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Abstract This paper examines the usefulness of the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF) in understanding the media’s role in risk communication. Since the SARF was created in 1988, it has been both further developed and critiqued for (amongst other things) its: static conception of communication; lack of attention towards how key actors use the media; lack of systematic attention towards the media as an amplification station; and simplistic assumptions of how the media operate as an amplification station. A complex heavilymediated risk communication case study—the battle between Greenpeace and Shell over the deep-sea disposal of the Brent Spar oil rig (1995)—is used to explore whether the SARF in its current stage of development stands up to these critiques.

It is concluded that these critiques are more a consequence of how researchers have used the SARF rather than a fault of the SARF itself. Using the SARF framework with a qualitative case study methodology enabled systematic analysis of the role of relevant media in the social amplification of risk in the Spar issue, exposing how Greenpeace used the media to successfully communicate three risk signals, together with the inadequacies of Shell’s reactions; and revealing the layering within amplification stations, including the media itself. KEY WORDS :

Social Amplification of Risk Framework, risk signals, Greenpeace, Shell, news media

Introduction This paper examines the usefulness of the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF) in understanding the media’s role in risk communication. The SARF aims to examine contextually how risk and risk events interact with psychological, social, institutional, and cultural processes in ways that amplify or attenuate risk perceptions and concerns, thereby shaping risk behaviour and outcomes (Pidgeon et al., 2003; Kasperson, 1992; Renn et al., 1992; Renn, 1991;

Kasperson et al., 1988). The SARF borrows the metaphor of amplification from classical communications theory to analyse how social agents generate and mutate ‘risk signals’. In Stage One of the SARF, such risk signals are predictably transformed as they filter through various social and individual ‘amplification stations’ leading to the social amplification or attenuation of risk. In Stage Two of the

* Author to whom correspondence should be addressed. Dr. V. Bakir, Field of Media and Culture, Department of Society and Culture, School of Humanities, Law and Social Sciences, Forest Hall, Room 220, Trefforest, Pontypridd, Wales, UK, CF 37 1DL. Tel: 44(0)1443 654 520. E-mail: [email protected] Journal of Risk Research ISSN 1366-9877 print/ISSN 1466-4461 online # 2005 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/13669870500166898



SARF, social amplification can produce consequential ‘ripples’ (like loss of trust in decision authorities or industry) spreading far beyond the risk event’s initial impact (Kasperson, 1992; Renn et al., 1992; Renn, 1991; Kasperson et al., 1988). Since its creation in 1988, the SARF has been heavily critiqued from a range of perspectives (e.g. Rayner, 1988; Rip, 1988; Svenson, 1988) and hence further refined (see Kasperson and Kasperson, 1996; Burns et al., 1993; Kasperson, 1992; Renn, 1992; Renn et al., 1992; Kasperson and Kasperson, 1991; Renn, 1991; Burns, 1990). This paper addresses a number of critiques from the perspective of Media Studies, namely: (a) Its static conception of communication (Murdock et al., 2003, p. 158; Petts et al., 2001;

Rayner, 1988, p. 202); (b) Its lack of attention towards how key actors use the media (Petts et al., 2001, p. 100; Rayner, 1988, p. 202); (c) Its lack of systematic attention towards the media as an amplification station (Murdock et al., 2003, p. 169; Petts et al., 2001, pp. 12, 55); (d) And its simplistic assumptions of how the media operate as an amplification station (Murdock et al., 2003, p. 162; Petts et al., 2001, p. 13). In order to explore these critiques of the SARF, and hence assess the usefulness of the SARF in its current stage of development, a complex heavily-mediated risk communication case study has been chosen for reconstruction, following Eldridge and Reilly (2003, p. 152) and Kasperson (1992, p. 176) who recommend case studies to examine risk communication.

The chosen case study is the planned deep-sea disposal in 1995 of multinational oil company Royal Dutch-Shell’s first decommissioned North Sea oil rig, the Brent Spar (hereafter referred to as the ‘Spar’). Royal Dutch-Shell’s UK subsidiary,

Shell-UK, spent three years conducting risk assessments on the Spar’s disposal options and, on 5 May 1995, received a licence from the UK Government for deep-sea disposal in the NE Atlantic (Dickson, 1996, p. 124). International non-governmental organisation, Greenpeace, occupied the Spar on 30 April 1995; used the mass media to inspire protests across Northern Europe; and within seven weeks, caused Shell to renounce its plans for deep-sea disposal on 20 June 1995 (its ‘U-turn’).

