7 July 2015: Why I accused VW of corporate murder

BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth, “Lungs, Lies and Automobiles” was broadcast yesterday (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06flmf1#play). I was invited to take part to explain why the Labour government for which I worked had favoured diesel in the late 1990s. My response: it was a decision taken in good faith on the balance of evidence available at the time. I know this sounds suspiciously political (once a spin doctor…) but, as other panellists say, the scientific understanding of the health impacts of diesel pollution is much greater now than it was 15 years ago. With hindsight, it was a wrong decision which should now be reversed. But it was a genuine mistake, not a conspiracy. It had recently signed the Kyoto protocol, so the government was keen to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and genuinely believed that encouraging diesel would help in this. (The Labour government’s conspiracy came later – Iraq.)

I was also asked, inevitably, for my views on the Volkswagen scandal. I said that VW is clearly guilty of corporate manslaughter, and that VW executives should be charged with this. I added that I would go further and charge them with corporate murder.

I said this because the difference between murder and manslaughter is intent. VW has admitted that it fiddled technology so that diesel cars which ought to have failed the pollution tests got through. The streets are therefore more polluted. Pollution kills – the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants calculated in 2010 that it caused 29,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. (see http://laqm.defra.gov.uk/documents/air_quality_note_v7a-(3).pdf ) So, in order to increase their profits VW took deliberate actions which they knew would kill people. They did not know which people they would kill, but that does not change the intent.

The Today programme played a clip of me accusing VW of corporate murder. I have subsequently been accused on Twitter of publicity seeking. Well, I’ve worked as a campaigner, so have sought publicity for different issues in the past. I’m sure I will do so again in the future. But on this occasion I plead innocent. Before the programme I had said nothing about VW, apart from a few tweets. The BBC invited me onto the show; I hadn’t issued a press release.

Having spent most of yesterday considering my position, I do think I made one mistake though. To me, the VW executives who took these decisions are guilty of corporate murder in a moral sense. I should have made this clearer on Costing the Earth. Whether they are charged with corporate manslaughter or murder is less important in a legal sense, because the prison sentence for corporate manslaughter can be very long. The important thing is that they are charged.




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