George Monbiot Interview

Interview with George Monbiot about the LM network - a political group that engages in infiltration of media organisations and science-related lobby groups in order to promote its own agenda.

Although the interview took place some time ago, its publication now is particularly timely in the light of the enormous controversy following Channel 4's broadcast of Martin Durkin's documentary 'The Great Global Warming Swindle'. This controversy has lead to considerable focus both on Durkin's past record as a documentary film-maker and on his links to the LM network.

Soon after 'Swindle' was broadcast, the editor of Spiked-online, the Internet-based successor to the magazine LM, published an admiring 'interview' with Durkin in which he claimed 'the film poked some very big holes in the global warming consensus'. The Spiked article also denounced the 'anti-LM conspiracy-mongering' that had connected the LM group to Durkin.

According to Spiked's editor - Brendan O'Neill - this 'conspiracy-mongering' amounted to no more than the fact that 'a few people who contributed articles to LM appeared as talking heads on [Durkin's previous documentary] Against Nature. That's all.'

But that is not all. What O'Neill fails to disclose is that Durkin's deputy for Against Nature was Eve Kaye - a key figure (like her sister) in both LM and the tiny political splinter group, the RCP, who were behind LM. Eve Kaye also happened to be the wife of James Heartfield, a leading RCP ideologue and the co-author of its manifesto - something that might help to explain why, in the words of George Monbiot, 'Line by line, point by point, Against Nature followed the agenda laid down by LM.'

In terms of science and technology, that agenda involves eulogising technologies like nuclear power, genetic engineering, and human reproductive cloning, while claiming that global warming is nothing to worry about. It also involves extreme antipathy towards environmentalists who are viewed as comparable to the Nazis.

It is also revealing - in terms of the territory covered by the Monbiot interview - that in the wake of the 'Swindle' broadcast, it was not only Spiked that responded in a way that could be viewed as helpful to Durkin. The Science Media Centre, whose director Fiona Fox was not just a long-term RCP supporter but one of LM's most prolific contributors, maintained a deafening silence on the issue - this despite a supposed remit of encouraging the proper reporting of scientific issues.

By contrast, when a few years back the BBC was going to broadcast a completely fictional drama about GM crops, Fiona Fox and the SMC, as Monbiot notes, lead the campaign to rubbish the drama even before it was broadcast. And, as Monbiot also notes, nothing remotely resembling the kind of proactivity the SMC has shown on issues like GM, has ever been seen in the face of climate change denial.

Even more revealing is the behaviour of Sense About Science - another prominent science lobby group, whose director and her deputy are also part of the LM group. Sense About Science not only failed to criticise the Durkin documentary but instead issued a press release implying there was support from leading British climate scientists for concerns about scientists exaggerating climate change. On investigation, this turned out not to be the case.

Sense About Science's apparent unconcern about distortions of climate change science by Durkin contrasts notably with the considerable concern the group has expressed in the media about celebrities endorsing things like aromatherapy and homeopathy.

The Monbiot interview looks at the extraordinary background to this - a situation where, amongst others, the Science Media Centre, the Genetic Interest Group, Sense About Science, the Progress Educational Trust, the Pro-Choice Forum, and even the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, all have had directors, CEOs or policy directors, and sometimes other staff, who are part of the LM network - a network which has a history of also generating multiple front groups and of repeatedly failing to disclose the allegiances of its members.

See also Andy Rowell's Submission to the Board of the Science Media Centre.

Interview with George Monbiot

Do you actually think there is a network of people concertedly working together as this LM group?

That is a good question and I think it could be answered in several different ways. There is a group of people who have more or less stuck together for a long time. To what extent they consciously organise under a single name or under a single banner, I don’t know - you would have to ask them. But that they have pursued a very consistent agenda for quite a long time and the fact that they have moved first of all into one industry, television, and then into another, science communication, more or less as a body, suggests to me that there is a coordinated programme of action.