Methodology The critique of the original 1988 SARF for its static conception of communication was first raised by Rayner (1988, p. 202) and later elaborated by Petts et al. (2001) and Murdock et al. (2003, p. 158). They argue that the SARF’s central metaphor of amplification and the transmission model of communication (Shannon and Weaver, 1949) on which it rests, where authoritative ‘messages’ travel from centres of expertise and legitimated power to lay publics, cannot deal adequately with the complex social organization of risk communication.

Due to these perceived difficulties with the SARF’s central communicative metaphor, Petts et al. (2001, p. 3) suggest an alternative model of risk communication based on a metaphor of public communication as a field of play and competition (Bourdieu, 1998). Rather than the SARF’s linear model of ripples emanating from a stone dropped into water, Petts et al.’s model stresses interactivity, with actors involved in risk communication competing to advance their preferred view of issues and mobilise action, continually launching initiatives and responding to others’ moves.

Greenpeace v. Shell


However, whilst Petts et al.’s model is useful in fore-grounding the web of interactions between actors, is the SARF incapable of directing attention to these webs? After all, Kasperson et al. (1988, p. 183) in their original exposition of the SARF note that the concept of social amplification of risk is dynamic, taking into account the learning and social interactions resulting from experience with risk.

Kasperson’s (1992) response to Rayner (1988) emphasises that: ‘It is certainly not our intent to reduce social complexity to a particular communications theory or to a gross electronic metaphor’ (see also Kasperson and Kasperson, 1996). Fifteen years later, in defence of the SARF, Pidgeon et al. (2003, p. 9) argue that the framework: ‘[…] used in a nuanced way - can help us to understand some of the complexities, constructedness, and messiness of real world risk communication contexts’, and so aid policy-makers and construct a future research agenda.

This paper will assess the usefulness of the SARF in exploring the complexities of risk communication involved in the Spar’s disposal during Greenpeace’s seven-week campaign of direct action (30 April–20 June 1995) when the Spar issue received maximal media coverage. Petts et al.’s (2001, p. 100) critique of the original 1988 SARF for its lack of attention towards how key actors or groups use the media is a variant of Rayner’s (1988, p. 202) earlier critique that the SARF, by treating risk signals ‘as if they came from outside the system’ loses sight ‘of the important issue of signal (or risk) selection’ (Rayner, 1988, p. 202).

Applying to the SARF an extension of the electronic analogy upon which the transmission model is based, Rayner (1988) argues for the inclusion of devices like tuners, emphasising the need to understand how the ‘receiver’ is tuned to receive signals on select frequencies. Acknowledging the analogical importance of devices like tuners, Kasperson (1992, p. 164) develops the SARF by adding that although most individuals are likely to be largely reactive to the continuing information flow on modern risks:

‘it is also apparent that some individuals and many organizations actively seek out and order risks’. Yet, despite these conceptual developments of the SARF, Petts et al. (2001, p. 100) choose to critique the original 1988 SARF for its lack of attention towards how key actors, particularly pressure groups, ‘relate to and use the media and how they negotiate risk issues’.

To examine and address this critique, this research explores the interplay between Greenpeace’s and Shell’s communicative strategies in their construction of risk regarding the Spar’s disposal. To this end, systematic sampling (Layder, 1998, p. 6) is used to examine every Greenpeace-UK and Shell-UK press release on the Spar issue from February to July 1995 (encompassing Greenpeace’s period of direct action); publications from Greenpeace and Shell; and relevant academic literature. Murdock et al. (2003, p. 169) and Petts et al. (2001, pp. 12, 55) critique the original 1988 SARF (and its subsequent empirical studies) for failing to systematically analyse the media as an amplification station, whilst pointing out the practical complexities of collating and analysing televisual texts in particular.

This is a variant of an early critique of the SARF– namely that it privileges individual over social interpretive processes (Svenson, 1988; Rip, 1988). Kasperson (1992, p. 165) later points out that since 1988, the SARF’s proponents have emphasised social processes and interconnections within the SARF (for instance, Renn et al., 1992;

Renn, 1992). In particular, Renn (1992) expands upon, and integrates into the SARF, the role and functions of ‘the transmitters’ in communication, reflecting upon the organisational norms of journalists and various models of media–society relationships. Nonetheless, the one empirical study of the Spar issue that utilises the SARF does not explore media outcomes other than to say that Greenpeace provided ‘good ¨ ¨ pictures’ (Lofstedt and Renn, 1997, p. 134) of their ‘highly visible actions’ (Lofstedt &



