Taking Sides

If the BP oil disaster had happened in the English Channel. Picture courtesy of http://www.ifitwasmyhome.com; to link to this map use http://tinyURL.com/IfBPinEnglishChannel

I wrote playfully on my About page that my dual nationality ought to be no problem as long as the US and the UK don’t “descend into open warfare”. With the FIFA World Cup US vs. UK match scheduled for tonight, figuring out which team to cheer for was the worst conflict of interest I thought I’d be liable to run up against.

But then came the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Recently the press coverage here took a strange turn, with reports of politicians and prominent figures accusing Obama and his administration of spouting “anti-British rhetoric”, with calls for the British Prime Minister to “protect BP”. What on earth were they talking about?

On Thursday evening, radio and television reports began to air the view that Obama is painting the problem as BP’s fault in order to deflect criticism from himself. But surely Obama paints the leak as BP’s fault because it was not Obama’s oil rig that failed, but BP’s.

A former British trade minister interviewed on BBC radio Friday said that he was afraid the situation was being hijacked by American political posturing having to do with the midterm elections. Well, actually he said he “didn’t want BP to fall foul of domestic pork-barrel politics with midterm elections coming up”, but I don’t think he actually knows what “pork-barrel politics” means, because there’s no pork-barrel involved in this issue.

Things began to fall into place when I realized that these speakers were reacting to the BP spill as if it were only a matter of politics. It isn’t; the oil is real. All the politicking in the world doesn’t change the fact that 40 thousand barrels of oil a day (or whatever figure you trust from the variety seen in print) is fouling fishing grounds, beaches, and wildlife refuges.

As for “anti-British rhetoric”, nobody in the Obama administration has said anything against the British people or the British nation. In fact, I have not been able to find examples of any anti-British message coming from anybody in the US government—or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough, but if I haven’t, neither has British Foreign Secretary William Haig, who has said that he hasn’t heard anything from Americans that he would class as anti-British.

So where’s this anti-British rhetoric? The only example I can find is ludicrous: Obama and other administration figures have slipped up and called the company British Petroleum instead of BP, which many people here take as “anti-British”. Surely this is a desperate grasp for the flimsiest of straws. It seems hardly possible that while poison spreads, people could be so appallingly hypersensitive to correct forms of address, or wouldn’t give the benefit of doubt to Americans who don’t know that the initials BP have lost their referrents, that BP—after having been known as British Petroleum since 1954—officially changed its name in 1998.

Some commentators here have suggested that holding BP responsible for the disaster is anti-British because if BP goes bankrupt, it will devastate the British economy. This is in part because so many pension funds here have their money invested in BP shares. I’m sorry that pensioners may lose money because of BP’s practices, or even because of BP’s bad luck, but I’m sorrier about the enormous damage to New Orleans’ culture and way of life (because this goes far beyond its economy) and to wildlife. If the hurricane season spreads the oil over hundreds of miles, it’s not the British economy I’ll be thinking of first, nor the need to “protect BP”.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, said “OK, [BP] has presided over a catastrophic accident, which it is trying to remedy, but ultimately it cannot be faulted because it was an accident that took place and BP, I think, is paying a very, very heavy price indeed.”

Can BP really be that easily absolved? Here’s another British voice: Andrew Sullivan, a conservative British columnist who lives in the USA, wrote in last Sunday’s Times (that’s the one in London, not the New York Times) about US authorities citing BP and other multinational oil companies for negligence and corner-cutting; in the past three years, counting only “egregious, wilful” violations, they cited Sunoco and ConocoPhillips 8 times each, while Citgo had 2 violations, and Exxon had 1. Oh, and BP? 760 violations.

So compared to the next-worst multinational oil companies, BP had almost 100 times as many egregious, willful (“wilful” is the UK spelling) violations of regulations. Perhaps it’s not entirely coincidence, then, that the accident happened to BP rather than to one of the others, and it’s not unreasonable to lay responsibility at BP’s door.

And if paying for the cleanup bankrupts BP? It may well be true that in the long run it would be unwise to require BP to pay every penny in cleanup costs and compensation that they should, but that does not make simply calling for BP to be held accountable an anti-British stance, any more than it is an anti-British stance to make the mistake of calling the company British Petroleum.

