Should someone who worked for one the world's biggest tobacco companies be celebrated as a national role model?
Ms. Quentin Bryce, the Australian Governor-General who acts as the representative of the Queen of England, apparently thinks so. To coincide with the Queen's Birthday long weekend in early June, Bryce announced that Carla Zampatti had been made a Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia for "service through leadership and management roles in the fashion and retail property sectors, to multicultural broadcasting, and to women as a role model and mentor." Two others were also made companions, the most prestigious honorary titles bestowed on individuals.The awards, announced twice a year, are extensively publicised in the mainstream media.
Zampatti is best known as an Italian immigrant who created a name for herself as a fashion designer, building a successful boutique retail chain on her clothing designs. It's an appealing "underdog makes good" story.
But the information used to support Zampatti's honor clearly indicated that she had been a director of British American Tobacco Australasia (BATA), a wholly-owned subsidiary of British American Tobacco, for nearly three years. On its website, BATA boasts that it manufactures a total of over 18 billion cigarettes a year in plants in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Western Samoa for domestic consumption and for export to other countries in the Pacific region.
So did Zampatti's service for one of the world's most notorious tobacco companies count at all against her? And why did none of the media reports on her award even mention that she had been a director of a tobacco company?
Helping BATA With a Makeover
Zampatti was elected as a director of BATA in August 1998 and served on the board until July 2001. These were dark days for the tobacco industry generally and BAT in particular. The film The Insider -- which depicted the struggle between whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and Brown & Williamson, a BAT subsidiary -- was released in 1999. The year before, Brown & Williamson and other major U.S. tobacco companies had signed the Master Settlement Agreement to settle legal actions brought by the Attorneys General of 46 U.S. states. One of the provisions of the agreement was that companies must place millions of pages of internal documents on searchable, public websites. The initial revelations from these industry papers were just spilling into the public domain when Zampatti joined the BATA board. It was also a time when BAT globally was desperately trying to portray itself as a corporate social responsibility leader while simultaneously opposing the negotiation of a binding international convention aimed at curbing increasing tobacco consumption.
At the time, Sydney Morning Herald journalist Mark Ragg noted that BATA had responded to the crisis by appointing as directors high profile personalities with close ties to the then dominant Liberal Party of Australia. (The Liberal Party is the approximate Australian equivalent of the Republican Party). The election of Zampatti to the BATA board, he wrote, provided "the double benefit of an insight into another industry plus further access to Liberals via her husband, the former MP and current ambassador to France, John Spender." At the time, the chairman of the BATA board was Nick Greiner, the former Liberal Party Premier of New South Wales. It is also notable that when she was elected to the BATA board, she was also a director of the publicly funded multicultural broadcaster, SBS. These days, she is "chairman" of the SBS board.
Back in 2007, Australian tobacco control advocate Simon Chapman noted in the online news website Crikey that Zampatti has "never made public apologies or explanatory statements for their well-paid box seat efforts to increase tobacco industry profitability. Civil society expects those who are contrite about their past deeds to do four things: publicly admit their mistakes, promise to never do it again, try to make good the damage done and perform some public act of penance to symbolise their passage from the dark side ... Anyone helping to hold the reins at a tobacco company since the 1960s has done so with their eyes wide open to the consequences of their efforts being successful."
In the absence of any explanation or apology for her work aimed at making BATA more profitable from its deadly trade, Zampatti should not have landed an award from the Governor-General.
When Journalists Gild the Lily
That error is compounded by the failure of journalists covering the awards to even mention her tobacco role. Many of the stories covering the awards made only passing mention of her honor as one amongst many recipients and so could can be forgiven for skipping the details. But several stories -- such as those in the Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald and WA today -- were more detailed profiles on her life's work. But none mentioned her work for BATA. For example, in the Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Ellie Harvey wrote that "Zampatti has sat on a number of boards internationally, including McDonald's and Westfield Group."
Why the gilding of the lily? Not surprisingly, the nature of coverage of the announcement of awards for a large number of leading citizens is celebratory. While this is justified in honoring the work of those who have genuinely worked for the benefit of the community, it is not warranted when it comes to parsing the history of someone who played a senior role in a tobacco company. Success for BATA could only cause death and misery for thousands of smokers and their families in Australia and the Pacific.
Zampatti's award was, in part, for her as "a role model and mentor" for women. While her accomplishments in this area may be significant, her accomplishments are far cry from the advocacy of Jeff "The Insider" Wigand and Bill Farone, who -- as Simon Chapman pointed out -- "have provided immeasurable assistance to global efforts to reduce tobacco caused disease by major whistleblowing on their former employers, speaking out in the media and testifying in major court cases."
I contacted Zampatti's spokeswoman, Gabriella Alessi, to check whether the fashion house legend had spoken out against the tobacco industry since she resigned from BATA in July 2001 and whether she regretted working for BATA. Alessi explained that this was before her time with the Zampatti Group and that Zampatti herself was about to get on a plane for a trip overseas, so it was unlikely that I would get a response to my questions. "She avoids speaking publicly about issues outside the fashion business," Alessi said.
And that's exactly the problem.
Bob Burton is the managing editor of SourceWatch.
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