In Prospect’s February issue, I reported on John and Alfred Donovan, two men with a combined age of 150 years in a house in Colchester who have been trying relentlessly to prick holes in one of the world’s biggest companies, Shell. They seem to be succeeding. Their website has become essential reading for anyone who covers Shell and the energy sector more broadly. It gets up to 4.6m hits a month.
And it keeps causing problems for Shell. A few months after it emerged that the site had provided the Russian government with the evidence it needed to strip the company of its control of Sakhalin Energy, the Donovans pulled off another coup. One of the many Shell insiders who leak damaging information about the company on to the Donovans’ website forwarded on the “inspirational” email sent by David Greer, then deputy chief of Shell-controlled Sakhalin Energy. Embarrassingly, the email “leaned heavily on the words of General George Patton,” according to the FT, which published all of it. Greer resigned soon afterwards.
In the last few weeks, more information about Shell’s safety record on North sea platforms has gone public—via the Donovans’ website. Campaigners have now written to MPs about the issue, with one former Shell executive leading a political battle to have Shell censured for its alleged “Touch Fuck All” policy, under which workers were supposed not to meddle with equipment.
Now the Donovans have found another ruse to annoy Shell: the Data Protection Act (DPA). Shell has been fighting the two men from Colchester for decades. So the Donovans have made a series of “subject access requests” for any information Shell holds about them. So far, the company has surrendered two large folders, including an article about them by a director, a press release about them that the men claim is defamatory, and much else.
It’s a fun game—and an expensive one for Shell, given the man-hours such requests involve. As the Donovans’ rights to access the information are enshrined in the act, Shell can’t dismiss the claims. Yet the Donovans say that Shell has not surrendered all of the data that relates to them. The men have a copy of an email about them sent by Shell’s most senior lawyer to the company’s chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer. It isn’t in the data Shell has conceded. And the Donovans also allege that Shell has now devised a codename for the men, to circumvent future subject access requests. If true, that would land Shell in hot water with the DPA commissioner. [UPDATE: see John Donovan’s comment below]
Bizarre as it sounds, Shell knows that it must take the two men seriously. The company tried—and failed—to have their website closed down. And now it is paying the law firm Simmons & Simmons to handle their DPA requests. If that sounds a bit like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, it shows how much of an irritation the Donovans have become for Shell. They frequently email senior executives of the company directly. And there is a regular stream of correspondence between their modest Colchester base and Shell’s lawyers in London.
The Donovans say they have received CVs, business proposals, and even a terrorist threat sent to them: all were intended for Shell. (They kindly forwarded them on.) And the site has begun to break news regularly. Earlier this month, Reuters scooped that another senior Shell executive, this one a manager at the troubled Kashagan project in Kazakhstan, had quit. The Donovans, and through them Reuters, knew about the story before Shell’s press office in London. As journalists and disgruntled employees have realised, if you want to know what’s up at one of the world’s biggest companies—or just want a good moan about the latest oil spill—start with www.royaldutchshellplc.com.