We all have networks of people that we interact with. What makes this so different? Why do you find it so worrying?

There are two reasons why I find it worrying. The first is that the agenda they pursue appears not to be pursued overtly. For example, when they ran the magazine Living Marxism it was very far from a Marxism journal - it was just about as far from a Marxist journal as you could possibly get. And it seemed to me that the title was a direct and deliberate attempt to distract attention from the fact that this was a far right wing libertarian publication which was using the terms of the left to make it look as if the positions it was taking were new and unusual ones. Whereas in actual fact they were very well trodden ones, but well trodden by people like the Libertarian Alliance who in theory were at the other end of the political spectrum.

I have never heard of the Libertarian Alliance before.

Mad as a pile of buckets. But what Living Marxism did, I felt, was to give the impression that it was saying something new because it was dealing with the issues from a left perspective whereas it was very plainly dealing with them from a right perspective. And it was taking a line almost identical to that taken by right wing organizations - particularly some of the business come lobbyist organisations in the US, such as the Heritage Foundation, the CATO Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute - and so they were able to play very effectively on this semblance of left parties. People find it is very hard to believe that a magazine called Living Marxism would be a right wing magazine. And so they said ‘oh look - the left has come up with something new - really I think that maybe we should be following this line ourselves’. It led to a great deal of confusion really, including among some people I know.

But it also gave, particularly Channel 4 who were the primary targets of the network’s manoeuvres, it gave them an excuse to run a lot of right wing diatribes, indeed some extreme right wing diatribes, while claiming that it was doing nothing of the sort.

This is particularly 'Against Nature'?

‘Against Nature’. There was a series called ‘Zeitgeist’. There was a programme called ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’. There was a programme called ‘Storm in a D cup’. All those and more involved the network’s members. And all took an almost identical line. And a line which was identical to that of Living Marxism. And in every case Channel 4, if you challenged them on this, could say ‘well, we should represent the whole of the political spectrum including the far left’. And you’d say ‘but this isn’t the far left - this is the far right’. And they would say ‘no, no, no - Living Marxism’. And that made things doubly difficult for critics. One because it distracts attention from the fact that Channel 4 had itself turned very sharply to the right under Michael Grade and Michael Jackson. From about 1992, it really swung quite sharply to the right.

So it wasn’t just political naivety on the part of Channel 4?

Well, they always claim that they want to get up people’s noses and upset people - and they do that very well. They upset the left all the time. But I see precious little evidence of them getting up the noses of the right and upsetting the right - it just doesn’t seem to happen. And it was partly the agenda, in particular, of Michael Jackson because I saw how the agenda was imported from BBC 2, where he was previously the controller.

But also, of course, it just happens to fit the needs of the advertisers. If you launch ferocious attacks on environmentalists there couldn’t be anything better from the point of view of the advertisers because the greatest political threat to the continued profitability of some of the major advertisers - like car companies, oil companies – is from environmentalism. So Channel 4 was able to say ‘well, of course we are not taking a right wing position on this - because this is the position articulated by a left wing outfit’.

So to get back to your original question, that is one reason why it concerns me. Because what you see is not what you get. And so that, for me, was a principle reason for trying to publicise what was happening and what they were doing.

But the second reason is that I don’t know what is going on. I don’t understand this move into science-related lobby groups. I know what is happening, but I don’t understand why it is happening.

Is it the kind of position that many of these organisations take that you don’t understand?

Not their position but their colonisation of the means of communication between scientists and the public and the way it happened so suddenly, so quietly. The way they are able to move into so many bodies.

And, of course, since I wrote that article they have taken some more positions - the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and other places like that. And I don’t know what the agenda is. I mean, I know what their position is, but I don’t know what they are trying to do. And it just does seem very odd. That, suddenly, out of the blue, all these places were colonised by people who had no scientific credentials at all - they didn’t even have science degrees, and had no claim to have any special knowledge or to be able to speak on behalf of scientists with any special authority, but had just occupied these positions. From the point of view of the things I am interested in, this was problematic.