Renn, 1997, p. 134) that ‘largely dominated’ (Lofstedt & Renn, 1997, p. 134) media ¨ coverage. This lack of detailed attention to the media is particularly problematic in the SARF-Spar literature, as the primary aim of Greenpeace’s direct action campaign is gaining media exposure in order to influence the public and decision-makers, so stimulating action and social change (Dale, 1996, p. 3; Cracknell, 1993, p. 10). However, is this failure of the SARF literature to systematically analyse the media as an amplification station due to problems with the SARF as an explanatory framework? To answer this question, the SARF is used here to analyse communicative outcomes in the Spar issue, qualitatively examining television news broadcasts for constructed risk signals.

The main reasons for focussing on television news are that it was the most-consumed news form, highly credible, and Greenpeace’s primary target, evidenced by Greenpeace’s focus on providing Video News Releases (VNRs): ‘In the case of the Brent Spar, obviously it was just as important to get images of the rig - the support ships hosing down the activists trying to get on board – as it was to do the action itself,’ (Blair Palese, Greenpeace International, BBC1 9.00 pm News, 21 June 1995).

UK television news broadcasts were chosen for close textual analysis given that in the Spar issue, Greenpeace-UK was one of the three main Greenpeace branches involved, whilst the campaign targeted a decision of Shell-UK and the UK government: UK television news was therefore expected to be a major amplification station (although by no means the only one, as this paper shall elucidate).

The specific choice of UK television news programmes was governed by purposeful sampling (Layder, 1998, p. 6).1 Since the main reason for analysing television news is its large expected role in the social amplification of risk, the most popular national news broadcasts were used—the evening news broadcasts of BBC1 9.00 pm News and ITN 10.00 pm News.2 Other longer, more in-depth television evening news programmes were also chosen (Channel 4 News, 7.00 pm and Newsnight, BBC2) in order to get a wider range of prime-time television news’ debate on the issue. Every Spar-related broadcast from these four news programmes was examined during Greenpeace’s seven-week campaign of direct action, providing a database of 20 news items. As shall become clear, it is also pertinent to understand media coverage of the Spar in other European countries.

This was gleaned largely from Greenpeace-UK’s press releases, and all Spar-related stories in UK broadsheets (The Guardian3 and The Financial Times4) from February to October 1995. The critique of the original 1988 SARF for its simplistic assumptions of how the media operate as an amplification station stems from the fact that most work conducted within the SARF tends to concentrate on amounts of coverage given to different issues and actors5 rather than the terms on which this publicity is secured (Murdock et al., 2003, p. 162;

Petts et al., 2001, p. 13). However, is this failure of the SARF literature due to problems with the SARF as an explanatory framework? To answer this question, using key SARF concepts, this paper tracks Greenpeace’s and Shell’s framing of their risk signals in UK national 1 Purposeful sampling is where data is chosen to maximise the possibility of certain conceptual themes emerging (Layder, 1998, p. 6). 2 1996 audience figures were as follows: BBC1 9.00 pm News—6.1 million; ITN 10.00 pm News—6.2 million (BARB, cited in Guardian Education, 11 February 1997, p. 8).

3 The Guardian was chosen as it had a regular environmental section, and so would be likely to follow the Spar issue. 4 The Financial Times was chosen as the Spar issue involved a multinational and the oil industry, and so would be likely to be covered here. 5 See Kasperson (1992) for early noteworthy citations.

Greenpeace v. Shell


television evening news during Greenpeace’s seven-week campaign of direct action; and determines to what extent these messages resonated with different publics.


Greenpeace’s key objections to deep-sea disposal of the Spar were framed in risk terms. Greenpeace raised concerns about the possible impact on marine life from toxic and radioactive oil remnants inside the Spar, and argued that deep-sea disposal could set a precedent for the disposal of 400 other North Sea rigs. Here, Greenpeace adheres to the ‘precautionary principle’, which gives the benefit of scientific doubt to planetary welfare rather than to potentially hazardous human activities (Gee, 1996, p. 8).

Greenpeace’s use of a risk framework to present its argument against deep-sea disposal can be traced back to its commitment in the early 1990s ‘to increasingly demonstrate the political significance of risk and encourage politicians to add risk to their calculations’ (Rose, 1993, p. 297).

