In the beginning, say Greenpeacers, was the camera. When a ragged-trousered band of draft dodgers, journalists, yippies, Trotskyites and Maoists gathered on the Canadian west coast at the back end of the 1960s to start the Don't Make A Wave Committee, their idea was to "bear witness" to events they objected to, as Quakers have done since the 17th century. But they knew the camera would make all the difference. The camera would let the witnesses testify to the world.
Quakers had sailed into nuclear test zones in the Pacific before, to little effect. But when the Committee went to bear witness to nuclear tests near Amchitka Island, it took with it cameras and journalists. The Greenpeacers (as they would become by 1971) wanted the world to bear witness, too. And it did. What Marshall McLuhan, a then-fashionable Canadian professor of communications, had recently labelled the "global village" came along, bore witness and joined the protest.
Robert Hunter, a journalist and one of the Committee's founders, summed up the heady spirit in The Greenpeace Chronicle: "We saw it as a media war. We had studied Marshall McLuhan." He called the film packages "mind bombs, sailing across the electronic seas into the minds of the masses."
"The development of planet-wide mass communications," Hunter went on, "was the most radical change to have hap-pened since the Earth was created, for at its ultimate point it gave access to the collective mind of the species that now controls the planet's fate." In giving this mind ideas Greenpeace was the heir to "Madison Avenue and Hitler [who had] changed the face of the world through the tactic of image projection ... I saw Greenpeace as an icon, a symbol from which we might affect the attitudes of millions of people towards their environment."
It is a symbol that has been creating symbols ever since. Twenty-five years later, the head of Shell UK, Chris Fay, all but echoed Hunter; the Brent Spar, he agreed, had been turned into "a powerful icon for the misuse of the high seas."
Greenpeace has used electronic mass media to promote itself as well as its cause in a way no other citizen's organisation can match. From Pacific test sites to North Sea rigs, Greenpeace has stamped simple defining images of itself and its actions on the world's retina again and again. Nick Gallie, a veteran of the group's anti-whaling campaigns, describes the icon's classic form: "A whaling ship, an explosive harpoon, a fleeing whale and between them a tiny, manned inflatable with the word 'Greenpeace' emblazoned on the side - it says it all."
Or it did. But now things are changing in the media. Access is getting more and more widespread - audiences are fragmenting. In the heyday of mass television one man could, in Hunter's words, "demand the attention of the world." In the future, it may be impossible for anyone to make such demands. At the same time, technology will spread the tools of testimony - video cameras and Net access - to every part of the world threatened by the greenhouse effect, the ozone crisis, the great extinction, the soil gap and all the other eco-calamities. Hunter's planet-wide "collective mind" will know more than ever about the planet's state. But will Greenpeace - or anyone - be able to focus that knowledge, to set the agenda with an image?
By all means possibleAs Greenpeace grew, one process took on crucial importance: getting the image out. Take, for example, the five people who landed at Lorino whaling station on the far tip of the Russian far east in 1983 and were instantly arrested. A failure? No. The purpose of the action had not been to drape banners across the station, but to photograph the arrests. A ten-hour chase followed, during which a crew member headed for Alaska with the film on board one of the nifty little inflatables (which Greenpeace started using, ironically enough, because they were so impressed by France's naval commandos, who have since used inflatables against Greenpeace again and again). When the rotors of a Soviet military helicopter blew the crew member into the water, and the chopper plucked him from the sea, he left the film behind. Like some vital coded message in a spy movie, the film got picked up from its floating dead-letter box - and became headline news round the world.
Whether in inflatables, or helicopters, or on at least one memorable occasion in someone's vagina, Greenpeace has got the images out. But it needed to find a better way. In the 1990s it did: Greenpeace calls it a "squisher".
"The problem with boats," explains Jim Sweet, Greenpeace Communications' network manager in London, "is that they roll. It means that the quality of an analogue signal from the Rainbow Warrior is too poor for the Nine-O'Clock News. There is too much interference." So in the early 1990s, Greenpeace began to examine alternatives. The first was keeping the transmitter locked on with a gyroscope. But that was hugely expensive. A bit less expensive was going digital, which allowed constant correction of the signal to remove interference.
The squisher is built around a high-specification video capture card (worth about £100,000) that compresses the video signal for quick transmission. Because the ship's roll makes transmission difficult, the squisher doesn't transmit in real time at sea. "Even so," says Sweet, "we can transmit high-quality video at a time ratio of ten to one: that is, a minute's video can be dispatched from a rolling boat in ten minutes. We think we are the only people in the world that use this equipment in this way."
