Corporate Watch looks back at some of its history in this interview with Freedom Press
How did CW originally get together?
Corporate Watch grew out of the anti-roads direct action movement of the 1990s – the same handful of companies kept turning up, and everyone needed information about who these companies were, how they operated and where their weak points were. A group of people started finding this information (which pre-universal-internet was a lot harder), which then directly informed the protest tactics and strategies.
Soon protesters took the campaign to the builders’ doorstops and occupied their offices rather than just waiting for the companies to come to them. Corporate Watch’s first publication was a booklet called DBFO — Destroy! Burn! Fell! Obliterate! — it was written in May 1995 and uncovered the companies, lobby groups and government departments behind the Design Build Finance & Operate road building schemes of the mid-1990s.
How has the organisation changed over the last 20 or so years?
Corporate Watch has been through several different phases. After the road protest period Corporate Watch came back as a bi-monthly magazine. The first issue was out in September 1996 and included articles on the bigger corporations just then coming under concerted attack — McDonalds, British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), RTZ (now Rio Tinto group), as well as a DIY Guide to researching corporations (which we updated in 2014). At this stage Corporate Watch was still unfunded and no one was paid – the magazine was photocopies and hand stapled. All in all the Corporate Watch magazine ran to 12 issues between 1996 and 2000, going online from 1997. In this period Corporate Watch also produced the GM-info website featuring an interactive map of the UK GM crops industry, field trials and all.
It was through working on particular issues in depth like this that prompted CW to slim down the magazine to a more frequent newsletter and to focus attention on the website and thematic reports. These provided analysis of more structural issues, often neglected by activists and the mainstream media, including the legal structures of corporations, the public relations industry, supermarket dominance and techonofixes to climate change. CW has continued to produce thematic reports (and now books) since this point. It was during this period that CW also produced its online corporate profiles — in depth examinations of the key companies in particular sectors including arms, biotechnology, food, construction, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, privatised services and the public relations industry.
In 2008 CW moved to London as the old office in Oxford was scheduled for demolition — to make way for new eco-homes! In 2009 it moved to a small but cheap office above the Freedom bookshop, where we are now. Around this point the news project was once again transformed, and CW resumed the thematic quarterly magazine format. This meant we could produce both emerging news stories and comment online, as well as the more thematic investigations on a diverse range of topics in print. From this point the magazine was edited collectively by the whole co-op rather than being the responsibility of one single editor.
Since then we have decided, given the context of falling magazine sales, to concentrate our energies on publications and articles, and so no longer produce a magazine at all. Instead we have revamped our website to ensure that our material — whether news or analysis — is easily located by theme. And we now produce longer books, handbooks and online articles, as well as maintaining a monthly email update to keep our readers updated.
Overall there have probably been about 35 Corporate Watchers, five offices, three websites and three libel threats (all dropped)!
Any of the original team still in touch?
Not really but the current generation are still in touch with some of the previous generation (from 10 plus years ago) and with people who’ve left over the past 8 years. We also have former members on our advisory group, which provides some useful organisational memory. Some of the founding members went on to denounce grassroots activism in favour of electric cars and the like!
How was it funded in the early days?
For the first few years CW didn’t get any funding or donations or anything. Then in 1999 Corporate Watch became a workers’ co-operative, putting ideas of non-hierarchical organisation and consensus decision making into practice. CW already had a reputation for high quality research, and focusing on themed projects were able to receive some grant funding, first to cover office rent and printing costs, and then, as it became increasingly difficult to conduct this work without an income or on the dole, for subsistence wages for all staff. Of course, Corporate Watch’s readers have always supported us through donations and purchases, but we have always made sure our work is available for free online, so are unable, currently, to support ourselves through sales and donations only (but this is our dream – and if you can help us out please do! (Donations here)
What were some early scoops?
