The State of New York has officially banned the controversial practice of “fracking” to exploit deep deposits of shale gas. However, is it a triumph for objective science or for the power of celebrity?
In a case which has implications for energy companies, regulators and many other stakeholders, New York Governor Mario Cuomo accepted the recommendation of his Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who admitted there was still a lack of hard data about the effects of fracking on public health, but sufficient “red flags” to warrant a ban.
It was also the culmination of a high-profile six year New York campaign against fracking by hundreds of celebrities such as Yoko Ono and Lady Gaga. The critical question is: Was the Governor’s decision truly based on fact and on the legitimate need for caution, or did the opinion of all those film stars and rock singers outweigh real science?
While I have great respect for celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and her work on behalf of disadvantaged children, or Deborra-Lee Furness and her advocacy for adoption reform, we should never forget that actors are really just adults who dress up in costume and pretend to be someone else. Their role is to entertain, not to determine important public issues.
Irish Actor Liam Neeson caused controversy in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings by publicly criticising a dangerous gun culture, while at the same time promoting the Taken franchise of movies about an ultra-violent, gun-toting vigilante. Neeson’s response? “I think it can give people a great release from stresses in life and all the rest of it. It doesn’t mean they’re all going to go out and go, ‘Yeah, let’s get a gun! It’s fantasy. It’s in the movies, you know.”
It may be fantasy, Mr Neeson, but movie stars and other celebrities have a long history of influencing important issues which can have a very real impact on other people’s lives and health. And that’s a major challenge for issue managers and legitimate subject experts. Just think of ex-Playboy model and TV celebrity Jenny McCarthy who helped persuade mothers around the world not to vaccinate their children against life-threatening illnesses.
Indeed, one of the first modern superstar interventions in a serious scientific issue was the ground-breaking case when actress Meryl Streep was recruited as part of an activist PR blitz against the chemical Alar, used in the production of apples. The campaign caused nationwide panic among American consumers and government regulators, who forced the product off the market and temporarily brought the apple industry to its knees. The important lesson for issue managers in 1989 and today is that the target organisations seriously underestimated the role of celebrity. The American Apple Producers’ PR advisor Frank Mankiewicz, said at the time: “We got rolled. When you’re dealing with a nutritionist named Meryl Streep, you haven’t got a chance.”
Despite the Governor of New York’s claimed reliance on a technical report about public health, when it came to the celebrity campaign against fracking, maybe – just maybe – once again superstar power trumped science.