Shell Papers and Involving the Audience in a Long-Term Investigation

Speakers: Bas van Beek

Moderator: James Wright


December 11th, 2020, 15:00-15:30 CET


Written by Martina Kroa


Keywords: Investigative Journalism, investigation, FOI, Shell Papers, audience involvement


Short annotation, summary

The Investigative Journalism block started off with Bas van Beek presenting his joint project Shell Papers. Their goal is to investigate documentation relating to the gas and oil company Shell, provide journalists and the public with the information about it (through their website), and get audience involved in the investigation. People are getting involved and creating pressure on the government to provide the legally requested information.


The project or approach to be discussed in the session

The presented project Shell Papers is making a large Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Dutch government and documenting the process along the way. They are requesting papers regarding the gas and oil company Shell. There has been a long history between the Dutch government and Shell and many people are skeptical about it also due to many controversies concerning Shell. Shell Papers record the process of the FOI request and share each step of the way with the public through their “transparent dashboard” on their website.

Evidence of impact

Shell Papers got people interested and involved in the process. They are witnessing this through their interactions, expressed curiosity, support and contributions. According to Bas van Beek they currently have 5 000 followers and just two weeks ago the first demonstration to get FOI documents took place in the Netherlands. The northern cities and provinces, namely the city Assen, are willing to work with them. So, they are now preparing for documentation from them and want to crowd analyze the documents with the help of people. Once Shell Papers started mailing their FOI requests in April 2019, their project got according to Bas van Beek “massive media attention”. Sharing everything with the public creates pressure on the government, makes the process transparent and gets people involved.


Limitations, risks of the approach provided by the speaker

They were expecting many obstructions during the FOI request process as Bas van Beek said it’s normal in the Netherlands even when submitting a very simple FOI request. And they submitted a very large FOI request. Indeed, they faced many obstructions along the way such as no response from the government or denial to provide the requested documents. The dashboard they created on their website has also been a source of information for Shell and also government law firms against them. The risk pointed out by James Wright is that they are working on a project against the entire Dutch government, Shell (the Netherlands’ largest multinational company) and other companies.


Takeaways


1. The Freedom of Information (FOI) request and documenting the process with an audience can change things just by using legal instruments and the help and pressure of the public.

2. Uncovering historical and secretive ties of government and a multinational gas company requires long and thorough investigation and its public knowledge can be a helpful hand: it creates awareness, attracts more information and brings help from people.

3. “If you as a journalist are trying to get the truth from power, readers tend to follow. And if you face obstructions, readers tend to get more involved, because they want to see what the outcome of this fight will be.” - Bas van Beek



Other considerations

- Shell has been drilling for gas in the Netherlands since the seventies and that has caused many heavy earthquakes in the north of the country. The earthquakes made northern cities and provinces comply with Shell Papers.

- “Shell is a very secretive company, not many things are coming out. This is a normal thing for gas and oil companies, they are operating in secret most of the time, not much is coming out from their internal workings. So, the FOI was giving us a good insight into this.” - Bas van Beek

- “People love to be informed in detail about the steps that we undertake in these FOI procedures. Normally these tips and tricks from the trade are kept secret by journalists. Not intentionally, but they don’t want to bore their readers with it.” - Bas van Beek

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