Following the Sharon Gould fiasco, (in which former peasant revolutionary now Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle was hoaxed into publishing, well, anything, so long as it suggested a grand scientific conspiracy in favour of climate change) has the dreaded green machine claimed another Tory editorial scalp?

A couple of weeks ago Matthew D’Ancona departed the editorial chair of The Spectator after three-and-a-half years, a resignation universally seen as being forced on him. The Spectator has lost sales — overall circulation is down about 2.5% from 80,000 to 76,000 — with 16,000 of that figure being comp, giveaways and heavy-discount copies.

That’s despite early attempts to turn the mag into a combination of conservative opinion and luxury gifts catalogue, and the launch of a separate Australian edition, the latter a massive increase in Oz costs.

However, much of that can probably be laid at the feet of Spectator supremo Andrew Neil rather than D’Ancona.

His handling of the climate change thang is another matter — and tells us a lot about the cynical way in which climate change scepticism/denialism is used to sell magazines to a rightwing audience.

In July, The Spectator ran a cover story entitled “Relax! Global warming Is a Hoax!” written by their TV columnist James Delingpole, the article was coverage of Ian Plimer’s brick-size work Heaven and Earth. The book has sold 30,000 copies apparently. I would warrant that fewer than a tenth of those have been read much past the first hundred or so pages, especially by the conservatoriat (Bolter, Planet Janet, Peter Pinot Coleman etc) who assailed the Nazi-like censorship of the mainstream publishers for refusing to publish a 700 page book with 2500 footnotes, that they would have to have had (and may well have had) peer-assessed and fact-checked.

Guardian columnist George Monbiot assailed the Spectator for sinking to a new low in spruiking a book whose numerous scientific howlers have already been exposed. Ian Plimer then challenged him to a debate. Monbiot accepted, on the proviso that Plimer would answer a number of specific questions in writing about specific parts of his book, which appeared to be straight-out errors, fudged graphs and the like, the Q&A to be published in the Guardian.

Plimer agreed to do so and then made a range of hilarious excuses for not doing so.

Around this time, the Spectator became involved, to try and get the debate to Go. And it was here that D’Ancona may have slipped up.

In a series of emails to Monbiot, d’Ancona implied that he knew that the pro-Plimer article was loopy, but decided to publish it anyway. In response to Monbiot’s question:

Perhaps you could help explain something to me. If a man walked into your office and claimed that the entire canon of lunar science was wrong and the moon was, after all, made of green cheese, I suspect you would do one of two things: either send him on his way or, if you were feeling generous, ask him for evidence, then give it to experts in the field to assess.

When they assured you that it was nonsense, you would drop the matter. But when it comes to climate change, you and other editors are prepared to accept assertions which are just as nonsensical, without any attempt to check.

D’Ancona replied:

Dear George,

Thanks for your reply.

All you say may well be true, which fortifies my belief that a debate would be fantastic! … I guarantee that the Spec debate would be chaired with meticulous fairness to your position and — speaking personally — I would be thrilled if you could be there. Your journalism is awesomely powerful and a must-read for anyone intelligent.

Monbiot:

I’m still looking forward to some answers about why people like you abandon their standards when it comes to climate change…

D’Ancona:

I think the answer may be that what I call mischievous — and it is part of the Spectator Editor’s job description to be mischievous — you would call deeply immoral and grotesquely irresponsible…

Monbiot:

You say you don’t single out climate change for loony treatment. Could you then give me some examples of similarly loony articles you have published about other scientific matters?

D’Ancona:

Well, MMR [the argument that “triple-jab” vaccination causes autism] for a start where I supported Wakefield [the MMR ‘heretic’ now shown to have faked test results] initially! There is always a reason not to engage our opponents face to face. I am a great believer in doing so, even if their views seem ridiculous, abhorrent or unscientific … I think it would make a difference if you crushed Plimer in a public debate…

Oh dear. Editors suck up to authors, but the full exchange is deeply embarrassing for D’Ancona, not only because at one point he describes himself as “a terrier when it comes to these things”, but because of his willingness to throw Delingpole and Plimer overboard so easily. It was published after his departure was announced, but it may give a clue as to why the magazine thought it might just be able to stagger on without him.

One also wonders what has happened to the event organiser Phoebe Veta, who wrote to Plimer bragging that “we finally managed to hold George Monbiot’s feet to the fire…” and that “Matthew d’Ancona taunted him on your behalf in order to guarantee a good event” … and accidentally cc’ed Monbiot into the email.

Anyway, Plimer eventually pulled out of the debate, when answering specific questions could no longer be ducked. The Spectator accused Monbiot of pulling out. So Monbiot published the emails, which are a minor classic.

Like a terrier. Grrrrrr.

Peter Fray

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