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Spiked Online – The rohypnol of web-based news and comment

with 22 comments

*See also my response to Rob Lyons: Climate change “scepticism” and Spiked Online*

Naomi and Gimpy have written a couple of good things today about the arch-libertarians over at Spiked Online. Spiked is an odd phenomenon, founded a few years ago by a group of ex-members of the “Revolutionary Communist Party”. Despite adopting many of the trappings of the left, Spiked takes a staunchly pro-corporate/pro-authoritarian-government line on a wide range of issues, including climate change, breastfeeding, smoking, obesity, gun control, human rights in China, corruption in Africa, and international justice.

On climate change, the position seems to swing between a) the standard denialist belief that global warming is a self-hating, anti-working-class, group fantasy (or perhaps even a conspiracy) among lefty bourgeois enviro-scientists and b) the slightly more nuanced, if no less bewildering, line that yes, maybe something is happening to the climate, and yes, maybe scientists are predicting that millions of people will die because of it, but science alone cannot tell us whether or not this is a bad thing.

As seems pretty clear in the two articles picked apart by Naomi and Gimpy, the arguments on Spiked are often so tortured that it’s difficult to believe that the author genuinely holds to what they’re saying.

Which of course begs the question why… Contrarianism clearly seems to be a part of it. As I learned at my sisters’ expense when I was growing up, disagreeing with other people for the sake of it can be both fun and entertaining, especially when you can see that people are getting really annoyed by it – and Spiked clearly do have a talent for winding everyone up.

But while Spiked’s editor, Brendan O’ Neill, often makes light of claims that he and his outfit take  ‘cash for copy’, it’s difficult to ignore the galaxy of corporates listed as associates on page 10 of the Spiked Online “Brand Manager’s pack”.These include Bloomberg, BT, Cadbury Schweppes, the PR firm Hill and Knowlton, IBM, INFORM (“INFORM is an IDFA initiative set up on behalf of UK infant formula manufacturers, namely SMA Nutrition, Cow & Gate, Milupa and Farley/Heinz…”), the International Policy Network (a corporate lobby group funded by the Exxon oil company among others), Luther Pendragon (another PR firm), the Mobile Operators Association, Orange, O2, Pfizer, and the Society of Chemical Industry.

Hill and Knowlton in particular stand out because of their unparalleled, 50-year track record in creating and disseminating pro-corporate disinformation using cutting-edge PR techniques. During the 1950s, as recounted in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, H&K pioneered the concept of “manufactured controversy” to defend the tobacco industry, muddying the water around the link between smoking and cancer, and successfully staving off regulation, long after a clear consensus had emerged among scientists.

During the 1990s, H&K cleverly exploited the technique of “Astroturfing” – creating a fake ‘grassroots’ organisation – to set up “Citizens for a Free Kuwait”, a group covertly funded by the Kuwaiti government, to campaign for US intervention following the Iraqi invasion in 1990. H&K famously coached a 14-year-old Kuwaiti girl, “Nurse Nayirah”, before an appearance in Congress in which she claimed to have seen Iraqi soldiers looting incubators from a Kuwaiti hospital, and leaving babies “to die on the cold stone floor”. It only emerged later that Nayirah was the daughter of Kuwait’s Ambassador to the United States, and that she had never worked at the hospital. The incident she described was never substantiated – but her testimony has been credited with swinging Congressional support in favour of war at a time when opinion was still wavering.

H&K also represented the Chinese authorities after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the Indonesian government during their notorious occupation of East Timor. In the early 1990s, an un-named H&K executive was quoted as saying that “we’d represent Satan if he paid”.