You will have seen the most spectacular results of the squisher when rubber-suited French commandos stormed the Rainbow Warrior in the South Pacific last summer, shortly before the first Mururoa nuclear test. The imagery was digitised, compressed and bounced to a waiting satellite - all before the commandos, who were briefed to hit the Warrior's communications first, could break down the metal door that had been welded shut.
The pictures were downloaded in Greenpeace Communications' basement headquarters off the Farringdon Road in London, processed through another squisher and put through a Mac editing suite. The finished product, of more than high enough quality for TV news, was bounced off the Telecom Tower and out to news agencies. Greenpeace does not need quite that level of technology for all its work. Footage of a blockade at Sellafield, for example, can be handled by a rented BT van. And the organisation has not yet gone digital with its stills. So on the occupied Brent Spar, Greenpeace stills photographer Dave Syms developed his pictures using a conventional chemical developer before scanning the prints into a Mac and sending the digitised images by satellite phone link to a Shetland news agency. The squisher was out of commission - "It got banged, or soaked; everything got soaked," remembers Sweet - so the campaigners hired a helicopter that would pick up film from the deck of the platform and itself take more pictures. Its film brought to the world images of Shell-hired boats spraying the Greenpeace occupiers and the helicopter with a water canon. "Without a doubt, those images, though very expensive to get, changed the story for us," says Chris Rose, Greenpeace's UK director of campaigns. "News-wise, not a lot was happening. But they were great pictures and they ran round the world." In the eternal war between David and Goliath, David had film in his sling - and money in his pocket. Greenpeace's Brent Spar operation cost £1.3 million, of which some £350,000 went on TV and satellite telecommunications equipment and satellite time. Other investments included hiring two boats, a helicopter specifically for photography, and freelance video and stills cameramen.
As its occupying force rode the Brent Spar on its journey across the ocean, hogging the world's attention and humbling one of the world's top five companies, Greenpeace was at the high point of its great endeavour. The little witness had grown very big and very powerful. Hubris or simply high-water mark, there was only one way to go.
Logs on the NetBy the second half of 1995, the power of Greenpeace's near real-time images was so great that a backlash was inevitable. Equally inevitably, it began among parts of the electronic news media.
David Lloyd, senior commissioning editor at Channel 4, chose the Edinburgh International TV Festival for his part-confession, part-accusation. "We were bounced," he complained. Green-peace's pictures had overwhelmed the story. They "showed plucky helicopters riding into a fusillade of water cannons. Try and write the analytical science into that ..."
Richard Sambrook, the BBC's head of news gathering, sings a similar song. "Greenpeace exploit our thirst for a good story and for dramatic pictures; they play on the traditional news values of conflict and confrontation; they rely on time pressures... which sometimes prevent in-depth inquiry... they exploit the power of a moral message."
The poor dears - how can the heart but bleed? As one former Greenpeace campaigner told me: "For years we have been able to wrap any piece of garbage up in pretty green images and they would take it. Where have their critical faculties been all these years?" An interesting question - but wherever such critical faculties had been, they were back with a vengeance. Despite the fact that print reporters sitting on the Brent Spar alongside the occupiers made it one of the best corroborated Greenpeace stories of all, there were dark rumours that, in the new digital world, the images might have been manipulated as they passed through Greenpeace's editing suites. Rubbish, says Rose. "We have neither the time nor the need." But, post-Brent Spar, "it was if we were being fingered as involved in some intergalactic plot."
Then, after the backlash had begun, Greenpeace wrote a letter apologising for having miscalculated the amount of toxic waste on board the Brent Spar. In reality, Greenpeace was owning up to an error in a small element of the campaign. But "never apologise, never explain" has always been a good motto for anyone who wants to set the news agenda. In the new hostile atmosphere, the media treated the letter as an admission that the whole campaign had been misfounded. The apology contributed to the most sustained period of sceptical media coverage of Greenpeace that the organisation has ever experienced.
In response, Greenpeace withdrew into itself, looking for new resources. And it found them. The mass media's new unwillingness to push Greenpeace's message coincided with a growing interest in the new Net- and Web-based media. "Now we can't always be sure of getting our story across on the mass media, it is increasingly important to be able to tell our own story," says Rose. "The Web site means we can communicate directly and instantly with our supporters, and give our side of the story when the media would not."
