The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is a landmark event in a number of ways. Beyond extending the record of the largest — and possibly most damaging — oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the event has also revealed the extent to which our government and industry are inexorably linked. The power to control and manipulate information has long been within the purview of government. However, the use of that power in support of and, seemingly, in acquiescence to corporate interests has, in this instance, become blatant and troubling.
In compliance with government requests, BP has, to the company’s credit, provided a live feed of the oil and gas gushing from the Macondo well site a mile below the Gulf of Mexico. In sharp contrast to this open display, however, information about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its consequences – including BP’s press conferences held in consort with the U.S. Coast Guard – has been, from the beginning, carefully controlled.
Perhaps the fundamentally contrived nature of press conferences will always make them more compliant with the authority of those who convene them than the needs of those who attend them. However, beginning with the Reagan administration, there has been a steady erosion of the spontaneity and openness of government-run (White House) press conferences in favor of scripted contexts less subject to disruption. The Deepwater Horizon press conferences offer the latest example.
After criticism of the original, mutually affectionate BP-Coast Guard collaborations, the Deepwater Horizon press conference updates are now more regularly scheduled solo performances by former (retired as of July 1) Coast Guard Admiral and current National Incident Commander Thad Allen.
Aside from obligatory (and unverified) recitation of numbers of boats and volunteers, length of boom deployed, and gallons of oil collected, these Thad Allen updates have become little more than compilations of government talking points used to opportunistically counter criticism. Cases in point: Allen’s reading of newly formulated legalese justifying the administration’s delay in making exceptions to the Jones Act, and Allen’s turnabout on his promise of information “transparency” after the administration imposed restrictions on media coverage of Gulf cleanup operations.
Along with with NOAA’s odd media advisories, the government’s complicity in BP’s information stonewalling has kept a variety of social media doomsday rumors alive and running, as well as furthering widespread public mistrust of government decisions and policies.
The U. S. Coast Guard and Thad Allen have used safety and security — and BP’s preferences (re measuring the flow of oil into the Gulf) — as valid reasons for blocking access to timely and pertinent information regarding the #oilspill. However, these reasons only make sense if we continue to conceptualize information as proprietary product rather than public good. As long as BP owns information about the Macondo well, the public’s safety and security remain uncertain. Likewise, as long as government owns information about citizens, those citizens are at the mercy and whim of government benevolence.