BP could have carried insurance to cover the costs of a catastrophic failure, which would have given it further defenses against bankruptcy; the company decided not to carry that insurance. They decided instead to self-insure, which just means they are uninsured. Perhaps BP believed its own press, and didn’t think a catastrophe like this could happen. The problem is that they didn’t just bet their company on that; they bet the lives of millions of aquatic and marsh creatures and the livelihoods of thousands upon thousands of people who depend for their living on either tourism or on seafood: catching it, cooking it, feeding and housing tourists who come to the Gulf and eat it.

In the end, charges of anti-Americanism or anti-Britishism waste time and energy. Taking offence because Americans don’t know that BP is no longer meant to stand for British Petroleum does not save a single family fishing business, a single pelican, not even a single oyster. The problem isn’t the British economy, pensioners, or mid-term elections; it’s the cold hard facts of one of the largest man-made environmental disasters ever seen.

And it’s that size, the enormous scope of the disaster, that is another reason, I believe, that some British politicians are content to handle this as if it were merely a political problem: they simply don’t get how big this is. I’ve had ample evidence over the last decade that most British people do not grasp the vastness of the USA; at this point, I don’t think some of the commentators over here realize the scope of the oil problem. It’s in the Gulf of Mexico, right? That doesn’t sound so bad. How big can it be?

Apparently Shaun Ley, an anchorman on BBC Radio 4’s main mid-day news programme, “The World At One”, hasn’t quite taken in the areas involved. He referred Friday to the “oil leak off the coast of Mexico”. Yes, the oil spill in the Gulf is huge, but the Gulf is 1000 miles wide. There are 4000 miles of coastline around the Gulf from the tip of Florida to Cancun, and New Orleans isn’t anywhere near Mexico.

The map at the top of this post may help put the size of things into perspective. If this “spill” were to have a twin in the English Channel, it would reach from Norwich almost 400 miles around the south coast of England to Portsmouth. It would coat all of Kent, East Sussex, and West Sussex, plus parts of Surrey, Hampshire, Middlesex and Berkshire. Oil would go up the Thames and inland past Reading. It would fill the Channel almost entirely, washing into France to contaminate Dunkirk and Calais and pretty much all of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardie. That is the scale of the devastation.

The final frustration is hearing people claim that Obama’s intention to hold BP responsible is nationalism. On Friday’s “World At One” broadcast, Shaun Ley spoke to former trade minister Lord Digby Jones, who began by saying that he didn’t want the discourse to “descend into nationalism”, but followed that straightaway with this:

It was an American company that built this.
It was an American company that operated it.
It’s an American regulator that told these people not to go on shallow [sic] but to go out deep where the technology is at the border of what we can do.
It’s an American population that, the, that takes the black stuff and turns it into their gas guzzlers.
It’s an American Fed that takes the tax dollars—

At that point, Mr Ley cut him off, and asked Lord Jones what he wanted from the Prime Minister. He answered:

I want the Prime Minister to stand up and be counted to take this away from nationalism and make it understood that, you know, 40% of the dividends that come out of BP are going into American pension funds.

And the English stereotype holds that Americans have no sense of irony! Then again, perhaps Lord Jones doesn’t mind nationalism as long as it isn’t American nationalism.

Given that I’ve heard British people blame the USA for everything they dislike right down to too many brochures coming packaged with British magazines, I imagine the outcry here would be as bad or worse, and would be decidedly nationalistic, if a US-based multinational were to cause environmental damage of any kind in UK waters, much less something of epic scale. (I refer to a “US-based multinational” because there have been claims here that BP, being a multinational, cannot validly be called a British company.)

I still haven’t decided which team I’ll cheer tonight in the World Cup match. As for the BP oil leak, I’m not going to take a nationalistic stance; I’m on the side of clean waters, oil-free wildlife, good fishing, and seafood gumbo. I believe that BP made the mess and BP should take responsibility to the fullest extent it can. If that makes people think I’m anti-British, so be it.



Filed under Current events, Language, Law/Politics/Government

19 responses to “Taking Sides

  1. Diane McAlpin

    Wow- I don’t know whether to be pleased or annoyed that British politicians can be every bit as assinine and devisive as their US counterparts. I haven’t heard one word said against the UK on American television. The BP CEO, who happens to be British, hasn’t fared as well, but I doubt that people are worried about his nationality.

