Shady fracking lobbyists have denied that they had created a sham grassroots group to fake a pro-shale gas campaign, by roping in college students as supporters of the climate-destroying drilling method.
Westbourne Communications, which has shale gas companies Centrica and Caudrilla as clients, said it did not “astroturf” a fake grassroots movement in favour of fracking.
In press releases swallowed up by mainstream media, eight students were shown standing on the steps of Lancashire Country Council with a “Students for Shale” banner on Monday, before Councillors were due to make a landmark decision on whether to allow fracking in the area.
But the Morning Star have revealed that the purportedly pro-shale students have vested interests in fracking as they are studying geology and hope to get jobs in the industry.  One of the students attends Blackpool and Fylde College, which was designated as the national training centre for the onshore gas sector last year.
As well as bankrolling the North West Energy Task Force campaign led by Westbourne Communications, Centrica and Caudrilla have also “supported” the college to become Britain’s main onshore energy training site.
Maurice Cousins, account director at Westbourne Communications, denied that he had deliberately used Lancashire geology students to coerce positive public opinion of fracking. He said: “We are in no way misrepresenting how students regard fracking. I do not understand what the issue is. We are transparent and not misleading. The students are within their rights to their opinions.”
After the Morning Star contacted Blackpool and Fylde College, a flustered Mr Cousins called to demand that they only get information from him.
The former adviser to MP Douglas Carswell accused the Morning Star of “harassing” students — despite the Morning Star’s reporter having gone through the correct procedure of speaking to the college data protection officer to get in touch with one student — and said that they were “students, not activists.”
Mr Cousins failed to see the irony of his comment after using these non-activists in his so-called grassroots campaign.
But it is not the first time that Westbourne Communications has been accused of ‘astroturfing’.
In a report for Spinwatch, journalist Anna Minton reported that the firm had spun a campaign for high-speed rail to intimidate local opposition — or “shit them up,” in the words of Westbourne director James Bethell.
Ms Minton wrote: “It has been set up to give the impression that it is a grassroots campaign of concerned employers, local businesses and local residents.
“They didn’t want the HS2 ‘narrative’ to be about shaving minutes off journey times to Birmingham and in the process cutting through swathes of countryside.
“The debate they sought to create was about pitting wealthy people in the Chilterns worried about their hunting rights against working-class people in the north.
“The strategy was ‘posh people standing in the way of working-class people getting jobs’ the lobbyist said.”
Original article reported in the Morning Star, by Lamiat Sabin and Solomon Hughes.