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Has a steel giant’s power stolen my freedom of speech?

By Steve Rushton

Olympic sponsor ArcelorMittal appears able to silence a mainstream paper from publishing researched critique.

On Friday 22nd June, the Bread and Circuses collective organised an event that focused on the massive spectacles that distract from austerity, the commodification of art and issues of corporate power. These connections linked together in a temporarily squatted empty property, owned by Anish Kapoor who designed the ArcelorMittal Orbit. This tower was mainly funded as a corporate advertising centre piece for the Olympics, by the world’s largest steel corporation: ArcelorMittal. During the event the Guardian requested a piece; however its legal department pulled it due to the threat of litigation.

The piece was requested for its “Comment is Free” section, which publishes, “a plurality of voices, but our centre of gravity as a progressive, liberal, left-leaning newspaper is clear.” At the last minute though they informed us that their legal department would not run the piece as ArcelorMittal frequently takes its critics to court. This paper regularly prints insightful and vital articles regarding issues of global injustices; nevertheless, its unwillingness here highlights the corporations’ power over mainstream media, even a paper on the progressive left. ArcelorMittal is the largest steel maker in the world, producing 130 million tonnes of steel – the equivalent of approximately 13,000 Eiffel Towers. Lakshmi Mittal, who resides in West London, is the richest man in Britain –worth £12.7 billion according to the Sunday Times Rich list.

This apparent fear to publish, by one of the few progressive mainstream papers in Britain, raises broad questions about corporate power and influence against free speech. Of course the Guardian’s legal team may have been correct, maybe the piece is defamatory. However, you can find assertions made from within this paper’s own pages, web and paper, that support the original article’s legitimacy. I have also re-footnoted the article to use Guardian sources. It seems this broadsheet’s legal team is willing to critique this steel giant in small chunks, although lacks the willingness to allow a combination of these to form into a broader critique.

An analysis of the original article’s assertions reveals that there are probably a few potential points that the paper’s legal team might worry could be interpreted as defamatory statements – against the steel giant’s reputation. This is proving a bit of a crash course in corporate law and revealing the power it wields... A legal advisory website offers the following grounds to defend the freedom of speech: “Under the defence of justification, if it can be proved that the statement is substantially true; then the statement will not be defamatory.” It also asserts that comment is legally protected as long as it is, “An expression of a genuinely held opinion.” [i]

There are many comments in the article about ArcelorMittal, which resulted from genuinely held opinions. There are also assertions of facts, which can be argued as “substantially true” purely by piecing together, footnoting and linking assertions from the Guardian’s own website. This suggests that corporation’s massive legal power means they can dominate the right to free speech within the press. These assertions of fact, that may be considered defamatory, are ArcelorMittal is “complicit in:”human rights abuses stealing of land from poor people ecological damage. The article’s other claims, regarding its mega-industrial development in the Arctic and the denial of access to mourners to a former Bosnian concentration camp, can be directly attributed to Guardian pieces.

In a Guardian article, Rebecca Stewart asserted that rural and indigenous people in the region of Chhattisgarh, India, “Have been told to leave, allegedly by force. Iron ore is beneath the land and a plant has been established to mine it.” She then quoted Professor Kalele, a retired economics professor: "Deforestation isn't the only way the Adivasi are losing out. When an iron ore plant is built, so are dams to provide it with water. The waste pollutes the air and land for miles around."[ii] This seems a damming indictment of the “iron industry”, in this region. This industry includes ArcelorMittal who have united with Indiabulls Real Estate to mine coal and iron ore, the steel giant also has plans to build a mega-steel plant there. This information is available at the India Times.[iii] Indiabulls describe how they want to “acquire” 700 further acres in this region for a power plant, doubling the land they have, this information is readily accessible from this company’s website.[iv]

To the Guardian’s credit, in April 2012, they reported how human rights organisations have accused illegal loggers and militia’s that support them of threatening indigenous peoples’ survival, even using the word “genocide” to describe the threat to the Awa of Brazil. This is one of many excellent stories from the Guardian that frequently draws attention to atrocities, ecological destruction and human rights abuses.

The decision to pull the Bread and Circuses piece highlights how within the mainstream media, corporations can constrain what reporters say. It is strongly feasible that many other corporations use their immense legal clout to continue unethical practices, without public scrutiny. I believe this should change.

The article is below. Despite the reduction in civil liberties, especially around the Olympics, fortunately for the time being corporations cannot sue you for reading it: not yet, at least.

Bread and Circuses, without the bread:
Spectacle to distract from elite greed and austerity measures

Bread and Circuses challenges inequalities within the system and the commodification of art, creating a temporary alternative space. Here dialogue and art can meet for free. The collective behind this project consists of activists, squatters and artists and brings alternative ideas and grounds to challenge the current system. This collective's ethos was driven to make use of this Georgian mansion, which had been empty and going to waste for 3 years.[v] The connection to Anish Kapoor and his ArcelorMittal Orbit meant that it was ideal to bring these issues together. Although the space was going to ruin, since we have made it a temporal autonomous space and we have cleaned it up a great deal. We have removed the piles of rubble and made it safe, removing all the screws that were sticking up from the floor where the carpets had been ripped out.

