Delegitimising Discourses:

The Greenpeace Case Against the Underground Access Rights Consultation

Module: Public Affairs

The Brief: Conduct an analysis of a discursive aspect of the communication process in an environmental case of your choice. You can choose to offer either an analysis of key arguments used by the actors in your case or a simple critical analysis of discourses in evidence in the documents you accessed, representing different actors’ positions



In part 1 of this study it was postulated that Greenpeace, through its press releases, successfully delegitimised the government’s consultation into Underground Access Rights (DECC 2014a). Their negative framing was picked up by the media and became the dominant framing in media reports.

This second part of the study offers a critical discourse analysis of key Greenpeace press releases from June to August 2014. It analyses the way in which Greenpeace presented their discourse and uses Dryzek’s (2005) approach to environmental discourse to situate it in a broader context. Later sections analyse how the media reflected Greenpeace’s discourse and consideration is given to the government’s response to this discourse. The conclusion suggests reasons as to why Greenpeace’s discourse became so dominant in the media framing by linking it to theories of news values.

Dryzek’s Approach

Dryzek (2005) identifies four basic discourses: environmental problem solving, survivalism, sustainability and green radicalism. The Greenpeace discourse can be seen to envelop elements of environmental problem solving in that it seeks to adjust the ‘political-economic status quo’ by engaging with public policy debate and attempting to facilitate ‘a variety of environmentalist inputs’ (Dryzek 2005, p. 15). It also engages with the idea of sustainability by attempting ‘to dissolve the conflicts between environmental and economic values…seeing economic growth and environmental protection as essentially complementary’ (Dryzek 2005, p. 16). For example Greenpeace recognises the need for economically successful energy generation, they simply disagree with the environmental validity of fossil fuel generation, arguing that energy, economic and environmental goals can be achieved through renewable energy (Greenpeace UK 2014a).

Applying Dryzek’s (2005) checklist of elements for the analysis of discourses to Greenpeace reveals that the sustainable development categorisation is most fitting:

  • Basic entities recognised or constructed

The Greenpeace discourse recognises that the UK operates under a capitalist economy (Greenpeace UK 2014a). It views the relationship between humankind and nature as ‘nested and networked social and ecological systems’ (Dryzek 2005, p. 157), recognising that the two are not independent and nature cannot be considered subordinate to human/industrial needs.

  • Assumptions about natural relationships

Vitally important for Greenpeace and key to their discourse is the idea that ‘economic growth, environmental protection, distributive justice, and long-term sustainability go together’ (Dryzek 2005, p. 157). The key point, in terms of their ontology, is that these terms are not mutually exclusive: economic growth can be compatible with environmental sustainability.

  • Agents and their motives

A variety of agents are connected to the discourse including campaigners, landowners, politicians, industry figures and government (Greenpeace UK 2014 d). The key figures: government, industry and Greenpeace, as the challenger (Wolfsfeld 2003) claim to be ‘motivated by the public good’ (Dryzek 2005, p.157).

  • Key metaphors and other rhetorical devices

Discussed in more detail in the analysis to follow, key metaphors include the idea of the individual against big business, the subordination of individual rights to the rights of fracking companies and the right of a landowner to control access. Rhetorical strategies focus on delegitimising the government’s position and their processes, in particular challenging the validity of the consultation (DECC 2014a).

Critical Discourse Analysis

Edwards and Pieczka (2013) illustrate how the lexical choice of writers in PR Week contributes to the occupational legitimacy of the PR profession. Similarly, Greenpeace uses language to legitimise itself as a challenger (Wolfsfeld 2003) in the debate. The titles of the press releases issued over the course of the government consultation illustrate this point:[1]

  • Greenpeace turns PM’s home into drilling site as frackers’ bill is announced (Greenpeace UK 2014a).
  • Police order Greenpeace to remove fracking site from PM’s home (Greenpeace UK 2014b).
  • Fracking firm hit by double legal block (Greenpeace UK 2014c).
  • Government challenged over misleading fracking consultation (Greenpeace UK 2014d).[2]

The lexical choice in the titles emphasises the division between the Greenpeace position and the government’s. This is expected from Dryzek’s (2005) observation that environmental discourses often argue against a dominant industrialist discourse favoured by government. Each title contains a verb – Greenpeace is turning; police have ordered them away; a fracking firm has been hit; the government has been challenged. This careful use of language helps situate Greenpeace as prominently active in the debate: as challenger they are initiating action against (or, as in PR2, above, being acted against by) the authority, in this case the government (Wolfsfeld 2003). Furthermore the use of an adjective such as ‘misleading’ or describing the Infrastructure Bill as the ‘frackers’ bill’ implies a level of judgement by Greenpeace on the government. The effect here is twofold: Greenpeace is implicitly legitimised as an authority capable of making value judgements on government policy; secondly the designation of the ‘frackers’ bill’ emphasises the divergent positions by implying that the bill will benefit fracking companies, with the inference that the rights of people are being subordinated over the rights of big business.

The idea of Greenpeace as government challenger is further illustrated in the texts. For example PR4 opens:

Greenpeace has urged the government to scrap a botched public consultation on controversial new under-house fracking plans after the main document put out for comment was found to contain incomplete and misleading information (Greenpeace UK 2014d).

The verb ‘urged’ is interesting in that it has specific connotations – portraying Greenpeace as the actor with less power, emphasising the inequality in the power balance. This echoes the implicit argument later in the release that the government’s proposed policy will allow firms to frack under landowners’ property without specific permission. Indeed the phrases ‘without having to obtain permission’, ‘grounds to refuse permission’ and ‘without permission’ all feature within this relatively short press release.