During the affair of the Brent Spar apology, Greenpeace used its Web pages as a news service for its supporters. "We published the apology letter from Peter Melchett [Greenpeace's UK director], and we also published Shell's response. We gave both sides, and let the reader decide," says Rose. "What was interesting is that we did not lose Web readership during the apology time. From that we conclude people didn't feel let down by us."
Greenpeace's Web site is now one of the most sophisticated and frequently visited anywhere. "Shell don't even have a site, or didn't when we last looked," Sweet chuckles. "They were horrified when someone showed them what we were doing on ours." Shell UK's director of corporate affairs, John Wybrew, admitted at a seminar recently that Shell had failed to counter Green-peace's Web page. As of March, http:// www.shell.com proclaimed itself "under construction".
http://www.greenpeace.org, on the other hand, is excellent. Among many other items, early this year it featured a long interview conducted by Green-peace with the Nigerian brother of the executed Ogoni leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, both in print and voice-illustrated with pic-tures of the environmental destruction of Ogoni-land by oil companies such as Shell. It makes a powerful document. Saro-Wiwa tells in the interview about his meetings with Shell officials, and how they had said they would help. "A lot of what he said, people couldn't read or hear anywhere else because the media were afraid of libel," says Sweet.
The range of material is growing all the time. Sweet and his three assistants scan in images from Greenpeace's in-house library of 50,000 pictures and thousands of videos. The Mururoa coverage included a daily diary from campaign organiser Stephanie Mills on board the Rainbow Warrior, and a photo-history of the ship itself. Sweet is having fun finding out about the different techniques that work for a Web news service. "You are not tied to the soundbite as you are on TV. You can produce longer items that people can stay with or not, as they like."
The site's popularity grew throughout the Brent Spar saga and the build up to the French nuclear tests. By the week of the first Mururoa test, average access figures had soared to 70,000 a day.
"We were right up there with the porno pages," boasts Sweet. "Access went up tenfold whenever there was media coverage of us. But afterwards it only dropped by half. Probably as many people log on to us every day as read stories about us in the broadsheet national press. So this is now a major mainstream communications medium for us. When we started the Web site, it wasn't much more than a hobby for me. They let me start using the Net as a news service. Even now Greenpeace has no Web site manager. But hopefully there will be one soon."
And yet - and yet. This is a strange, inward-looking Greenpeace; a Greenpeace concerned with putting out details rather than the single iconic image; a Greenpeace content with justifying itself to its supporters. And that feels like a reverse. After all, Greenpeace's great media strength has been its ability to reach beyond the committed greens. No point exploding mind bombs in your own backyard.
Those who work at Greenpeace Communications deny this. Some of what the organisation does, they say, is made for the Net. Take the voyage of British Nuclear Fuel's ship, Pacific Pintail, last year, and her cargo of reprocessed plutonium. Greenpeace picked up radio messages from the Pintail - and put those out on the Net. This meant that "local governments could protest as the boat went past. The Chilean navy threatened to fire on the boat, if it didn't leave Chilean waters, and it was forced south towards Antarctica."
Sweet also points to the possibility of "Net actions". There have already been primitive efforts. Greenpeace organised Net petitions before the first French nuclear test at Mururoa, inviting people who accessed the Web page to send material from the page describing the attack on Rainbow Warrior to Jacques Chirac's email address - doubtless an immense incon-venience to the great man. In another escapade, it described how to print pages directly onto a printer at the Ministry of Defence. Fun for activists, but there are few headlines here, few good pictures, few results.
Today's Net remains a somewhat solitary medium, not one on which it is easy to bear witness with millions. It lacks the simplicity of the mass media. It is more like an instant trade newsletter than a medium for mind bombs. But that does not mean that computers will not change Greenpeace profoundly. They are already doing so. The opportunity within Greenpeace was among the first green groups to adopt an internal email system. Its Greenlink network was installed in 1988 to improve communication within an organisation that, unlike other green groups, is truly global. As in most organisations, it took a while for people to get the hang of it; the technophobes were won over in the end by a Greenlink version of I-Ching, the ancient Confucian text the mysterious codes of which frequently dictated crucial decisions on Greenpeace's early anti-whaling boats.
Greenlink has helped Green-peace's international headquarters in Amsterdam to maintain control of its large organisation, coordinating media blitzes and joint actions around the world in the service of its various campaign themes. David McTaggart, father of the modern Greenpeace and now life chairperson, says that the ability to "exchange information and ideas across borders in a matter of hours rather than weeks" gives Greenpeace "fast decisions and strong leadership".