This event highlights austerity against a backdrop of the publicly funded government ran Olympics and Jubilee events. The phrase 'Bread and Circuses' comes from the political manoeuvring just before the end of the Roman Empire, when the elites attempted to prolong and maintain their position by distracting and appeasing the public with great shows of gladiators, chariot racing and giving away free bread. Further parallels can be drawn between today and Ancient Roman Empire, not just that the current dominant system seems on shaky grounds, but also how it is based on the power of the few benefitting from the endeavours and work of the many.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit greatly represents what is wrong with our economy. Its contorted structure almost seems like a metaphor for the current system: twisted and shaky, corrupted and about to collapse. This is apparently “public art”, it is certainly funded in this way; however, it costs £15 to climb up and look down on those who cannot afford reach its vista.[vi] Public art maybe it is not, instead it is a public-message that seems to show the inequalities in this country and globally, where many are facing redundancies and cuts to vital services, whereas the top FTSE 100 executives are enjoying an average pay rises of 49%. They certainly are enjoying the view.

It is also a huge advertisement for a corporation complicit in human rights abuses, the stealing of land from poor people and ecological destruction: a further symbol of our age. It has faced protests about their plans to build further steel plants in Jharkhand and Orissa, India; these will have a vast ecological impact and destroy the lives, lands and livelihoods of the rural population. As majority shareholder in Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation it will operate in North Canada. This is the largest industrial development ever planned above the Arctic Circle.[vii] This company has also caused outrage in Bosnia, where it acquired and has industrially developed land that was used as a concentration camp during the War in the Former Yugoslavia. Despite pledges to honour the people who were massacred in the town of Omarska in 1992, it has blocked survivors and mourners from entering the site.[viii]

If towers are built to draw attention, this tower may well be perceived as a warning sign, drawing attention to this steel-giant and the other corporations that are sponsoring the Olympics to green-wash and draw attention away from their corporate crimes.

Deciphering what Boris Johnson means from what he says could almost feature as an Olympic event. When he was asked to justify what long-term value will the ArcelorMittal Orbit will bring to East London, his answer reinforce the idea is to put on spectacles in a time of austerity. He said, ‘People will say that we are completely nuts, in the middle of a recession with everybody feeling the squeeze, to be doing something which is, as far as I can understand, the single biggest public art project ever done in this country. People will question why we are doing it now. I think the answer is: because London is the greatest city on earth.’ Maybe because he is nuts he does not realise that everyone is feeling the squeeze - the corporate elites do not seem to be. Although maybe corporate lobbying means there are more cynical reasons for him trying to argue this, ‘we are all in it together,’ party line.

In comparison to Ancient Rome, today’s spectacles differ and are humane; however, the measures for the poor are more severe. In the case of Greece, the austerity measures are already causing starvation. This suffering is being felt across Europe and is predicted to increase even further as the cuts are made deeper. With the excuse of the crisis our lives are being privatized, and the logic of commodification is applied to everything: even art, as the example of an art work named after a steel company shows.

How long the elites expect to stay in their metaphorical towers; driving in their VIP lanes; evading tax and buying the government with lobbying; benefiting financially whilst the world below them suffers is hopefully one of the key questions of our age.

i. The definition of defamation, Contact Law website,

ii. Rebecca Stewart, They call this progress? The Guardian, Monday 23 November 2009

iii. ET Bureau, ArcelorMittal, Indiabulls to form JV for coal, iron ore minin, 7th September, 2010, Indian Economic Times

iv. About us section: Indiabulls website,

“The group says the house has been left empty since the artist – whose ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, a 115-metre tall sculpture and observation platform, dominates the skyline of the Olympic Park in east London – bought it in 2009. Kapoor is listed as director of a company called 1-2 Lincoln's Inn Fields Ltd, the address of the property, which was formed in 2009.”

“(ArcelorMittal gave £16 million). They might also point out that the Anish Kapoor creation has had public funding too (£3.1 million from the London Development Agency).”
“A lot of what is worst about the Olympics is captured by the Orbit... and it will cost £15 to go up to the top.”

“Britain's richest man to build giant Arctic iron ore mine: Lakshmi Mittal's 'mega-mine' is believed to be the largest mineral extraction project in the region but threatens unique wildlife.”

“There is no memorial to the hundreds, possibly thousands, of Muslims and Catholic Croats who perished in Omarska – a site mined and 51% owned by Britain's richest "non-dom", the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal – although their scattered skeletons and remains continue to be excavated all around the mine.”