The initial idea of the power balance constructed through the verb usage contrasts with strongly critical words such as ‘botched’ and ‘incomplete and misleading’ to describe the consultation. These words are explicitly critical and again help legitimise Greenpeace as capable of making judgements on government policy.[3]

In PR1 a stunt (preparing a false fracking site outside the Prime Minister’s holiday cottage) is used as a platform to launch a detailed discussion of the launching of the government consultation (DECC 2014a). This acts to legitimise the release, so rather than simply reporting a stunt it continues with a detailed discourse. Very emotive wording is used including references to ‘plans to strip people of their access rights’, accusing David Cameron of wanting to ‘rob people’ and ‘auction off over half of Britain’ (Greenpeace UK 2014a).

The same release also uses research to further legitimise the position against the government by quoting the results of a YouGov survey showing ‘three quarters of people in Britain – as well as 73% of potential Tory voters – oppose minsters’ plans’ (Greenpeace UK 2014a). This is an interesting tactic in that it implies that proceeding with the bill could be politically dangerous. Further delegitimising the case for fracking is the following passage:

As ministers chase their imaginary energy Eldorado, the real solutions to boost our energy security, like slashing energy waste and backing renewables, are being sidelined. We’ll all pay a price for their shale craze (Greenpeace UK 2014a).

This refers to the fact that fracking remains a relatively untested energy source in the UK with the Eldorado metaphor undermining its legitimacy as a ‘real’ energy solution. The words ‘imaginary’ and ‘craze’ are deployed effectively and contrast with the ‘real solutions’ offered by Greenpeace.[4]

Gill and Whedbee (1997) discuss the absence of particular ideas in discourses. Indeed Greenpeace’s discourse is selective in the information that it includes. In PR4, for example, while being strongly critical of the government’s consultation and the fact that the proposed legislation would allow fracking under land without landowners’ permission, no mention is made of the fact that there would be negligible impact on those landowners, the fracking companies would still be required to gain appropriate licences and negotiate access and compensation at a local authority level or that there are a number of precedents for granting automatic underground access rights at much shallower depths (DECC 2014a).[5] Likewise PR1 emphasises that ‘large swathes of rural Oxfordshire’ could be licenced for fracking (Greenpeace 2014a) without mentioning the lack of surface-level impact (DECC 2014a).


The media reporting on the issue was generally weighted towards Greenpeace.[6] Gosden (2014) directly reflected elements of Greenpeace (2014a) in discussing the YouGov poll; Beament (2014) echoed the same press release.[7] Swinford (2014) reported on rural Britain being opened up to fracking, while Webster (2014) echoed Greenpeace (2014d) in discussing legal challenges to the consultation and The Daily Telegraph (2014) reported on the Greenpeace stunt (Greenpeace UK 2014a). Each article quoted directly from Greenpeace and were possibly originally derived from Greenpeace press releases.

It could be argued that the success of the framing of the debate was its connection to news values. The framing (government infringing on individual rights; potential environmental dangers) could be told with brevity; had size: it will affect many areas of the country and large portions of the audience; had proximity in being a potential local issue for many; drama in terms of the debate; negativity in the portrayal of government and the environmental cost; and importance as this is a significant story (Golding and Elliot 2009). By closely aligning their framing with news values, Greenpeace releases were more easily picked up. The government framing (underground access precedents; limited surface impact, etc.) lacked news values including drama (Golding and Elliot 2009).


To date the government has successfully pursued its case for amending underground access rights, despite far less favourable media framing and emotive campaigns by organisations such as Greenpeace. A potential explanation for this, previously mentioned in part 1 of this study, is that while Greenpeace’s discourse had more news values and a more dramatic framing (the individual landowner’s rights being diminished), the absences in the discourse were a significant weakness. The government could dismiss easily much of the Greenpeace case by citing precedents to underground access and the lack of surface impact (DECC 2014a), two areas that Greenpeace notably did not engage with. The responses to the consultation, as mentioned in part 1 were dismissed easily due to the fact that the majority of negative responses were prepared ‘campaign texts’ (DECC 2014b).

The Greenpeace campaign then has had two sides: influencing public opinion and engaging with the government. In the former area there have been notable successes including favourable media coverage; in the latter however Greenpeace has failed by not adapting to engage with the consultation and the government’s discourse. In successfully influencing public policy, it is vital to do both.

Works Cited 


[1] Emphasis (in bold) is author’s own, here and elsewhere.

[2] From this point when these press releases are discussed a system of abbreviation rather than full titles will be applied, thus: PR1 refers to title one in this list (Greenpeace turns PM’s home into drilling site as frackers’ bill is announced), PR2 to title two (Police order Greenpeace to remove fracking site from PM’s home), etc.

[3] This position is bolstered by Greenpeace’s status as a partial insider group (Binderkrantz 2005) that has built up a degree of legitimacy over time (Grant 2004), as discussed in part 1 of this study.

[4] As mentioned previously, Greenpeace accepts the need for new energy sources but strongly advocates that the focus should be on renewables.

[5] As discussed in part 1 of this study, automatic underground access rights exist for activities including cabling, mining and sewerage works (DECC 2014a).

[6] The framing was not exclusively in this manner, for example The Guardian (2014).

[7] With a headline that ran ‘Tories’ target seats will be opened up for fracking, says Greenpeace’.