Sourcewatch report that over half of Spiked Online’s public events in recent years have been held at H&K’s London offices.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 21, 2009 at 4:58 pm

22 Responses

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  1. Spiked annoy me intensely and I suspect a large part of the time they are just doing it to annoy but I doubt their opinions are for sale. I think they just happen to align with the interests of the companies mentioned in the ‘Brand Managers’ pack. I don’t think they are in it for the money so much as the influence.

    gimpy

    June 21, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    • It’s an intriguing question – and of course how could we ever prove it anyway… I also think you’re right that their motivations appear to be more about influence and getting up people’s noses than straightforward self-enrichment. Equally, I’d be interested to know what exactly was entailed by Spiked having “worked with” those companies it lists – and also what they mean by this intriguing phrase “to commission a Spiked series”… Presumably if one’s a really committed free-market libertarian, taking ‘cash for copy’ is just another consensual financial transaction anyway?

      Richard Wilson

      June 21, 2009 at 5:22 pm

  2. Great piece.

    Sunny

    June 22, 2009 at 2:48 am

  3. […] – Spiked Online: don’t you just hate it? I do. Anyway, a good blog post by Naomi McAuliffe taking down its stupid misogyny. There’s also one by Gimpy challenging another Spiked article on passive smoking. But the most interesting is this one by Richard Wilson questioning the editorial bent behind Spiked and its funders. […]

  4. […] a comment » 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 […]

  5. I don’t think you are helping yourself with this post. All this repeating of spiked’s corporate links is getting boring, and never necessarily meant a great deal. As far as i can tell they are desperate for cash, unless they are flat-out lying about that? It doesn’t seem a particularly ‘rational’ way of looking at their arguments, indeed it could well be a logical fallacy? I like your blog but In this particular post you just sound like an insecure teenager who can’t get his words out fast enough.

    As an example of how they probably are broke, I clicked on a link on spiked which I expected to be about poker, turns out it is a well-hidden advertisement for a poker site, which had nothing to do with spiked and put me off their magazine, which seems to get ropier every week.

    Jim (not the man)

    Jim

    August 6, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    • Hi Jim – I guess my reason for banging on about the corporate connections is partly from my morbid fascination with Hill and Knowlton, and partly from a wider interest in the rarely-discussed issue of “cash for copy”, of which there are documented examples here and here. My logic here is really that if this kind of bung-taking has happened in the past, there’s a good chance that it will happen again in future, and that we simply can’t know whether the instances that got publicised were isolated cases or, in fact, the tip of a somewhat larger iceberg. This area is inherently and inevitably speculative, and ventures dangerously close to smearing people (and conspiracism) unless one is very careful – but nonetheless I do think it’s a valid topic for discussion. I have absolutely no evidence that Spiked fall into that category, but I do find their behaviour very odd, most of all because when I read their stuff I often get the impression that they don’t actually believe what they’re saying, and this is what leads me to speculate about other possible reasons they might have for writing what they write. I think that speculation is OK, so long as one does not pretend to have solid proof when one doesn’t, which I don’t…

      I don’t think the fact that an organisation is strapped for cash necessarily negates the possibility of their taking corporate bungs (the bungs don’t have to be very big) – all other things being equal one would expect that the temptation to start down that path would be greater for someone who was short of money than for someone who wasn’t. And of course people will always tell themselves that it’s just a small indiscretion and (as Scruton and Williams both insisted) that in any case they’re only saying what they fervently believe anyhow, so why not take a little extra remuneration from an ‘unorthodox’ source etc. etc.

      You’re right that using some ad hominem smear, such as the above, as a means of dismissing someone’s arguments would indeed be a logical fallacy. But that wasn’t really my point in this post. I think that Naomi and Gimpy have done a pretty good job of picking apart two particularly lame articles, and doing so without needing to make reference to any of the corporate shillery speculations. My point is to ask given that, as I think Naomi and Gimpy have shown, Spiked often put out a whole lot of badly argued nonsense, do they actually even believe what they’re saying, and if not what is it that’s motivating them? Again, whatever answer one gives to this is inevitably speculative, because none of us are mindreaders…

      PS – “insecure teenager who can’t get his words out fast enough” is my niche; don’t knock it…

      Richard Wilson

      August 6, 2009 at 4:34 pm

  6. I think I agree with Jim – you really don’t help yourself, Richard. This is all just ad hominem in a clean suit with a shave. You obviously can’t substantiate any of the innuendo or you would have done so, eagerly. So why bother at all? Slurs weaken your argument far more than your opponent’s.

