Barbarians at the gate

The scientists at the centre of "Climategate" scandal are the targets of an orchestrated smear campa

Who would be a climate scientist? You spend your life locked in a lab doing obscure statistical analyses of tree rings, and then suddenly a hidden curtain is raised and your ivory tower transforms into a hostile courtroom. Every private thought you have been foolish enough to commit to email over the past decade is put on display before a baying public. And intimidating tribunals are set up to pronounce on your alleged crimes.

Now, after some initial reluctance, even the liberal media establishment is falling over itself to get in on the act, presumably to demonstrate its great rigour and impartiality -- all paranoid conspiracists will be duly taken seriously, all climate deniers given their deserved moment in the sun. Witness the Guardian trumpeting its great "investigation" over three successive double-page spreads, though accompanied in one case by a curious comment piece, authored by one of the principal investigators (New Scientist's Fred Pearce), correctly pointing out that the hullabaloo is a non-story and changes nothing that we know about the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

Then, one has to ask, why add fuel to the fire? All of us who have followed this issue for long enough -- and Pearce has an expert pedigree second to none -- know perfectly well that the scientists at the centre of the so-called Climategate scandal have for years been the targets of an orchestrated smear campaign. That is why they resisted Freedom of Information requests and bent the rules by refusing to share data: because they knew that any data shared would be picked apart and used to undermine public confidence in their work, as has indeed now happened.

We need to recognise that the denialist movement is a true grass-roots phenomenon, though this does not make it any less reactionary. But it is also supported by, and many of its ideas originate from within, conservative think tanks and powerful industrial vested interests, based mainly in the US. Still, somehow the Climategate non-story -- augmented by "Glaciergate" and "Pachaurigate" -- has grown with each repetition, so that now everyone has to pay obeisance to it, the Guardian included. For what? Scratch the surface and the sceptics have nothing to offer but distortion, innuendo and nutty alternative theories about sunspots and cosmic rays.

But maybe it's already too late. The mob has gathered; now it must be appeased. Who will be the first sacrificial victim? Perhaps Michael Mann, already hauled before a Penn State University investigative committee and ordered to produce yet another voluminous dossier of private emails. Perhaps Phil Jones, who made the awful mistake of not realising the media firestorm that was about to be unleashed and went to ground, instead of mounting a stout defence. He is now surely heading for the academic gallows. Maybe after the cathartic presentation of a successfully persecuted victim, some sanity can be restored.

I think this is a shameful episode. Having followed their work for years, I still see no reason to doubt the professional integrity of the Climatic Research Unit scientists and their US colleagues. Without their dedication, as individuals and as part of the unprecedented collaborative effort of the IPCC, we would not see the problem of global warming as clearly as we do today. Climategate may seem important now, but it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This article appears in this week's New Statesman.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.
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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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