According to the SARF, a central part of risk communication entails the construction of: ‘[…] risk signals (images, signs, and symbols), which in turn interact with a wide range of psychological, social, institutional, or cultural processes in ways that intensify or attenuate perceptions of risk and its manageability’ (Kasperson et al., 2003, p. 15). In order to convey risk in terms that television news and the public could understand, Greenpeace created three potent risk signals:

- Risk Signal One: the toxic Spar; - Risk Signal Two: Shell the reckless, polluting giant; - And Risk Signal Three: the moral sanctity of the deep ocean. These risk signals are explored more fully below. Risk signal one: the toxic Spar If Greenpeace could create the perception of the Spar as toxic, this would enable it to exploit a loophole in the OSPAR6 Convention governing pollution of the NE Atlantic area. When Shell was granted its disposal licence for the Spar in May 1995, the OSPAR Convention allowed sea disposal of redundant offshore installations and pipelines unless they contained: ‘

[…] substances which result or are likely to result in hazards to human health, harm to living resources and marine ecosystems, damage to amenities or interference with other legitimate uses of the sea’ (OSPAR Convention, 1992, Annex III Article 5.2). As independent toxicity figures for the Spar were unavailable during Greenpeace’s campaign of direct action, 11 press releases labelled the Spar as ‘highly toxic and radioactive’, at one point containing, ‘14,500 tonnes of toxic rubbish,’ (Greenpeace-UK press release, 9 June 1995).

This is a form of argumentation that had formerly built the media agenda regarding environmental issues: namely that of threat and risk (Hansen, 1991). Greenpeace’s construction of the Spar as a serious pollutant was reported in UK television news, first by accessing Greenpeace, then as the weeks progressed, by a range of politicians and scientists. For example: 6 OSPAR is the Oslo-Paris Commission, the key intergovernmental authority regulating marine pollution in the Northeast Atlantic.



- Uwe Paulson, German Green Party: ‘I think that a lot of people see that this is a very serious case of pollution of the North Sea’ (BBC1 9.00 pm News 16 June 1995). - Reporter: ‘The memo from a ministry [Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries] scientist said that the Brent Spar was ‘heavily contaminated’ (BBC1 9.00 pm News, 20 June 1995).

Risk signal two: Shell, the reckless, polluting giant Shortly before it took direct action, Greenpeace released a report arguing that it was technically feasible to remove offshore oil installations (Greenpeace, April 1995). Then, through 24 vilifying press releases during its seven-week campaign, Greenpeace attacked Shell’s actions and character, accusing Shell of (amongst other things) carelessly polluting and planning to pollute in the future. These constructions appeared in UK television news, largely through accessing Greenpeace’s views. For instance: ‘For them [Greenpeace], they faced down the polluters of the ocean’ (Reporter, ITN 10.00 News, 20 June 1995).

This risk signal was memorably projected through Greenpeace’s VNRs of its direct action in a series of ‘sight-bites’ with David-and-Goliath connotations, portraying the unevenness of the battle with the world’s then largest non-state oil company (The Economist, 24 June 1995, p. 80).

Transcending European language barriers, these images were broadcast across Europe (The Battle for Brent Spar, 1995), including UK national television news (see Table 1)—an important achievement for Greenpeace, given the centrality of visual communication in conveying risk (Petts et al., 2001, p. ix). For instance, 15 days into Greenpeace’s occupation of the Spar (see Table 1, image 1) camera angles, lighting and Table 1. Selected David and Goliath imagery in UK national television evening news. Voiceover (selected broadcasts)

Visuals (& all broadcasts showing visuals) Image 1 Greenpeace scales the Spar Extreme close-up of the Spar, taken from a low angle so that it towers obliquely above the sea. The Spar’s yellow cylindrical structure fills the screen, the upper half depicting a cylindrical outer-structure - normally red but here seen as black. ‘SPAR 1’ lettering on the structure is centrally framed, with rust spots underneath.

The camera pans up the Spar from a low angle, zooming in on two activists climbing towards the summit. Caption: ‘Greenpeace video’. (Channel 4 News, 7 pm, 15 May) Image 2 Greenpeace’s helicopter threads through water canons Long shot of Greenpeace’s helicopter threading through water jets from fire hoses aimed at the Spar from surrounding vessels. Caption: ‘Greenpeace video’. (BBC1 9.00 pm News 16 June 1995; ITN 10 pm News, 16 June; Channel 4 News, 7 pm, 16 June; Channel 4 News, 7 pm 17 June; BBC1 9 pm News, 20 June; BBC2 Newsnight 20 June; ITN 10 pm News, 20 June; Channel 4 News, 7 pm 20 June; BBC1 9 pm News, 21 June)

