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Climate change “scepticism” and Spiked Online

with 7 comments

Spiked Online‘s Rob Lyons seems (understandably, I guess) riled by my recent comments on this blog about his magazine’s editorial record, and in response has published an impressively-detailed critique of “Don’t Get Fooled Again”.

While I’m not sure Rob really addressed the points I made about Spiked, he does have some interesting things to say about DGFA, taking me to task for (among other things) more or less ignoring the viewpoint sometimes described as “climate change scepticism”.

Actually it does get a mention in the book, but Rob could be forgiven for missing it, as the mention is very brief (p84), taking up marginally less space than I give to the self-described “sceptics” about Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Though it seems undeniable that the climate change doubters have had a major cultural and political impact, I’m just not convinced that in scientific terms their views are any more significant than those of the people who believe that MMR causes autism, or that homeopathy can cure cancer, or that the moon landings never happened, all of whom also get ignored in the book.

While I do have my own views about climate change “scepticism” (some of which have made their way onto this blog, and some of which I allude to here), and while I do think that there are some easy inferences we can draw based on other examples given in “Don’t Get Fooled Again” (perhaps especially AIDS denialism), I also feel that the subject’s already been very well covered elsewhere (eg. here), and wanted to concentrate on some issues that hadn’t had such a wide airing.

Rob’s criticisms go a fair bit wider than that, and given the emphasis that the book places on debate and discussion, I wish I had a bit more time to respond properly, but I guess this will have to do for the moment…

*Update* – One other key criticism Rob makes is that the book exaggerates the success of the  PR firm Hill and Knowlton in defending the image of the tobacco industry during the 1960s and 1970s. He cites figures from the American Cancer Society which show that smoking rates among both adult males and females in the US, UK and Japan actually fell quite steadily from 1960 onwards. Adults are defined as over 18 in the US, over 16 in the UK, and over 20 in Japan.

This is a fair point, but I’m not sure it gets H&K off the hook. For the US at least (H&K’s home market, and the case study I focus on in the book), while there was a decline in the percentage of adults who smoked, the actual number of cigarettes sold each year continued to grow until the mid 1970s, (see p227 of Allan M Brandt‘s “The Cigarette Century”) – and lung cancer cases only began declining in 1995.  Whether this was because the industry was managing to sell more cigarettes, year on year, to the minority of adults who continued to smoke, or because another group of potential smokers not included in the ACS figures – children, began to play a more important role in the market, or because of some combination of factors, the continued rise in sales for more than two decades after the link between smoking and cancer was first proven suggests that the Hill and Knowlton PR strategy was hardly a commercial disaster.

What Rob doesn’t do, so far as I can see, is clarify the nature of Spiked’s own relationship with Hill and Knowlton, as discussed here.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 1, 2009 at 3:27 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I think Rob Lyons gives the book a fair hearing before getting grumpy towards the end. I also think he (and Spiked) are right to call for sensible and informed debate on the implications of climate change, there are plenty of ludicrous voices who accept the realities of climate change but offer up solutions akin to curing cancer with homeopathy. Where Spiked go wrong, imho, is to give voice to those who deny the scientific realities of climate change, if they stuck to their criticism of the loopier fringe of environmentalism they might be less controversial and more respected. Although I feel that’s exactly the opposite of what they want.


    August 1, 2009 at 4:51 pm

  2. You’re probably right, but I’ve just too many ludicrous bits of well-written nonsense on Spiked’s website to take much of what they say very seriously. Their position on climate change seems to have become less extreme recently but they were (I think) quite involved with “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, and, notwithstanding their more sane moments, the overall picture is pretty embarrassing in my view. Not quite Christopher Booker territory but heading there, and with the mighty James Delingpole as a common point of reference. Denying (or at least obfuscating) the science seems to be a very big part of what they do.

    On a different note, I was interested to see the Simon Jenkins article – how did you get it?

    Richard Wilson

    August 1, 2009 at 6:45 pm

  3. Okay, Richard, seen as you asked…

    Spiked got on well with some particular individuals at H&K’s London office. They offered to host some events in exchange for having something interesting to invite a few clients to. Those individuals left H&K and set up their own company, CMP, and from time to time we still work with them. That’s our ‘relationship’. I can’t remember the last time there was a Spiked event at H&K but it’s a few years ago now. In truth, we never really had a relationship with H&K, just these individuals who liked Spiked.

