‘Community group’ Back Heathrow has been raising a few eyebrows in the run up to the airport expansion decision. The group has come under fire and is accused of faking support by sending letters, surveys and buying advertising on the front page of local newspapers without disclosing each time that it is founded and funded by Heathrow.
Make no mistake about it, Back Heathrow IS Heathrow. It’s run by notable ex-Heathrow and aviation staff and funded by Heathrow with undisclosed funds to lobby for expansion and make it appear as though the majority want this. They pretend to be ‘grass-roots’ which by definition means driven by a community’s politics and implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous (as opposed to being orchestrated by one body or company). In fact, what Heathrow are doing is called ‘astro-turfing’ which means “the deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public.”
How else can a “group of local residents, community groups and businesses” afford to place full-page adverts (cited as £70k a time for the Evening Standard), local newspaper wraps, billboards, mailshots & freepost surveys to 750,000 households?
BH adverts and surveys claim that Heathrow will shrink and decline if it doesn’t expand – but Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye at a recent business breakfast was asked what his ‘plan B’ would be if Heathrow wasn’t granted expansion permission. His response: “We will still be the best airport in World with two runways” and threw off suggestions that it would shrink, in fact it would grow to be larger than Amsterdam. A study by Hounslow Council also found that job losses would be ‘negligible’.
Strangely there was a deluge of letters to the Richmond and Twickenham Times in one particular edition, waxing lyrical about the benefits that an expanded airport would bring. Many of these weren’t signed, or just with a first name. The most prominent letter, however was signed with a name, one belonging to a Manager at British Airways. She also has the right to express her opinion, but interests are not being openly declared. Another letter appeared to be from a cabin staff member (also undisclosed).
Photos posted by Back Heathrow themselves show cabin crew signing up to the campaign – are all of these ‘local people’? This is important to ask because BH quote their supporter number as being local to the airport. Cabin crew flying in from anywhere in the world would of course support expansion but they are not necessarily local residents. The opinion of local residents is important because it will define the ‘political deliverability’ of expansion at any airport, so boosting the supposed numbers of locals supporting a decision is something that groups such as Back Heathrow will want to do.
It’s important to note, we believe that people have the right to object or support expansion, what we are disturbed by, however is the orchestrated nature of ‘Back Heathrow’ and the methods they use to make it sound as though residents living near Heathrow who don’t want expansion are in a minority.
We hear that the Heathrow boss is ‘overwhelmed’ by support for a third runway. Well that sounds like he is almost surprised which is curious, because we know that Heathrow staff have been pressured to sign-up to become one of Back Heathrow’s ‘supporters’. Staff at Heathrow freely spoke about receiving five or six emails within a month urging them so sign-up to increase Back Heathrow numbers. This is how they have got their 80,000 supporters number and why they claim to be “one of the country’s fastest-growing campaigns.” Many of these may also be residents living nearby whose business benefits from Heathrow, they might also simply want an expanded Heathrow despite not working there. But over 70,000 staff work at Heathrow and this is a huge army of people for Heathrow to mobilise for petitions, letters to press, faces for photo-shoots etc.
Back Heathrow have said “it’s impossible to manufacture the support they have.” Well, we know that opponents have been included in supporters numbers and staff are pressured to become supporters. Only BH themselves could possibly know how many residents who don’t actually work at the airport itself are real local resident supporters. Heathrow’s Reward Card holders have also been asked to sign-up to support Back Heathrow, again; potentially not local residents being used to bolster the ‘local support’ numbers.
BH co-ordinator and former director of the Aviation Foundation, Rob Gray said: “The uncomfortable truth for those opposed to Heathrow expansion is that the levels of support we have attracted from residents reflect what almost all independent polls show — that there is majority support in local areas for growth at the UK’s hub airport.” Back Heathrow’s own sample phone polls show support, but the scripts of these surveys have not been made public.
Given Back Heathrow’s form on surveys written to bias the outcome, we cannot be sure what view points or information were said before questions were asked, but a former survey posted to hundreds of thousands of residents had two options “Heathrow is at 98% capacity… should Heathrow: A. Be allowed to grow and increase its capacity, or B. Not grow, gradually declining as foreign exports expand.” This is a hugely leading question and not a true representation of a benefit vs cost viewpoint on airport expansion. A more apt question would be expansion vs status quo, but that’s not scare-mongering enough for Back Heathrow.
An actual referendum by Richmond Council showed that in two boroughs, 71% of responders to a non-leading question did not want expansion.
MP and airport expansion campaigner Zac Goldsmith has heard from many residents that have received communications from Back Heathrow thanking them for supporting the campaign, despite being vehemently opposed to expansion. It appears as though anyone writing to BH (negatively or positively) have been counted as amongst their supporters.
Simon Baugh, director of media and PR at Heathrow Airport is credited with creating Back Heathrow – proving that it wasn’t in fact created ‘naturally’ at all but organised by Heathrow airport themselves rather than “a group of residents, businesses and community groups who have come together…” (from the Back Heathrow website.
You have have received a further Back Heathrow survey in March 2015, please do answer the survey to make your opinion heard and return this using the Freepost envelope. The survey is designed to further the Back Heathrow supporter numbers and attempt “show that there is a majority in favour of growth” which completely contradicts the Richmond Council referendum results. If you have the opposite opinion then feel free to include your views on the survey.
Back Heathrow have finally submitted yearly accounts and the figures revealed further erode their ‘grass roots’ credentials – they ended the year with over £200,000 in the bank. It’s not known how much funding they started with but it’s clear the group has been very well funded by Heathrow and is not your average community group, far from it.