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Asbestos factory owners attempt to discredit journalists

A report in The Independent has revealed that executives at Turner and Newall asbestos manufacturers attempted to cover up the dangers of exposure to asbestos by creating a smear campaign against journalists.

Researchers for a television documentary shown on Yorkshire Television during the 1980s were reportedly spied upon and deliberately discredited by bosses at the factory. At the time, Turner and Newall owned the largest asbestos factory in the world – the manufacture of asbestos was big business, but the general public were largely unaware of its toll on worker health.

Deliberate smear campaign

The illness and subsequent death of Alice Jefferson at the age of 47, was documented by the programme, ‘Alice: A Fight for Life.’ It resulted in a damning report against the use of asbestos, linking it to cancer, and demanding that the government take action to ban its use.

In an attempt to deflect concern about its dangers, Turner and Newall questioned the film-makers’ political affiliations, accusing them of being Communists, which at the time was a sensitive subject.

When the programme aired, Rochdale MP, Cyril Smith, was brought in to refute accusations that asbestos posed a danger to health. The firm even wrote a speech on his behalf, which was delivered in the House of Commons.

Ongoing battle for victims

The report shows the lengths to which those in authority were willing to go in order to defend the use of asbestos. It had been used widely in the manufacture of household items, and in the construction and shipbuilding industries.

That such a large company would take the health and safety of their workforce so lightly may not be surprising to some, but it demonstrates the damage that can be wreaked by powerful businessmen intent on protecting their wealth.

Turner and Newall kept dossiers on what they termed ‘subversive’ groups, including global environmental organisation, Friends of the Earth. Chief Executive, Craig Bennett, said,

“It is shocking that business leaders who realised they were losing the argument on a vital issue like as asbestos resorted to these methods. There needs to be an inquiry into how public authorities and companies spent money investigating peaceful organisations campaigning for the public good in a democracy.”

Awareness of asbestos dangers was just emerging

The general public were largely unaware of the dangers of asbestos prior to the film being made, but it had a dramatic impact on its future use. The documentary also revealed that an aggressive form of lung cancer called mesothelioma had caused Alice Jefferson’s death, and that it was due to breathing in asbestos dust and fibres.

Rochdale asbestos campaigner, Jason Addy, is reported to have discovered the documents whilst researching Turner and Newall’s activities. He commented:

“There now needs to be a full investigation into Turner and Newall’s role in undermining the democratic process and its links with Cyril Smith. Instead of defending dying workers and their families, he went on the offensive to defend asbestos.”

Asbestos was finally banned in the UK in 1999, and awareness of its dangers is now much greater. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is charged with caring for worker safety in this country, and has the power to enforce action against employers or individual contractors who risk the health of workers and members of the public.