    I agree with your take in the book on H&K’s behaviour round the Kuwaiti incubator story and, long before my time, Spiked’s forerunner Living Marxism was utterly damning about it, too.

    As I say in my review of DGFA, the ‘who pays the piper’ argument is a pretty weak one, and it gets used way too often these days. Given that many NGOs now work with big corporations, are we to believe that they’ve sold out on their principles? I prefer to assume that most people’s expressed opinions are more-or-less genuinely held (there are plenty of exceptions, of course, some of which you document), and try to determine if they are right or wrong on their own terms. Too often, ad hominem arguments are used to close down debate rather than having the debate out properly.

    BTW Spiked had precisely zero to do with The Great Global Warming Swindle. I did go to a preview screening of it, and drank some of Channel 4’s booze afterwards, but that’s it.

    We did commit the crime of interviewing the maker of the film, Martin Durkin, afterwards: and published this article by Simon Singh disagreeing with Durkin’s points here, all in the spirit of open debate.

    Feel free to disagree with Spiked – there’s plenty of people who do. But we say what we say because we think it’s worth saying, not because someone is paying us to say it.


    Rob Lyons

    August 27, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    • Rob,

      Thanks for taking the time to get back to me, and for clarifying that point. I guess what led me to think there was a relationship with H&K was the line on your website (p10 here) about Hill and Knowlton being among a number of “businesses Spiked has recently worked with”. Perhaps especially because of H&K’s track record and reputation, I was curious about what that ‘working with’ involved, whether money was a part of the picture, and whether (as the previous sentence also talks about ‘brand alignment’) this had any influence over Spiked’s editorial policy.

      Just to be clear: We’re saying that Spiked has never had any kind of financial relationship with H&K, or with, say, the International Policy Network, or any of the other organisations listed on page 10 of the Brand Manager’s Pack, right? Or is it more that some such relationship may exist in some cases, but has never been allowed to influence the actual content of the magazine?

      As it happens, I actually think one could make a fairly coherent pragmatic/free-market case to justify taking third-party ‘retainers’ in exchange for writing certain sorts of comment pieces. Terence Blacker has a good go at it here, commenting on the Roger Scruton/Japan Tobacco case. Quite a long quote, but I think he lays it out quite well:

      The assumption behind the FT’s position appears to be that those who express opinions in the media should be pure in heart and mind, utterly uncontaminated by any outside influence. As anyone who has done this kind of work will know, this is rarely, if ever, likely to be true.

      A whole range of pressures and influences, most of them less honest and explicit than an annual bung from a tobacco firm, is brought to bear upon the press opinion-monger. He is required to be contrary and interesting. He must take into account the general stance of his employers on certain issues. Rival newspapers should be mentioned rarely and, if possible, unfavourably. Any particular bias, hang-up or enthusiasm of those who commission him must be taken carefully into consideration.

      Like a proficient working tart, the columnist is eager to give pleasure to those who pay him, thereby ensuring that he will be asked to turn tricks in the future. Only occasionally does this require an out-and-out distortion of what he believes. More often it is a question of what is professionally known as “compromise”: certain, acceptable views should be revealed to the full sunlight while other, less acceptable ones remain in the shadows.

      Newcomers at the game become aware of the process slowly. They notice that, should they be unwilling to express a particular view, then a rival will quickly be found who will. Soon, the process of corruption becomes ingrained, and the question no longer needs to be asked. Instinctively, the professional columnist will know what is expected.

      Like Fay Weldon and her Bulgari-sponsored novel, Roger Scruton has cut through the sham of objectivity by accepting money to represent views he already had but with a little bit more force and persistence than he might otherwise have done. In the media whorehouse, it is a relatively minor sin.

      Another, lesser point emerges from the story. There’s rather decent money to be made from opinions. Moneyed folk in suits are happy to help you earn a living, like real, grown-up employees, for the right words said in the right quarters. Politicians have known this for some time. Now, thanks to Roger Scruton, writers will have their chance too.