This facility for rapid internal communication has given Greenpeace the international leverage to unhinge its opponents, as Shell learned to its cost over the Brent Spar affair. A slow-burning British-based campaign against Shell UK, owners of the redundant oil platform, sparked boycotts of Shell products across Europe, triggering political responses in several European capitals - and most importantly in Helmut Kohl's office.
By being better coordinated than big old Shell, many-headed Greenpeace pulled off a coup. But the ability to coordinate around the world is not a simple plus. After all, electronic networks are not top-down systems. They work sideways, too - and even, heaven forbid, bottom-up. And that is where Greenpeace runs into trouble. Burning one image into the world's retina has always been a fairly centralised sort of a business; Greenpeace has flourished with a strong hierarchy. Such organisations cannot get netted without changing.
The warning signs are there. In 1994, rebellion stalked Greenpeace, in no small part thanks to Green2, Greenlink's successor. Green2 had become the electronic equivalent of the volatile shop floor of a large factory. Middle-ranking campaigners rebelled against cuts proposed by the centre and demanded to be "active participants in further investigating these concerns". Bottom-up communications attacked a "reign of terror" from the centre. "If Greenpeace's own supporters knew what was going on internally, they would soon stop sending in subscriptions," one rebel said. Greenpeace being Greenpeace, many of them soon did.
The executive committee clearly saw insurrection through Green2 as a key cause of trouble, and its response was harsh."You are not involved in the political decision-making process. You have no business sending a message around the organisation..." said committee member Steve D'Eposito.
Perhaps suddenly doubting the ability of Green2 to maintain control over distant troops, HQ recently decided to move the organisation's communications operation from London, where it is close to the world's main media players, to the international office in Amsterdam. Location, it seems, still matters. "The new executive director wants all the core activities in Amsterdam," says Sweet. Post-Brent Spar, it seems, the organisation is trying to insulate itself from the outside world, to rebuild corporate strength in traditional ways.
"It's crass, physically moving everyone, with all the disruption and cost involved. It's not necessary in this day and age," says a staffer not planning to move with the caravan. It looks particularly silly as the entire organisation is now moving to its latest in-house net, Green3, which will allow routine video-conferencing. Madness? Pointless? Sweet shrugs. Is he going to Amsterdam? Shrugs again.
Sweet knows that communications will change the nature of organisations such as Green-peace for good. He knows that new organisations will be needed to make sense of the new possibilities. The sheer volume and ease of communication "will make us and many others feel much more open, and it will also challenge the way we operate, how we provide information and who we speak to." Which suggests that Sweet also knows that, if Greenpeace resists, it will perish.
In an age when imagery can flow from any one of a million sources, and where digital tricks call all sorts of imagery into question, it may no longer be true that "one man can now demand the attention of the world". And if it is true, then why should it be the man from Greenpeace? Look around and you see the environmental pace being set by others, often by freelance single-issue coalitions. People who are prepared to live for two years in tree houses to protest against new roads, and to defend those homes to the death; people who are ready to lie down in front of trucks taking calves to the continent.
National and international environmental campaigns have started emerging with no re-course to formal organisations at all. One telling example is the way that a handful of marine biologists discussing their concerns for wildlife across the Net ignited opposition to a proposed US-government experiment that would send low-frequency sonic pulses across the Pacific Ocean. The scientists used the Net because it was the tool they had to hand. It is being put into more hands every week, a way of informing and organising that bypasses traditional avenues of dissent as well as traditional pillars of authority.
Follow Sweet's logic, and where will it lead? One destination is a more chaotic world in which virtual organisations and campaigns come and go. Centrally run organisations such as Greenpeace, with their brands to defend and their corporate philosophies to promote, lose power and influence. Mean-while, the ad-hoccery would put together its own campaigns. Would these serve the environment as well? Better? Worse?
These issues have occurred to Greenpeace. But the organisation does not know whether to be proud or scared. At the end of last year, Rose told a conference that Greenpeace's use of the electronic media has helped give birth to a "new politics", a politics often "without politicians, that will have many masters". It is a politics, he said, that is based not on ownership of the production and distribution of wealth "but on the production and distribution of public attention." Here, he said, "multinationals and famous brands ... are the iron clad battleships ... big, heavily built, and above all, slow-moving targets." He had in mind Shell.
Fred Pearce (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about science and the environment, and is the author of Green Warriors, published by The Bodley Head.