Reporter: ‘13 Greenpeace shock troops took over the abandoned rig on May 1st. They plan to lock themselves into rooms, challenging Shell to tip the structure …’ [Ambient sound: Faint sound of engine] (Channel 4 News, 7 pm, 15 May)

Reporter: ‘But the operation was not without risk. The Greenpeace helicopter repeatedly flew through jets of water. ‘Courageous’ say the campaigners, ‘irresponsible’ say Shell.’ (ITN 10.00 pm News, 16 June 1995)

Greenpeace v. Shell


framing combine with the voiceover to project the enormity and desolation of the Spar (Goliath) and the fragility of Greenpeace’s activists (David) scaling the structure. One of the most popular images used by UK television news is Greenpeace’s tiny helicopter (David) negotiating high-pressure spray from Shell’s surrounding vessels (Goliath) (see Table 1, image 2), frequently anchored by reports framing Greenpeace as the brave challenger. David-and-Goliath constructions appeal to television news as they enable stories to be told quickly, with complicated issues distilled into simple choices.

Risk signal three: moral sanctity of the deep ocean Greenpeace’s third key risk signal, the moral sanctity of the deep ocean, was promulgated in only three press releases during its seven-week campaign. That this risk signal was comparatively downplayed is probably attributable to Greenpeace International which acts as a filtering mechanism so that morally-inspired, zealous campaigners do not put off news editors, who: ‘search for the ‘gotcha’ value, not moral lessons’ (Dale, 1996, p. 115).

Indeed, it is only as Shell U-turned, that UK national television evening news allowed Greenpeace to voice this risk signal: ‘Dumping Brent Spar in the ocean would have sent a signal that big companies and governments still believe you can use it for a dumping ground’ (Lord Melchett, Executive Director, Greenpeace, ITN 10.00 pm News, 20 June 1995). SHELL’S RESPONSE TO THE RISK SIGNALS

Unprepared for Greenpeace’s direct action campaign and its relentless construction of televisually-appealing risk signals, Shell was slow to refute Greenpeace’s claims. Compared to Greenpeace-UK’s 36 press releases during the seven-week campaign, ShellUK only produced 13. Furthermore, Shell used language too technical and detailed to be relayed verbatim in television news, waiting until 16 days after Greenpeace’s initial direct action to produce the following statement: The irreducible sources of possible contamination left before disposal will consist of the paints and sacrificial anodes on the structure itself and up to 100 (not 300 as has been alleged) tonnes of sludge, consisting of 90% sand and 10% oil residues containing very small quantities of heavy metals, and 30 tonnes of solid deposits of low level radioactive salts in the tanks and pipework (Shell-UK press release, 16 May 1995).

Journalists were left with the task of translating Shell’s details into sound-bites, creating problems of interpretation. For instance, in the report: ‘Shell says any pollutants will be removed from the installation before it’s sunk’ (Reporter, BBC1 9.00 pm News 16 June 1995), the use of ‘pollutants’ fails to close down the image of risk. In the report: ‘Shell says Greenpeace are trying to alarm people with inaccurate and misleading information’ (Reporter, Channel 4 News, 7.00 pm 17 June 1995) there are no details on what Greenpeace’s inaccuracies are, so failing to specifically counter Greenpeace’s claims.

It is not until the day before its U-turn that Shell conveys and contextualises the Spar’s toxicity in several comprehensible metaphors: Reporter: ‘The sludge [inside the Spar] also contains some heavy metals; lining the tanks are 30 tonnes of an oily scale. It’s slightly radioactive scale - but no more than occurs naturally in the granite houses in Aberdeen. Once it hits the bottom it will contaminate the sea locally but experts say it won’t harm the fish man eats, which live nearer the surface. Shell says the Brent



Spar is unique and doesn’t set a precedent, and it believes the emphasis on toxic chemicals on board is misplaced.’ Eric Faulds, Shell-UK: ‘The only true man-made chemical on Brent Spar is 90 mm of PCBs. That’s about one large spoonful. All the rest of the so-called toxic materials are metals and hydrocarbons which occur in nature’ (BBC1 9.00 pm News: 19 June 1995).

However, this comes too late to attenuate the impact of Greenpeace’s risk signals. Furthermore, Shell failed to recognise the moral sanctity of the deep ocean as a pertinent issue, arguably because the oil industry worked within technical regulatory systems largely driven by what the industry felt was acceptable, rather than public and participative (Rose, 1998, p. 27).

