entrance to the Embassy on Grosvenor Square after police detained 64 people at a charity concert for orphans and put them into ‘moral rehabilitation’ in a police prison last week.

Musicians from London’s underground punk scene will speak and a sound system will be set up outside the Embassy. Protestors will demand a statement from the Indonesian Ambassador condemning the attempt to forcibly remove people’s identity and freedom of expression. The protest has been organised to call for an end to human rights abuses in Indonesia, and to the increasing drive towards cultural normalisation that criminalises subcultures like the punk movement.

The protest comes amid international pressure on the Indonesian government, as the Indonesian Embassy in Moscow was splattered with paint and protests planned worldwide. Human rights groups worldwide joined Evi Narti Zain, executive director of the Aceh Human Rights Coalition, who condemned the actions of the police as violent and illegal. Indonesia’s transition towards a democratic system of government has been racked by corruption and economic disparity. This has led to widespread social unrest, while repressive policing has led to a doubling of prison inmates between 2003 and 2008.

A Press Release will go out with further information mid-afternoon.

Call 07432858517 for press enquiries, or email punksolidarity@gmail.com.


The Jakarta Globe
Aceh ‘Punks’ Arrested for ‘Re-education’
Nurdin Hasan | December 13, 2011

Banda Aceh. Dozens of young people were being held and punished by Aceh police on Tuesday for the supposed crime of being “punk,” despite not being charged with any crime nor being brought before a court.

The 64 music lovers, some of whom had come from as far as Jakarta and West Java, were arrested by regular and Shariah police as they held a charity concert in Banda Aceh’s Taman Budaya park on Saturday night.

Banda Aceh police took the arrestees on Tuesday afternoon to the Aceh State Police School for “reeducation.” Aceh police chief Ins. Gen. Iskandar Hasan described the punishment awaiting them when they reached the police school in the Seulawah hills, 62 kilometers east of the capital.

“There will be a traditional ceremony. First their hair will be cut. Then they will be tossed into a pool. The women’s hair we’ll cut in the fashion of a female police officer,” Iskander said on Tuesday. “Then we’ll teach them a lesson.”

Iskander denied the punishment constituted a breach of human rights.

“We’ll change their disgusting clothes. We’ll replace them with nice clothes. We’ll give them toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, sandals and prayer gear. It will all be given to them,” he said. “I’ll remind [police] not to breach human rights. We are oriented to educating our community, our nation. This is our country too, right?”

Iskandar said he would invite the Muslim Cleric Council to participate in “restoring their [the arrestees’] right thinking and morals.”

Human rights groups opposed the action.

Evi Narti Zain, executive director of the Aceh Human Rights Coalition, said the police’s action was violent and illegal.

“What is this education? The police’s action is inconsistent because the punks did nothing wrong,” Evi said. “Punk music is their way of expressing themselves. It is normal and is found all around the world. It’s their right to express their freedom. There’s nothing wrong with punk kids.”

Aceh Legal Aid Foundation’s director, Hospinovizal Sabri, said he had tried to get the young people released since their arrest on Saturday night.

“On the night the punks were arrested by the Police and Shariah Police we met with them, and we went again to the police station and spoke to some of them this morning [Tuesday],” Hospinovizal said. “We are working hard to have them released because they have breached no law.”

Hospinovizal said he aimed to take a habeas corpus type action before a judge to have the court force the police to release the young people. “There’s a perception from some quarters in Aceh that they are human rubbish, but it is clear they are innocent and are only expressing their independence in their own way.”

Iskandar said their date of release would “depend on the budget from the regional government.”


The Jakarta Globe
Should I Stay or Should I Go? Punks Flee Re-Education
Nurdin Hasan | December 19, 2011

Banda Aceh. Police have recaptured two young punks, one of them a minor, who escaped “re-education” at a police camp in the hills 62 kilometers east of Banda Aceh.

A police officer lectures a group of detained Indonesian punks at a police school in Aceh Besar in Aceh province. (AFP Photo)

Banda Aceh Police chief Armensyah Thay said Syaukani, 20, and Saiful Fadli, 17, escaped from police custody around noon on Saturday because they “missed their parents.”

The two youths, along with 62 others including six women, have been undergoing forcible “re-education” since Tuesday of last week, when they were arrested without charge during a punk music concert in Taman Budaya, Banda Aceh.

“The two punk kids fooled our officers by saying they wanted to go to the toilet, but after we checked and searched for them they had gone,” Armensyah told reporters on Sunday.

It is believed the two climbed a hill behind the camp and caught a ride back to the city.

Armensyah said his officers had raided places in the capital where they thought the two might be hiding.

“Syaukani was captured at 11 p.m. close to Baiturrahman grand mosque, and Saiful was caught at 2 a.m. at a food stall in Setui,” he said, adding that both were immediately brought back to the re-education camp by police.

After the breakout, police said they would tighten security and ensure continuous surveillance of the youths. “If they want to go to the toilet, they’ll be escorted.”

Armensyah said the Banda Aceh administration had asked police to continue raids searching for punks in the town, to ensure the punk community did not continue to grow in numbers.

The reasoning, Armensyah said, was that the punk ethos was at odds with the teachings of Islam.

Armensyah said he did not know whether the punks would receive similar treatment on an ongoing basis.

“Maybe, if there’s funding for us, we can continue their re-education on an extended basis until they’re better. After that we’ll hand them all over to the city government,” he said.

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