First of all because the people who presented themselves as neutral communicators of science were actually extremely biased. On an issue like GM, for example, they took a wholly pro-industry line. They were far to the right of the government. They are even to the right of some of the industry lobby groups actually in some of the stuff that they put out. It was even more extreme than Monsanto or Europa Bio or people like that.

But also it meant that when there were issues which desperately needed communication to the public, like climate change, what has the Science Media Centre, what has Sense About Science, ever done on climate change?

Yes, I have noticed that looking at their output. It is quite astounding.

And that is the greatest challenge to science that there has been since the days of Trofim Lysenko - climate change denial - which receives a massive amount of publicity in the Telegraph, the Mail, the Spectator - which has got huge industry backing and which, in the United States, of course, is official policy. And not a squeak from these people - who claim to be defending science.

And that to me is a dead give away that these people are industry lobby groups - they are industry lobbyists, they are not science lobbyists. And maybe that answers the question. Maybe… they are obviously trying to swing things towards their right wing agenda by making use of these outlets.

But why? Why do they want to do that? Why have a large number of politically active people dedicated their careers to that task? It is not the sort of thing you get up in the morning and you say, ‘Right, I feel very strongly about an issue and therefore I am going to apply for a job with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in some administrative position and try to do something about it that way’. There has obviously been a concerted programme of action here, but why they are motivated to take that action - I do not know.

Just to go back a little bit. I want to question you on your evidence for this network. Where does that come from?

Well, it is the same names that just keep coming up. There are several places in which they keep coming up. First of all Living Marxism, or LM as it turned into, then Spiked Online, the Institute of Ideas - which are the principle intellectual outlets of it. And the people in these organisations, like the Science Media Centre, Sense About Science, are regular contributors to those. Also, of course, some of them were students of Frank Furedi’s sociology courses at Kent. And so there is a clear link between these people. They are clearly ideologically linked. They are clearly organisationally linked in that they have been working through or for the same organisations. And they seem to gravitate around the same figure, which is Frank Furedi. But I don’t believe they are card carrying members. I don’t believe they have a membership card with their name and a number on it, or that they have necessarily swirled their blood around in a bowl and made some sacred pact. But that they are working together and working more or less as a body is quite clear.

When your article Invasion of the Entryists came out, how did you feel the scientific establishment reacted?

Of course there is no single scientific establishment, so I can’t say that it did this as a body or it did that. I guess my initial surprise was how quiet it was. What I had imagined, perhaps fondly, was that people like Sir John Maddox and Susan Greenfield would say, ‘What the hell have we been involved in - we had better do something about this and distance ourselves from it’. But that didn’t happen. I was surprised to see that didn’t happen. However, subsequently there have been quite a lot of fairly prominent scientists who have been in touch with me saying, ‘We are concerned about this. What do you think is going on’? Whereupon I say, ‘I don’t really know - what do you think is going on?’ But what absolutely staggers me is none of these people have lost their positions. And indeed, some of these people have gained positions subsequent to that. Which suggests either profound complacency on the part of the trustees and advisory boards and governing bodies of these organisations, or profound ignorance - they simply haven’t bothered to read the material, or collusion of some kind.

Now I have no doubt that Susan Greenfield [head of the Royal Institution and a key player in the setting up of the Science Media Centre] is very close to industry in her views. I don’t believe that she is an industry flack. Dick Taverne is [Taverne is the Chairman of Sense About Science and was also involved in the setting up of the Science Media Centre]. There is no question about that. He makes no bones of the fact that he is a PR man, and that is what he has always been and so I don’t see him acting against that. I see him working very closely with them. And I see him deliberately and consciously adopting their agenda. But people like John Maddox - I can’t understand. I think he has been staggeringly complacent about it.