For instance, Shell’s repeated defence that deep-sea disposal was the Best Practicable Environmental Option (BPEO) unrepentantly put the case for ocean dumping: ‘Deepwater disposal of the Spar has been independently assessed as the best option from an environmental point of view, and in terms of several other considerations including health, safety and economic efficiency’ (Shell-UK press release, 16 May 1995). BPEO is a ‘cost-benefit’ stance that claims to determine a course of action by looking rationally at several factors including, but not limited to, the environment.

According to Shell’s commissioned studies the environmental and occupational risks posed by deep-sea disposal of the Spar were negligible compared to the second-most realistic option, onshore disposal, whilst the cost of deep-sea disposal was four times lower than onshore disposal (Rudall Blanchard Associates, 1994).

To summarise, Greenpeace created three memorable risk signals that were compressed into pithy, television news-friendly sound-bites or ‘sight-bites’ and broadcast on television news. Shell’s counter to Risk Signal One was not formulated soon enough nor simply enough for television news. Shell’s stance that deep-sea disposal was the BPEO failed to counter Risk Signal Two and directly conflicted with Greenpeace’s more emotive Risk Signal Three. Having analysed Greenpeace’s and Shell’s construction of risk, and the appearance of risk signals in UK national television evening news, can the SARF give an adequate picture of how Greenpeace’s risk signals were socially amplified to precipitate Shell’s U-turn? THE SOCIAL AMPLIFICATION OF RISK

The SARF analyses the ways in which social agents generate and mutate risk signals, so acting as ‘amplification stations’ (Kasperson et al., 2003, p. 15; Kasperson, 1992; Renn et al. 1992; Renn, 1991; Kasperson et al., 1988). These may: […] increase or decrease the volume of information about an event, heighten the salience of certain aspects of a message, or reinterpret and elaborate the available symbols and images, thereby leading to particular interpretations and responses by other participants in the social system (Kasperson et al., 2003, p. 15).

Whilst the SARF presents the mass media as primary amplifiers (Petts et al., 2001, p. 1), numerous media studies have consistently ‘failed to identify any strong link between media consumption and public perceptions of risk’ (Petts et al., 2001, p. 3). Even heavy and sustained media coverage does not by itself ensure risk amplification (Petts et al., 2001, p. 29; Kasperson, 1992). Awareness of risks is different to caring about risks—the issue of salience. Greenpeace’s success in causing Shell’s U-turn, therefore, can be explained by Greenpeace’s ability to make the Spar issue salient to various European audiences by

Greenpeace v. Shell


linking into amplification stations beyond the media. In order to assess the role of the media in the social amplification of risk, various amplification stations triggered during the seven-week campaign are discussed below in chronological order, namely: various media; institutions of civil society; mobilised individuals; and subsidiaries of Shell. Greenpace’s direct action in occupying the Spar on 30 April 1995 was undertaken by the three strongest Greenpeace organisations in Europe: Greenpeace-UK, GreenpeaceNetherlands and Greenpeace-Germany (Bate, 1999, p. 52).

Accordingly, Greenpeace’s films of its direct action were immediately relayed by satellite telephone to newsrooms across northern Europe (Rose, 1998). European politicians quickly joined Greenpeace’s protest—representing a significant change in stance. When the deep-sea disposal decision was taken in February 1995, European nations had been notified under the guidelines of the OSPAR Convention, but had lodged no objections within the Convention’s 60-day deadline (i.e. by 16 April) (Lofstedt and Renn, 1997, p. 132).

Yet, nine days into ¨ Greenpeace’s direct action, the German Environmental and Agricultural Ministries protested to the UK Government that land disposal had not been significantly investigated (Lofstedt and Renn, 1997, p. 132). Twelve days into Greenpeace’s direct ¨ action, the Danish Government tabled a proposal to ban deep-sea disposal of oil platforms during a Heads of Delegation meeting prior to the upcoming North Sea Conference on 8–9 June (Greenpeace-UK press release, 12 May 1995).

The Danish government’s actions generated coverage on Danish television where authoritative actors expressively maximised the issue’s salience to the general public by tapping into Greenpeace’s Risk Signals One and Two. For instance: … most countries in the EU thinks this is dirty and that it should be stopped. If it is banned in the US they try other places and unfortunately there is [sic] both countries and enterprises in this situation who choose the cheapest option … (Ritt Bjerregaard, European Union Commissioner for the Environment, translation from Danish television, Greenpeace-UK press release, 13 May 1995).

