Leading Article: Better to blunder than to lie

Share
Related Topics
Powerful organisations hate to say sorry. They think an admission of fallibility destroys their reputation. Lloyds Bank, for example, has yet to apologise for giving an Oxfordshire couple such bad advice that this week a court awarded them pounds 77,000 in damages. As for governments, when did you last hear one owning up to a mistake?

Greenpeace is different. Having humiliated Shell in June by stopping the deep-sea dumping of the Brent Spar, the environmental group made an embarrassing discovery. It found that its claims about the amount of oil on board the installation were wrong. Yesterday Greenpeace came clean and apologised to Shell.

The error was a stupid mistake. In seriously overestimating the toxic threat, the organisation was guilty of employing juvenile science: it put the dipstick in the wrong place. Greenpeace (global income $131m last year) cannot expect to be taken seriously in future unless it is more careful. Its backing comes from people who have grown tired of cynical manipulation by government and business. They would soon give up supporting a group plagued by the same failings.

In this light, Greenpeace's apology was perhaps inevitable. The mistake was bound to be spotted eventually, since Shell has commissioned independent examination of the Brent Spar.

Nevertheless Greenpeace's decision to confess, like its campaigning throughout this controversy, is remarkable. Its significance extends beyond the environmental debate. Yet again, Greenpeace has demonstrated a very modern sophistication. It has correctly recognised that fallibility is not fatal providing the mistakes are not too serious and are combined with a measure of humility. Dishonesty, on the other hand, could destroy its reputation at a stroke. An organisation that relies on the global media depends on remaining credible. If it was caught covering up a deliberate lie, no one would ever believe its claims again. This explains why Lord Melchett, the Greenpeace UK director, was at pains yesterday to stress: "Greenpeace always tells the truth."

It was this highly ethical stance that wrong-footed Shell, one of the largest multinational companies. To the casual observer the first stages of the Greenpeace campaign seemed a waste of time, attempting to stop a decision that had long been considered and seemed irreversible.

Greenpeace was effective because it threatened to undermine Shell's reputation for honesty. It convinced people, particularly in Germany, that Shell had misled them. Consumers in Europe took the view - rightly or wrongly - that Shell, when it developed oilfields in the North Sea, had undertaken to clear up the resultant mess. Sinking plant in the ocean sounded like a breach of that undertaking. It also looked like a terrible precedent to those keen to wean Western society from its throwaway, wasteful habits.

Once Greenpeace won the ethical debate, consumers, the new arbiters of business morality, did the rest. The gathering boycott of Shell products made inevitable the abandonment of plans to dump the Brent Spar.

Critics of Greenpeace have, of course, seized on yesterday's admission in an attempt to discredit the organisation and suggest that those who work for it are prepared to play fast and loose with the truth. They are missing the point. The smart people in business and government should realise that the Greenpeace confession shows just what a serious challenge environmentalism poses. In the coming battle, honesty and integrity will be at the root of power.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: Waiting on the telephone, tribute to Norm and my Desert Island Discs

John Rentoul
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home