    I can’t even watch it on the news anymore; it’s so heartbreaking. There are vast areas in the Gulf (larger-than-the-entire-UK vast) that are already completely dead, and they grow larger each day. There isn’t an option on clean-up; if it bankrupts the corporation, that’s too bad.

  2. Peter Reynolds


    America and Americans need to remember who their friends are. Obama and the whining American press are trying to pass the buck..

    • Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading! One good turn, etc. — I went over to see your blog, too.

      I see that you say that if a Black president calls the company “British Petroleum” rather than “BP”, it is “blatant racism”. So, with regret, I conclude we probably don’t have enough common ground to have a profitable discussion.

      But I will definitely visit your blog again, and perhaps you’ll come back here, too — it’s always good to keep track of what the other side is saying.

      • Peter Reynolds

        Well please tell me then – why does he suddenly, for no apparent reason, start calling it British Petroleum? What other reason is there except to divert blame on a racial or national basis?

        Nice talking to you.

    • Diane McAlpin

      The only whining I’m hearing is from certain Brits who seem determined to glean some sense of personal hurt from a major environmental disaster affecting another continent. Are we Americans upset about what is happening in the Gulf? Absolutely. Has any American uttered a single word of blame against the UK, other than in someone’s fevered imagination? Absolutely not.

      I would also suggest that certain Brits need to remember who *their* friends are, and not trivialize this unimaginable catastrophe with small-minded attempts to feel victimized.

      (Sorry, MEF; not feeling diplomatic tonight…)

  3. The whining American press – the American (that is, the US) press “whining” about an oil disaster that is destroying the ecology of a large chunk of the country. Un.be.lievable.

  4. Peter Reynolds

    Ophelia! Please! Don’t be silly. We all deplore the oil spill just like we all approve of motherhood and apple pie. The American press (a large part of it) has been whining that somehow this problem was caused by the British. That’s what the whining is.

    • Lyn

      I don’t think President Obama is trying to blame Britain by calling BP “British Petroleum”. I suspect that he was simply erroneously briefed that that was the proper term.

      I have also heard no anti-British press with regard to the oil spill. The closest I have seen is that some media personalities are taking issue with those of the British who are publicly accusing the US of being anti-British.

      We’re in danger of getting into a fight about whether we’re in a fight or not, it seems. But all the American anger I have seen is directed toward BP, not toward Britain.

  5. Peter! No it hasn’t. It has been saying that the problem was caused by BP.

    Find me one quotation (with link) from one major newspaper or magazine or tv or radio news show that says the oil spill was caused by the British. Just one. Somebody calling BP “British Petroleum” won’t do it – it has to be somebody saying the oil spill was caused by the British.

    I live in the US, and I haven’t read or heard one single person saying that.

  6. Roger Gill

    Yes a disaster like this did occur in the English channel – in 1967. It was called the Torrey Canyon (http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/hu/ergsinhu/aboutergs/torrey.html) The amounts of oil were much less but the devastation great because in those days nobody knew how to handle such a spill. The crude detergents that were tried possibly did as much damage as the oil.

    The ship was US built and US owned (a subsidiary of Union Oil) but flying under the Liberian flag. The only way the Brits could serve a writ on the owner was by arresting a sister ship in Singapore. The final settlements in favour of the British and French governments were at the time the largest oil claims in marine history, and led to fundamental changes in international law.

    Are the forthcoming mid terms elections in the US in any way relevant to Obama’s comments? http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/aa775776-7591-11df-86c4-00144feabdc0,dwp_uuid=4068ae36-5447-11df-b75d-00144feab49a.html

    • As to the link about possible midterm election comments, I’m not registered at the Financial Times. Perhaps you could explain? I haven’t heard anything yet to make me think it possible that Obama’s response re BP is posturing because of upcoming elections.

      If you want to parallel the Torrey Canyon disaster, then I suppose the US should start seizing BP’s assets.

      As you said, the quantities of oil involved then were much different than the quantities in the Gulf, and the end of the BP leak is not yet in sight.

      For the purposes of my post, though, the question is whether, when the UK called for the US owners of the Torrey Canyon to be held responsible, US politicians then accused UK press and politicians of being anti-American. I don’t think it likely.

      A related question is whether the American people or press did anything so inexplicable as saying that a British official who got the American oil company’s name wrong was anti-American. I don’t think that’s likely, either.

      The good news from my point of view is that the UK-US draw in the match tonight is a win-win.