The importance of Risk Signal Two—Shell, the reckless, polluting giant—tallies with past research which suggests that the role of risk signals and blame attributable to incompetent risk management seemed particularly important to public concerns (Burns et al., 1993; Kasperson et al.,1992; Renn et al.,1992). In the third and fourth week of Greenpeace’s direct-action campaign, building on Danish and German political dissent, Greenpeace mobilised politicians against deep-sea disposal by collecting signatures (Lofstedt and Renn, 1997, p. 132).

By the fourth week of Greenpeace’s campaign, as Shell forcibly removed Greenpeace from the Spar, various sections of civil society (conservative groups and Green action groups) in Germany, Denmark and Sweden called for boycotts of Shell’s petrol stations (Lofstedt & Renn, ¨ 1997, p. 132). In the fifth week of Greenpeace’s campaign, following a Greenpeacefinanced survey in Germany which suggested that 74% of the population were willing to boycott Shell petrol (Lofstedt and Renn, 1997, p. 132), Greenpeace-Germany duly called ¨ for boycotts (Rose, 1998, p. 102).

In the sixth week of Greenpeace’s campaign, at the intergovernmental North Sea Conference on 8–9 June 1995, Anna Lindh, Sweden’s Environment Minister, called for a ban on deep-sea disposal of oil platforms (Financial Times, 9 June 1995). Earlier calls for boycotts of Shell petrol were repeated in Germany by the Protestant Church in Hamburg; the largest union in Germany—the metalworkers union; the front page of Germany’s high circulation national tabloid newspaper, Bild



(Greenpeace-UK press release, 14 June 1995); the police; and other environmental groups (Rose, 1998, p. 102). Meanwhile, strengthening Risk Signal Two, German television broadcast Greenpeace VNRs of Shell’s vessels ramming Greenpeace’s boat (The Battle for Brent Spar, 1995; Greenpeace-UK press release, 10 June, 1995). In the seventh week of Greenpeace’s campaign, Greenpeace-UK and GreenpeaceNetherlands maintained momentum by also calling for boycotts (Greenpeace-UK press release, 15 June 1995).

Throughout, Greenpeace’s boycotting message was carefully constructed to maximise ease of consumer response, with banners draped on the Spar urging: ‘Save the North Sea. Greenpeace’ (ITN 10.00 pm News, 30 April 1995) invoking Risk Signals One and Three; and ‘Stop Shell Now’ (Channel 4 News, 7.00 pm, 15 May 1995) invoking Risk Signal Two. No reference was made to Shell’s significant chemical holdings (a more diffuse set of targets) (Lofstedt and Renn, 1997, p. 134) or to Esso, joint ¨ owner of the Spar (which would have made it harder for motorists to find alternative petrol stations).

Boycotts were taken up across Northern Europe, particularly in Germany where a 10-day boycott cut sales by up to 50% (Tsoukas, 1999, p. 515). Individuals therefore became amplification stations by taking action, which in turn was reported on UK national television evening news. In addition to boycotting Shell, a large German letter-writing campaign was directed towards the UK Department of Trade and Industry, Shell-UK and Shell-Germany (Lofstedt and Renn, 1997, p. 132). Meanwhile, Greenpeace ¨ boosted its televisual presence by precariously dropping more activists onto the Spar by helicopter on 16 June, despite Shell’s attempts to prevent this through its high-pressure fire hoses trained on the Spar.

Again, this reinforced Risk Signal Two. Protests against Shell did not remain peaceful: violent attacks on Shell’s German petrol stations, with 50 damaged, two fire-bombed and one raked with bullets (Knight, 1998, p. 41), kept the Spar issue on UK national television news. Given the intensity of public protest in Germany, Chancellor Kohl used the G7 Summit (15–17 June 1995) to protest against the Spar’s disposal to John Major, the UK Prime Minister. Shell did too little too late to attenuate the social amplification of risk of deep-sea disposal.

Arguably, Shell’s organisational structure exacerbated its slow response to Greenpeace. Neale (1997) notes that due to Shell’s complex matrix management system, a Shell plan needs to secure the agreement of the operating company, the sector and the region, requiring a high level of internal discussion. As public, political and consumer pressure mounted during the seventh week of Greenpeace’s campaign, Shell-Austria, Shell-Germany and ShellNetherlands broadcast (the former on Vienna Radio, the latter two in national television interviews) that they opposed deep-sea disposal (Greenpeace-UK press releases, 14 June 1995, 15 June 1995).