    Attack the arguments, by all means, but not the source or the motivation. Even if it were the case that someone was writing something solely because they had been ‘influenced’ to do so – that doesn’t automatically stop them being right.

    But if this is the game to play, try this ….

    Richard Wilson -> earns money from book sales -> is endorsed by George Monbiot -> who is paid by the Guardian -> which gets its money from big corporates/Government advertising. Ergo, in the pay of the Establishment.

    See, silly, isn’t it?

    Ashley

    August 28, 2009 at 3:11 pm

  7. Ashley – thanks for your comment – you’re absolutely right that undisclosed affiliations don’t necessarily mean that the argument is bad or wrong (though they can sometimes shed some light when on why a bad argument got made in the first place). But I do think the issue of motivation is a legitimate topic, albeit one riddled with pitfalls. There’s a bit more of a discussion about this, where Rob Lyons has been kind enough to give a direct response to some of the questions I was asking, here: http://richardwilsonauthor.wordpress.com/2009/08/01/climate-change-scepticism/#comment-5350

    Richard Wilson

    August 29, 2009 at 2:13 pm

  8. But there is a conspiracy in Global Warming (sorry, it’s called climate change isn’t it, now the globe has stopped warming?). Those in the conspiracy have all but admitted that there is a conspiracy to keep the data on which the scare is based away from researchers who might challenge their interpretation of it.

    The UK Met Office admits to being part of that conspiracy, as does Professor Phil Jones. The conspiracy even leaked a bit of information, before sealing the leak.

    Conspiracy theories are usually ridiculous, because it is inconceivable that such a large conspiracy would not be exposed by those in on its secrets. This one has been exposed by them. Ergo it is not ridiculous. So what makes you think that it is wrong to mention the conspiracy?

    I think we should “…look closely at the evidence for a particular belief or idea, and to check for things that don’t add up”.

    In science if researchers will not allow others to repeat and check their work then that does not add up. For a start it means it is not science.

    Of course there are other things that don’t add up, the tiny human contribution to the greenhouse effect (0.28% or about 0.1 degree Celsius), the settlement of Greenland, viticulture in Yorkshire 2000 years ago, the poor correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature, the fact that the temperature is rising in the wrong part of the atmosphere, the increases in Antarctic ice, the lack of sea-level rise, the really inaccurate forecasts for the last three years of British climate from the same people and machines that people claim have accurately predicted climate in 70 years’ time, the admitted fact that the whole thing is based on computer models, the admitted fact that those models cannot cope with important factors like cloud and the fact that those models and the assumptions they involved were written by people who already knew that human influence was warming the Earth. Those things don’t add up either.

    As for undisclosed affiliation, what about the people who favour climate change panic? Well the scientists need to ensure their funding. There is far more money, by orders of magnitude, in claiming AGW than in refuting it. The most famous proponent, Al Gore, owns a company that benefits only from climate panic. Of course he doesn’t really believe, or he would keep his own carbon dioxide output low. If the affiliation of those arguing against climate change is fair game for discussion and disclosure then the converse is even more so. This is particularly true as all the scientists claiming AGW stand to gain, whereas most of the scientists (and there are many) who don’t believe actually lose out on funding and jobs.

    I haven’t even mentioned the corruption in politics, the fact that the IPCC reports are directed not by the authors (very few of whom are scientists working in their own fields) but by politicians and NGOs. That is inherent in the way the reports are published. The political summary is published first, and governments and NGOs have the final say in what it says. The scientific report is then amended to fit the political summary.

