The Independent, Big Oil and me

A gossip columnist’s libel against spiked in a national newspaper unwittingly revealed a lot about contemporary politics and debate.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

During the past week, while the rest of the media went into a tailspin over the Harry-in-Afghanistan news blackout, I experienced a strange little media blackout of my own. On 21 February a gossip columnist at the Independent published an article in defence of green authoritarianism – the government must ‘force us all to shift towards cleaner behaviour’, apparently – in which he described spiked as ‘fake libertarians’, who criticise green hectoring only because we are in the pay of ‘the fossil fuel industry itself’. That’s not true. So I wrote a letter to the Independent clarifying the matter, but they didn’t publish it, on the basis that the author of the article ‘absolutely stands by his story’. That’s nice for him, I said, but his allegations are still untrue, so please publish my correction.

Yesterday, 10 days after publishing the claim that spiked has had its palms greased by oil money, the Independent finally deigned to publish my letter. It says: ‘Sir: Contrary to [your columnist’s] claims, my online magazine spiked has never “taken money from the fossil fuel industry”, and those organisations that do sponsor us do not dictate our editorial agenda. It is testament to the small-mindedness of today’s illiberal liberal commentators that they think anyone who criticises green authoritarianism must be in the pay of Big Oil.’

This is not only an irritating episode, which sucked up, oh, at least half an hour of my life that I will never get back again – it is also a revealing one. It shows how quickly anyone who takes a stand against the petty, miserly and coercive politics of environmentalism can be written off as a mouthpiece for Big Oil, regardless of the facts. The original Independent article said the only way we can save the planet is if governments legislate to ‘force us all’ to become more green. Apparently we need wartime-style rationing if we’re going to save the planet from almost certain fiery doom: ‘Just as the government in the Second World War did not ask people to eat less voluntarily, governments today cannot ask us to burn fewer greenhouse gases voluntarily.’ And if you object to a programme of enforced scarcity and legislated conformism? Well, clearly you’re one of those ‘people who take money from the fossil fuel industry itself, like Spiked Online’.

It’s an increasingly common argument these days: if you question the new green-tinted politics of fear – which marshals visions of apocalypse in order to shape people’s behaviour and lower their expectations as surely as Torquemada ever did – then you’re not only wrong, you’re morally suspect. You are not only (allegedly) a factually misguided individual who must be challenged through debate; you are a flawed, whored, bought off, morally polluted scoundrel with whom there can be no debate. The Independent’s gossipy green article was silly, but it is also part of a serious new trend: the incessant, and frequently fruitless, search for who is paying and puppeteering the critics of green austerity. The conspiratorial labelling of all sceptics as ‘suspect’ is the copping-out coward’s way of shutting down discussion: after all, what better way to dodge tough and testy arguments than by hanging a sign that says ‘DODGY’ around the necks of all who disagree with you?

In my email correspondence with the Independent’s letters editor (yet more precious time I will never recover), I discovered that the author of the article ‘stands by his story’ on the basis that ‘spiked gets support from TechCentralStation’. Ah, so this is where the ‘taking money from the fossil fuel industry’ thing springs from. It isn’t true that spiked ‘gets support’, in the present tense, from TCS, a right-leaning online magazine in the US. We did, however, work with them on a very successful one-day conference at the prestigious Royal Institution in London in 2003. And apparently TCS has, in its time, been supported by ExxonMobil, as well as by numerous other groups and corporations. To leap from the fact that spiked worked with TCS five years ago to the claim that spiked ‘takes money from the fossil fuel industry itself’, and what’s more that this is the reason we criticise today’s belt-tightening, Third World-dooming politics of low horizons, is… I was going to use the phrase ‘intellectual dishonesty’, but that would imply an element of intellect. It’s just daft. And it’s just as well for the Independent that such is the consistency of spiked’s ‘fake libertarianism’ that we don’t believe in using England’s archaic libel laws.

Nobody dictates spiked’s editorial agenda. We work with a wide array of institutions, corporations and trusts, but we retain our editorial independence. Indeed, spiked’s predecessor, Living Marxism, was challenging misanthropic environmentalist arguments 20 years ago, when our friend at the Independent was still at school; does anyone seriously think that Big Oil sponsored a magazine with ‘Marxism’ in its title? No, believe it or not, we challenge green authoritarianism because we believe passionately in freedom, choice and democracy, and in liberating everyone – and we mean everyone – from economic need through big, meaningful development, even of the coal-fired kind. No amount of money can buy that kind of passion for liberty and progress.

Perhaps those who still believe spiked is a well-oiled, big-moneyed machine should pop into our offices in central London. If I was in this for the money, I’d have a job in Shell’s press office, relaxing in a tailor-made Versace suit as I stared at my six-figure pay cheque. Instead, spiked inhabits two tiny, newspaper-strewn rooms in an old brownstone building with bars on the windows, where its four full-time members of staff work long hours for short payslips to challenge contemporary prejudice, misanthropy, illiberalism, luddism and fearmongering. Making ends meet and paying the bills is a daily struggle. We need money URGENTLY. So please, readers, dig deep and donate today – and provide us with enough oil to keep our libertarian, critical-thinking, ideas machine up-and-running. Click here now.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said global warming has had a chilling effect on free speech, and labelled Al Gore an enviro-tyrant. Frank Furedi believed environmentalism was a really bad idea, and asserted that accusations of denial stymied free thinking. Helene Guldberg argued that libel laws should be scrapped. Dolan Cummings said ‘free speech’ is more than just a slogan. Josie Appleton urged us to bin the moral fable of climate change. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and Free speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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