As public outrage developed in Germany, Shell-Germany distanced itself from Shell-UK, claiming it had no influence there (Regester and Larkin, 1997, p. 73). These public divisions within Shell highlighted a further organisational problem, namely that Shell is: ‘ultimately a federation of country-based companies and Brent Spar was so powerful an issue that it blew open the cracks in Shell’s normally carefully managed international facade’ (Financial Times, 1995c).

This sluggishness in reaching decisions, together with the ¸ autonomy of Shell’s various companies across Northern Europe, appears to have been aggravated by poor internal communications. In an interview with Der Spiegel, the German weekly news magazine, Peter Duncan, chairman of Shell-Germany, said he first heard about the planned deep-sea disposal ‘more or less from the television’ (Financial Times, 1995b). Given this mounting pressure from a broad range of amplification stations, including its own subsidiaries, Shell-UK made its unprecedented ‘U-turn’ several days later on 20 June

Greenpeace v. Shell


1995. The importance of the North European amplification stations is highlighted by the fact that deep-sea disposal of the Spar was largely a non-issue for mainstream UK national television evening news (i.e. BBC1 9.00 pm news or ITN 10.00 pm News) until the seventh week of Greenpeace’s campaign when events in Germany, and Shell’s U-turn, were extensively reported.

Greenpeace’s coordination of the operation across GreenpeaceGermany and Greenpeace-Netherlands, as well as Greenpeace-UK, was therefore a key factor in putting this risk issue on the road to amplification. Thus, a ‘layering in social amplification of risk processes’ (Kasperson 1992, p. 173) was observable, with the centrality of the amplificatory role played by the mass media across Europe varying between countries, and according to the specific stage in Greenpeace’s seven-week campaign of direct action.

Summary and Discussion Combining a qualitative case study approach with the SARF’s concepts of risk signals and amplification stations, this article has reconstructed key communicative strategies and events during Greenpeace’s seven-week campaign of direct action. In doing so, has the SARF stood up to its four specific critiques from the perspective of Media Studies?

Criticisms that the SARF assumes a static conception of communication based on a linear ‘message’ system, thus limiting its ability to explore the complexities of real world risk communication, are inappropriate on two grounds. Firstly, there is an aspect of linearity when media-aware pressure groups like Greenpeace successfully target the news with carefully constructed and relentlessly promoted risk signals. That the SARF enables exposition of such linear processes, however, does not detract from its ability to also detect complexity and multi-directionality within communication.

Thus, secondly, by drawing attention to the range of amplification stations within and beyond the mass media, an appropriately used methodology such as the case study allows consideration within the SARF of how the ‘message’ may be transformed over time and through different amplification stations, and how collectively, the symbolic (as opposed to manifest) content of the message may emerge as the most important aspect of the communication. In a similar vein, criticisms that the SARF: ignores how key actors use the media; fails to systematically analyse the media as an amplification station; and offers simplistic assumptions of how the media operate as an amplification station, are more a consequence of how researchers have used the SARF rather than a fault of the SARF itself.

Using the SARF framework with a case study approach and qualitative sampling techniques enabled a detailed and systematic analysis of relevant media in the social amplification of risk in the Spar issue. With this methodology, this paper has illuminated how Greenpeace used the media to successfully communicate three memorable risk signals, together with the inadequacies of Shell’s reactions. Whereas critics of the SARF suggest that it simplistically views the media as a ‘single black box’ (e.g. Petts et al., 2001, p. 94), defenders of the SARF point to its ability to identify the ‘layering in social amplification of risk processes’ (Kasperson 1992, p. 173).

This research highlights the layering within various amplification stations, including the mass media itself, with risk amplification differentially manifest in different nations’ national media across northern Europe, and also within UK national television evening news. Indeed, use of the SARF to understand the Spar issue highlights the need for still closer examination of media (especially television) coverage in northern Europe during Greenpeace’s seven-week campaign.



The SARF therefore stands up to its four specific critiques from Media Studies. With its central concepts of risk signals and amplification stations, the SARF has facilitated careful reconstruction of key communicative events and strategies in the Spar issue, and so has proven adequate to the task of unpacking, ‘the complexities, constructedness, and messiness’ (Pidgeon et al., 2003, p. 9) of this heavily mediated risk communication.

Given that the SARF was never intended to be a predictive model, but merely a means of integrating different academic perspectives to understand risk amplification and attenuation (Kasperson et al., 1988, p. 180, 2003, p. 13; Kasperson, 1992, p. 165; Renn et al., 1992), the simplicity of the SARF must be regarded as a useful starting point from which to empirically investigate real world complexity in risk communication.

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