      I happen to disagree with Blacker on the ethics of it, but I can see the argument he’s making, and I am genuinely curious about how widely Blacker’s attitude is shared by others in the media.

      Having worked in a couple of charities I think the point you make about NGO funding is bang on the money. In some ways NGOs are particularly vulnerable to corruption because it’s easier to justify dodgy practices to one’s self and others when one can legitimately claim that it’s all in pursuit of some greater good. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some juicy stuff coming out on this in the next few years.


      Richard Wilson

      August 29, 2009 at 7:50 am

  4. Hi Richard,
    Seems like a reasoned and reasonable response from Rob Lyons. Looking forward to your response to him, I think it is the least you can do in this case.


    August 28, 2009 at 12:22 pm

  5. Richard, Spiked has had lots of working relationships with lots of different organisations. Most of them are companies, but some have been charities (like the Wellcome Trust), or government-funded bodies (like research councils and the Arts Council). We want to produce online debates and live events from time to time. These organisations support these projects financially (and sometimes in kind, too, like giving us a venue).

    The companies get to associate themselves with interesting debates (and their participation is therefore absolutely transparent – it would be rubbish advertising otherwise). They probably fulfil various corporate social responsibility objectives, too. The other groups we work with tend to have a remit to promote debate as part of their funding, and they do that through working with us. In turn, we get the money we need to run the debates. That seems reasonable to me. It’s just the kind of thing that lots of not-for-profits do all the time.

    Our bottom line is this: we retain editorial independence. Furthermore, if we run a debate, we try to make it the best we possibly can by ensuring we get both sides of the argument. So, although Spiked is no fan of environmentalism, we’ve had lead contributors from Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Green Alliance. We have no time for homeopathy, but we had the director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital write one of the introductory articles in our complementary medicine debate. And so on. We leave it to our readers to make up their own minds.

    But seriously, Richard, a bit of perspective is required here. If we were really in it for the money, we’re going about it the wrong way. On the environment, we’d be promoting green ideas not criticising them. There’s much more money in being green these days. For example, according to the Greenpeace website, the organisation had a worldwide income of €212million in 2007. That’s an income Spiked could only fantasise about. In fact, Greenpeace’s executive director alone earned over €130,000 that year – about the same as Spiked’s entire wage bill!

    It would seem that some of Spiked’s critics not only disagree with us, they simply cannot comprehend why we might say the things we do. So, they simply conclude that we must be on the take, somehow. For the record: it is simply not true. The reality is that Spiked is produced by a small, relatively poorly paid team working out a couple of rooms in what must be one of the cheapest office blocks in central London. Everyone else who writes for us does so for free.

    The idea that we are somehow corporate shills for H&K or anyone else is perverse. If anyone’s doing it for love not money, it’s us.

    Now, can we get back to talking about ideas?

    Rob Lyons

    August 29, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    • Rob,

      Thanks again for that clarification. I do think it’s useful for this sort of information to be transparent. The bottom line, in my view, is that financial relationships can create a conflict of interest, even when people don’t want them to. Tavris and Aronson highlight some interesting studies on this in “Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me”, and as I mentioned before I’ve seen a little bit of it first hand from working within the non-profit sector myself. I’d agree with you about the NGO executive pay issue – though I do know of charities several orders of magnitude smaller than Greenpeace who pay their CEOs even more than that.

      I think there’s disagreeing and disagreeing. It’s one thing to read an article where you disagree with what’s being said, but nonetheless get the sense that the author really does believe what they’re saying and has put some serious original thought into putting a decent argument together. But sometimes I’ve read things on Spiked which have seemed, to my mind at least, to be merely a tired repetition of old arguments for which there are so many obvious counter-arguments that it’s difficult to see how the author could really believe them – and/or which say things which are simply false or misleading (eg the article discussed here. That’s when I have started to wonder about other possible explanations, especially when it’s an issue like smoking, breastfeeding etc. where there’s a bit of a history. But you’ve helpfully cleared up a lot of the questions I had so thanks again for taking the time to do that.


      Richard Wilson

      September 6, 2009 at 9:29 am

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