So how would you characterise their ideology - particularly in relation to science?

Their ideology bears very little relation to science. It actually bears a close relation to corporate demands and where those demands are consistent with science they will claim to be on the side of science and where those demands are inconsistent with science they will keep quiet about it.

Like, for example, climate change?

Like for example climate change. Climate change is a classic example. As I suggest, it is where science has been most severely challenged and by anti-scientists. And yet, of course, many of those anti-scientists have been sponsored and promoted by corporations. And surprise, surprise…the LM network keeps quiet about it or indeed occasionally there are articles on Spiked Online that say there is no problem and that take the side of the anti-scientists, the climate change deniers.

GM - well the GM controversy is largely not a scientific controversy. It is a political and economic controversy; it is about the control of the food chain by multinational corporations. And what the Science Media Centre and the whole network have done is to portray it as a scientific controversy and to say that those who are anti-GM are anti-science and to claim to take the side of science. Now in my view GM crops are not science, they are technology. They are the products of science. And a scientist has no more obligations to be in favour of the production of GM crops than he does to be in favour of the production of barbie dolls. In both cases, it is simply outcomes of the science - not the science itself. And to say that someone who doesn’t want GM crops to be planted is anti-science is like saying that someone who doesn’t like the millennium dome is anti-architecture.

So clearly theirs is not a scientific position. And despite their claims it is not a pro or anti science position - it is a pro-corporate position and they will adapt their claims to what science is and isn’t around the demands of that pro-corporate position.

What impact do you think the Science Media Centre and Sense About Science are having? Are their messages resonating? For example, the journalists that you know, how do they respond to the organisations?

At the height of the GM controversy they had a big impact. I am thinking in particular of the BBC programme, Fields of Gold, where they waged a massive campaign against that and against the writers of the programme of the script and against the BBC. It was a two part drama I think. And they drew blood. There is no question that they drew blood. They portrayed it all as an anti-science conspiracy. And of course the right wing press loved it. Partly because the two authors were connected to the Guardian. One was the editor of the Guardian, Alan Russbridger. One was Roland Bennett who is an occasional contributor to the Guardian but is married to the deputy editor of the Guardian. And so, of course, this was a wonderful opportunity for the right wing press to bash the Guardian, bash the BBC, and bash the opponents of a technology the corporations wanted to roll out. So they were pushing at an open door - it wasn’t hard to score media hits on that. But, there is no question that people like Fiona Fox managed to co-ordinate it - the campaign against that drama. And in my view the response both from the SMC and the right wing press pretty well amounted to a call for censorship.

Which is ironic, as of course that lot have always claimed that they are pro-free speech and anti-censorship. But then they have always been staggeringly inconsistent in this way. Frank Furedi was quoted in The Times Higher as feeling victimised and a victim of a McCarthyist witch-hunt and everything. This is a man who rails against the victim culture; whose whole politics is about people claiming to be victims and wrapping themselves in the mantle of victimhood. The moment anything is turned against him, he is very happy to do the same thing.

How would you characterise the political position of the Times Higher?

I don’t know. I don’t know what the politics are within it. I know that Furedi is a columnist and it is a Murdoch publication. To what extent that influences its coverage, I just don’t know.

And Mick Hume does the column in The Times.

We should not be at all surprised to find the corporate press embracing these people. They are putting out exactly the message that the corporate press want people to hear.

I accept that you have these spikes where the Science Media Centre make an impression, but what about on a day to day level? How do you think that they influence the science journalists?

Well, that I don’t really know, because it is only really the spikes that we notice. From the point of view of what I have seen, they seem to have been quite quiet recently. But I don’t know what they have been up to. I don’t know who they are talking to and you don’t know about the quiet and covert influence that they might have.

Could you give more examples really of how you see them as not being as transparent as they might be? You gave an example earlier.

The idea of them sitting behind what appears to be a front?