    Having written a book on scepticism perhaps you should admit you are not always sceptical enough, as I have done in my blog.

    Doubting Richard

    September 7, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    • Hi there and thanks for your comment – I’m very happy to admit that I’m not always sceptical enough. The evidence from psychology would suggest that for most/all of us it’s a perennial struggle. I think you’re right that some sort of massive conspiracy would have to have taken place for the established science around global warming/climate change to be this wrong. And clearly, as you point out, conspiracies do sometimes happen. I’m just not convinced a conspiracy has happened in this particular case, but I’ll have a look at those links you’ve kindly given me. I would be pleased (and relieved) if it did turn out that I was wrong and you were right.

      Richard Wilson

      September 7, 2009 at 4:29 pm

      • So what possible explanation other than conspiracy do you have for the refusal of multiple climatological research organisations to release the data on which tey base their findings? The UK Met Office and Professor Jones both gave answers that point to conspiracy against normal scientific scrutiny.

        Doubting Richard

        September 7, 2009 at 5:17 pm

  9. That’s a question you’d have to ask them – Booker and The Register certainly make it sound very suspicious. As those two articles describe it, it sounds like this could indeed be the keystone in a much larger conspiracy to deceive the world about global temperature trends. Another possibility that springs to mind is that, aside from what the raw data does or doesn’t show, the government might just view people like McIntyre as basically cranks and not want to get into any sort of discussion with him on this issue, and are therefore just being obstructive for the sake of it. Elitist (and undemocratic?) perhaps, but this is how the government sometimes behaves in my experience. I imagine that HMG might behave in a similar way towards AIDS “sceptics”. A final possibility could perhaps be that Booker and The Register just aren’t describing the situation accurately. I can’t claim to know which of these explanations is the correct one, and there are doubtless many other possibilities I haven’t thought of!

    Richard Wilson

    September 7, 2009 at 11:37 pm

  10. Sorry, but that is not elitist and anti-democratic. It is anti-scientific. It is not how science is done, in fact it means that the work based on those data are not true science, it is a myth (myths can be true of course, but there is nothing to suggest they are apart from the claims of any supporters). Science must be repeatable and verifiable. This is neither unless the raw data are made available.

    It is a conspiracy because people have agreed in secret (i.e. conspired) not to release those data to anyone who might question their own work. In doing so they have protected their reputations and their income, so they have a rational motive for such conspiracy (another thing missing from the typical mad conspiracy theory).

    Not only is The Register a respectable news source, but actually it is not them describing the situation. It is the people in the conspiracy themselves. The conspiracy is evident from direct quotes from them.

    Doubting Richard

    October 13, 2009 at 7:50 pm

  11. […] Wilson has an interesting piece here which has details of the corporate sponsors of Spiked, but also makes this point: As seems pretty […]

  12. It seems to me from years of reading Spiked! that the main editorial line is that governments should trust people more. Is that so bad?

    Simeon Hope

    November 25, 2011 at 11:15 am

  13. What a lot of paranoid waffle!

    Edgar Watkins

    February 2, 2012 at 8:02 pm

  14. You lot really need to get over your Spiked conspiracy theories. As they have always implored, engage with their politics rather than attempting to discredit their motives. Why can’t you just accept that there are no big corporate sugar daddies and that these people simply have a political outlook that differs from your own? One that is at once anti-state and pro-social progress and (what you seem most offended by) unashamedly humanist to the core.

    marco santucci

    June 3, 2012 at 11:39 pm

  15. The use of “conspiracy theory” in this context is really just an attempt to shut down debate, isn’t it Marco?

    Richard Wilson

    June 5, 2012 at 6:04 am

  16. I started reading Spiked because of what seemed like a libertarian stance; but lately I have noticed that the opinions seem a little perverse, with an obsession with attacking the liberal consensus; to date there have been four articles related to the issue of Lad Mags.

    John Dakin

    August 31, 2013 at 12:56 pm


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