  7. Roger Gill

    “It’s not just the disaster BP has been responsible for that has drawn such criticism, it’s may also have to do with the way its chief executive sounds, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips. ”


    • Exactly my point. The print piece criticizes the head of BP, not “the British”. There is no “anti-British” sentiment from any American in that piece.

      Ditto in the film. Someone has titled it with the suggestion that there is a backlash against the British, but we see no American taking part in such a backlash. We see a guy from Shell saying that there are communication differences. We see an American (possibly Canadian? Accent difficult) reporting that there is a backlash, but he presents no back-lashers. We see Boris Johnson complaining about criticism of BP — not criticisms of Britain or the British.

      This is not “anti-British rhetoric”, unless people hold that criticism of a “multinational company based in Britain” is anti-British.

  8. MFC

    Wow. This has been an amazing discussion.

    I’m here in the US and, as a long-time, ardent environmentalist, I’ve been following news coverage of the disaster as closely as I possibly can, (online, on TV, on public radio, and in newspapers and news magazines). I have yet to hear *anything* that has sounded even remotely like a heaping of blame upon Britain as a whole. Everyone is very, very angry with BP, but not with the great British people themselves or with their nation as a whole.

    I checked with my husband, too. He says that he has not seen or heard any anti-British sentiment either.

    Now, I will say that neither of us ever tunes in to those conservative, right-wing “news” outlets, where the pundits thrive on making outrageous statements that are designed to provoke irrational passions. If some right-wing-nut has said something that’s anti-British, then I wouldn’t have heard it. On the other hand, if some nut-case *has* been out there making such statements, then I’m sure our more mainstream reporters and/or commentators would have challenged it as being idiotic. But, I haven’t heard any such rebuttal either.

    I also must admit that, until this latest debacle, I did not know that British Petroleum had completely changed its name to BP. I’d certainly seen their advertising, and knew that they were calling themselves simply “BP”. But, did not know of a complete, formal name change. I certainly hope that this doesn’t mean I’m a racist! (I guess I must also make sure that I never again mistakenly refer to “KFC” as “Kentucky Fried Chicken”.)

    The bottom line, though, is just as you have said, Mary Ellen. Our energies would more profitably be channeled toward ending this disaster and making sure another one never happens. Pitting friendly nations against each other accomplishes nothing.

  9. Hi Roger!

    Heh – that CBS piece is funny – it reminds me strongly of the piece in the Times a year ago reporting on “fears” about reactions to ‘Does God Hate Women?’ – fears that didn’t exist anywhere outside the mind of the reporter. They couldn’t, because the book hadn’t been published yet, and there hadn’t been any advance publicity. The reporter just talked about fears and the like in a general way without any actual subjects or pronouns – and the CBS story is exactly like that. It’s all secondary. As Mary Ellen says, it’s just reporters saying – they don’t quote anyone except more people just saying.

    It’s quite funny in a way! But when people take it seriously, it’s also rather irritating.

  10. “The crude detergents that were tried possibly did as much damage as the oil.”

    Still true now, apparently. The dispersants are just as toxic as the oil, if not more so; all they do is move the oil so that it’s less conspicuous (to humans, especially tourists), but they don’t get rid of it, and they’re toxic themselves. They make the oil sink down into the water column rather than clumping on the surface, and this is not a good thing. (I get all that second-hand; I know nothing about it myself.)

  11. Ernest Adams

    Year in and year out I have to listen to gratuitous anti-American jibes on Radio 4 and TV comedies. They can dish it out but they can’t take it, apparently.

    Here’s a tip for Lord Jones: this has NOTHING TO DO WITH BRITAIN. As has been rightly pointed out, BP is a multinational. So why is he springing to the defense of a company that has created the worst man-made environmental disaster in history?

    Oh, right. It’s because a lot of people invested their pension funds in a dangerous and unreliable stock. Cry me a river. A lot of people invested their life’s savings in their seafood and tourism businesses along the Gulf Coast too.

  12. Excellent post, Mary Ellen. Balanced as usual – cuts through the dross and gets back to the core of the issue.

  13. Mary Helen Spooner

    I thought this was one of the most measured, level-headed commentaries on the whole oil spill disaster I’ve come across. BP is a multinational company with a multinational staff, so it’s rather silly to blame the UK or interpret the resulting outrage as “anti-British.” There’s plenty of indignation over the spill on both sides of the Atlantic.

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