This blog has highlighted the continuing risks of asbestos around the world as this article “wealth before health” demonstrates.Indeed, it now seems even more stark that some capitalists in the past were very intent upon placing their business interests before the health of their workers.
The Independent reports that bosses of the world’s biggest asbestos factory spied on journalists and environmental campaigners who exposed the killer dust’s dangers and then launched a covert campaign to accuse them of being communists. Documents reveal that the executives at Rochdale-based asbestos giant Turner and Newall monitored people they considered to be “subversive” and kept a dossier on their activities at the height of the debate about the mineral’s safety in the 1980s. They also enlisted the help of disgraced paedophile Rochdale MP Cyril Smith in a clandestine but ultimately unsuccessful bid to discredit the makers of an award-winning documentary that told how asbestos workers were dying from cancer. Papers show how Turner and Newall executives reached out to Smith for help in a calculated smear campaign. In a letter marked “urgent” and sent from the firm’s Rochdale factory to MP’s office at the House of Commons, they made arrangements to meet him ahead of a select committee hearing where Yorkshire TV directors were due to give evidence and attached a number of questions they deemed “suitable” as “thought starters” for the committee. The executives later wrote to Smith thanking him for his “help and guidance” on the day of the hearing and added: “I doubt if we will ever succeed in ridding ourselves of the Yorkshire TV ogre.”
James Cutler, who along with Peter Moore was one of the researchers on the film, told The Independent: “We were certainly not Communists. I was never a member of any political party. We never even visited the Friends of the Earth’s offices. We were journalists doing our jobs. “Turner and Newall put together a lot of rubbish information and used it to brief MPs, but if you have to deny something in the House of Commons under oath, it puts a seed of doubt in people’s minds and that’s what they tried to do. It was underhand and pathetic. Smith had earlier announced that he believed Turner and Newall should sue Yorkshire TV for the “lies” in the programme and said he was “totally and absolutely satisfied” that there was “not the slightest health risk”. He said he had instructed his bankers to buy some shares in the company. It emerged some years ago that executives at Turner and Newall actually wrote the speech Smith made about asbestos safety in Parliament. Smith responded to claims in 2008 that he had helped cover up the dangers of asbestos as “absolute rubbish” amid calls for him to be stripped of his knighthood. Instead of defending dying workers and their families, Smith went on the offensive to defend asbestos.
Turner and Newall made claims that the researchers were communists – dangerous allegations at the time – and claimed they would “deny this if challenged”. It also claimed the researchers used the Friends of the Earth headquarters in London as their offices. The company spies claimed one woman was known for her “left wing views” but was “not a member of any subversive organisation”. A solicitor was described as a Communist Party member, but was said to be “most anxious that this fact is not made known”. It also named a number of Labour MPs linked to environmental groups including the Socialist Environment and Resources Association.In a paragraph on Friends of the Earth, it said evidence showed “what length those groups can go in their efforts in attempting to bring down a company”.
Craig Bennett, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth, which it has emerged was listed in the Turner and Newall files, said “It is clear that as long as people have campaigned for a better world, corrupt sections of the elite have tried to undermine their activities and misrepresent their arguments. It is very clear now that there has been spying on organisations such as Friends of the Earth over many decades by government and commercial forces. It is shocking that business leaders who realised they were losing the argument on a vital issue like as asbestos resorted to these methods.”