Corporate Watch was instrumental in providing information and analysis on the GM industry to campaigners and activists, from the first stirrings of grassroots resistance to GM crops around 1996 through to Bayer CropScience’s decision to abandon their plans to grow GM crops in the UK in 2004. Corporate Watch’s work on GM crops included magazine and newsletter articles, over 20 briefings and corporate profiles, a website listing the locations of all the GM test sites and corporate infrastructure in the UK, and a family tree poster of the biotech industry.
Not so much a scoop but a really important piece of our early history — Squaring Up to the Square Mile (1999) was an activist’s guide book and map to the City of London and the how the finance sector works. It was produced in collaboration with London Reclaim the Streets and formed an integral part of the preparations for the J18 Carnival Against Capitalism that stopped the City of London in 1999. This is a topic we have worked on in much more depth since – with our guides to understanding the financial sector and report on the Eurozone crisis.
What would you say have been CW’s best moments in your time there?
Of course it’s great when we get stories in the mainstream media which we do regularly, but only because we think it might lead to some tangible action. We love it when people contact us after reading our work with further information (as did several carers recently who weren’t being paid travel time) and when they use the information we’ve uncovered in their own campaigns and actions.
The goal is to help people make strong and informed challenges – be it to the state, corporations, their employers or whoever! Personally, I’m really proud of the research I did into property companies with PEACH (People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House), which led to an action in East London, all of which stemmed out of our magazine on housing in 2011. And our work exploring more theoretical issues have sparked interesting much-needed discussions around those issues, such as the Managing Democracy Managing Dissent book, our work on the financial sector and our A-Z of Green Capitalism.
And of course probably the most immediately practical impact has come from our research training programme – including both the DIY guide to researching companies and more detailed workshops – through which we aim to give people the skills and tools they need to conduct their own investigations.
Are there any impacts from CW work that you’re been particularly proud of?
Recently, IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain) bike couriers from three companies won a pay-rise, in part through using Corporate Watch research into the companies’ use of off-shore tax havens.
We love hearing about people who have used our work in their own campaigns, or to learn how to do their own research. But we hope that also our research is part of a wider picture, involving many other projects, of providing more radical, anti-capitalist perspectives than the mainstream can incorporate, which do not always translate into neat ‘impacts’.
Any former CWers go on to notable deeds?
PhDs, lecturers, parents, other co-ops, NGOs, freelance research, graphic design and one is now promoting nuclear energy and capitalism!
Have you ever been attacked by your corporate targets and if so, how?
We’ve been threatened with libel but each time the these were never pursued. People have been stopped and searched under terrorism legislation when crossing borders partly because they worked at CW.
How does CW get by nowadays?
We apply for funding for our projects from the small number of charitable funders who will consider us, given our strong political stancesuch as the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. While these are dependent on each particular funding application we really appreciate the more regular and reliable funding that comes from our supporters, via donations, ‘Friends of CW’ (who receive our publications), sales and benefit gigs. We don’t accept any money directly from states or companies, even ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ companies and we have a stricter approach to this than many other similar projects. So if you can spare any dosh, please… you know the rest!
What sort of projects are you working on at the moment?
At the moment we are working on investigating the internalisation of border controls into everyday life — in hospitals, schools, and housing provision. The government’s aim is to produce what they unashamedly call a “hostile environment” to push out or deter “illegals” by making it impossible for them to live a normal life. This even involves supposedly caring charities — we recently exposed homelessness charities providing immigration information on homeless people they encountered to the immigration officials.
We are also busy developing and expanding our anti-corporate research trainings, as well as working with people who come to us with information or leads to produce a story (such as our recent piece about Hyde housing association). We have a few other projects in the works — including one to follow up on our successful Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent project – and are also delivering workshops and discussions based on our popular A-Z of Green Capitalism. In fact, we have an event coming up on this in London – on 8 May at City University
From humble beginnings, Corporate Watch has grown into a well-established professional research organisation. But our allegiances remain firmly with the grassroots activist networks which we sprang from.