Well another example is the way in which you have got this great proliferation of organisations which all do the same thing and have the same people in it, but run under a host of different names.

And perhaps, even more importantly, the way in which they stage debates which claim to be objective and even-handed debates but are totally controlled and managed. And this is what the Institute of Ideas specialises in. Where it will…it is very clever, it knows how to get famous names…because it will write to Melvyn Bragg or someone and say, ‘Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ are coming to speak at this conference we are having in six months time - would you like to join them?’ and they say, ‘Oh yes’. And then they’ll write to Fay Weldon and say ‘Melvyn Bragg, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ are coming’. Etc. And then they’ll say ‘Unfortunately, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ can’t come, but anyway we have got Melvyn Bragg and Faye Weldon’. And that is how they operate. So they get all these names together and everyone thinks ‘Oh look…look at all these big names doing this debate, it has got to be a really good debate’. And then they will stuff the panels with these network people. And then you’ll suddenly say ‘Well no, hang on, wait a minute - there’s Tony Gilland, and there’s Juliet Tizzard, and there’s Fiona Fox - what are they doing on the panel?’

Have you been to any of them?

I’ve read the line-ups quite often and I went to a couple at the ICA, when the ICA was working very closely with them.

The ICA particularly seems to have been quite close in the past.

Well that was under Phillip Dodd, and I don’t know if it’s still the case. He actually came up to me quite unsolicited last time I met him and said ‘Oh yes - we’re not going to work with those people anymore’. And he didn’t explain why and he didn’t quite explain what he meant either but he seemed very embarrassed about it.

They did all those ‘Culture Wars’ stuff at the ICA and I did go to a couple of those. And not only the panels, but also the audience, was completely packed. You had all these men in black shirts buttoned up to the neck with deep, deep frown lines who would stand up and say completely insane things, but it was the same form of insanity. And they were sort of scattered in the audience. And so that form of organisation, where there is a clear attempt to create an impression that you are being even-handed whilst rigging the debate - that is also what I would call a form of covert operation.

Do you think then that it is possible to trace a particular line back to Living Marxism, to LM and then to the current publication Spiked?

There is no question. They don’t make any bones about that. They are perfectly clear that Spiked came out of LM and they have also, at times, been perfectly clear that the Institute of Ideas came out of LM as well. And in previous times they were clear that LM came out of the RCP. But if you challenge any of them, as once I did challenge Frank Furedi, he said ‘Oh, no…I’ve never had anything to do with any of that’. And, of course, he was absolutely central to it. He has always written for them and all the rest of it, so it seems very odd.

And of course not all of them are old enough to go back to the RCP. I am sure that Tracey Brown [the director of Sense About Science] isn’t and Ellen Raphael [Brown’s deputy at Sense About Science] and people like that aren’t. But the original core – so in other words Hume, Furedi, Claire Fox, people like that - they go back to the RCP days.

Would you say that your article ‘The Invasion of the Entryists’ was really the article that put this stuff into the public domain?

Yes. And I don’t take any credit for this. It was Jonathan Matthews of GM Watch who had done the real research. I mean I did some research on top of his research, but he was the one who cracked the story. He found out what was happening and I was the vehicle for getting that into the media. And, of course, there was a huge amount of material. I could have filled the whole newspaper with that article, but it had to be very compressed, and I put 30 or 40 references on the end. But he had really done a very good piece of work.

I had written several pieces about them before - but not about the science. And I do think that that is the first time it had ever been exposed.

Are you at all worried about being seen as engaging in conspiracy theories?

There is no need to engage in any conspiracy theories here - collaboration is taking place. It is visibly taking place. It is overtly taking place, and these people would not deny working together. And if that means they are ‘breathing together’, ‘conspiring’ then, plainly, that definition would fit. But you don’t have to have any wild ideas to demonstrate what is an evident truth - that there is a level of organisation and a level of co-ordination taking place here.


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