NEWSMAKER: The ethical lawbreaker - John Souven, Campaigns director, Greenpeace

KIRSTEN DOWNER

Two weeks ago this man - along with at least 50 other volunteers - broke into the new Cabinet Office and occupied it for four hours. Their peaceful protest (Third Sector, 17 April) secured widespread newspaper and TV coverage and even forced a statement from the prime minister. It also broke the law - but John Souven, campaigns manager at Greenpeace UK, regards ethical principles as more important than the whims of the "Draconian

British legal system.

"We act out of a sense of morals rather than a sense of law. If we believe something to be wrong, then we will act,

he says.

In this case, Greenpeace wanted to protest against commercial logging of rainforests. The organisation embarrassed the Government with the claim that the wood used in its £22.6 million new Cabinet Office development came from a rainforest in Africa. It also claimed that the UK imports more unsustainable logged wood than any country in Europe.

Direct action is built into the founding principles of Greenpeace, set up in 1971 by Quakers who believed in intervening peacefully to prevent a perceived injustice. Souven himself has been arrested several times.

"I've visited many police stations around the country,

he says.

Souven knows about the nuts and bolts of campaigning. He has worked for Greenpeace as a campaigner for the past 12 years. His job involves parliamentary lobbying and media campaigns as well as direct action. It even embraces fundraising.

This integrated-role approach is a key difference between Greenpeace and larger campaigning charities. Souven says everyone in the organisation attends its protests and are encouraged to think of themselves as campaigners.

Greenpeace tries to avoid the separation of fundraising, marketing and policy elements that causes problems within larger charities when agendas begin to clash. This appears to have improved staff morale and retention. Even so, an organisation with such passionate commitment to principles must surely see some heated internal debates between its "business

and "policy

side.

Greenpeace refuses to accept any statutory or corporate donations, for example, which must surely apply pressure to its fundraising and finance departments. Its annual turnover, around £5 million, comes entirely from public donations.

Amnesty International Norway recently struck an £85,000 deal with oil company Norsk Hydro to provide human rights training for its employees (Third Sector, 17 April). So surely Greenpeace could also contemplate such a venture.

"Many large international aid agencies do not have policies about taking money from companies, which is fine,

says Souven. "But we don't ever want to be accused of acting in favour of a government or company because we've taken money from them."

This hard line was watered down slightly less than two years ago when Greenpeace entered a "strategic alliance

with the advertising agency HHCL. The deal gave Greenpeace discounted strategic marketing advice from the agency in return for environmental advice to its large clients, such as Texaco and Iceland. Although money did not change hands, heavily discounted communications advice must be worth thousands of pounds to Greenpeace.

Souven remains pragmatic about the deal. "We want to bring about change, and to bring about change you have to exchange ideas with companies,

he says. "These agreements are very loose arrangements and marginal to our core activities."

Souven says Greenpeace's constant prodding of the Government and business has not depleted its share of ministers' attention.

Although politicians do not condone law breaking, he adds, they - like the rest of society - are less critical of direct action than they used to be. "You tell a Daily Mail reader there's going to be an incinerator built at the bottom of their garden, I guarantee they would be out there blocking what needed to be blocked,

he says.

Politicians respect the fact that Greenpeace membership - unlike that of their parties - is growing (it currently stands at about 200,000) and that many of its supporters are young people - a difficult catchment.

Greenpeace has in the past brought the Government before the courts on environmental issues and won several times.

Some cynics view Greenpeace's actions as more about public profile-raising than effective campaigning, but Souven dismisses this. "What we do is about as far removed from a stunt as you can get. People take personal risks to their liberty and freedom - it's not something that's entered into lightly,

he says. "It takes careful planning and has to fit into the overall campaign objectives. Around the new Cabinet Office action there was a huge amount of political lobbying". The Cabinet Office break-in was part of a long-term campaign to save ancient forests that will culminate in the Earth Summit 2002 in Johannesburg later this year.

Souven is hoping for some concessions from the Government at the event.

And if that doesn't happen? "The campaign will continue,

he says.

tabular

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus