George Monbiot on Junk Science, Rational Thought, and The Tragedy of Giving Up Nuclear (Podcast)
TreeHugger: On your website there’s a page where you disclose all the sources of the money you get from writing articles and books, royalties, etc. Even down to the lodgers who rent at your house. This clearly says something about your approach to journalism and investigation in general. Was there something specific that inspired you to want to share this information and be transparent with the public?
George Monbiot: Well, I’ve been concerned for quite a long time. Journalists’ role is to hold other people to account, and yet they have, as a profession, very little accountability. There’s a great deal of power in journalism. You can put thoughts into peoples’ heads, formulate issues in ways which come to frame those issues, shut out a lot of information from the public domain, as many media outlets do. Despite that great power, there seems to be very little accountability or responsibility to go with it. And so over the years, I’ve been trying to introduce elements of accountability into my own journalism. About ten years ago, I started putting references on all of my columns so that people could see where all the information came from, which I feel is an important way in which journalists should be held to account.
It’s very easy to make sweeping statements, but if you can’t support them with hard fact, then those statements are worthless. Here in the UK, for example, there have been massive scandals to do with parliamentary expenses, we are plagued worldwide by a phenomenon which is called by some people astroturfing, the creation of fake grassroots movements, people who purport to be independent and have come to their views spontaneously, but have actually been paid to propagate a particular view by corporate interests. We also have seen various payola scandals on both sides of the Atlantic where journalists, in some cases very prominent journalists, turn out to have been paid to say particular things in newspapers and on television.
And it’s clear to me that journalism is in desperate need of the kind of accountability that it demands of other people, and so I thought there’s no point in just railing against the absence of it. I should try to do something about it and try to set an example myself, not that anyone else has followed up on it.
TH: On our side of the Atlantic recently, getting political candidates to talk about their tax returns is like pulling teeth.
Monbiot: Yes, that is particularly the case in Britain where we have a sort of cultural reticence about money. And I found it quite difficult to do. I felt quite naked in putting up all my earnings. I certainly feel just as exposed now as I did when I put them up because lots of journalists said, “That’s a very good idea. I’m very glad you’ve done it.” And I said, “Right. Were you going to do it, too?” They say, “Well, I’ll think about it.” It hasn’t happened.
TH: In the US media we have this perception that there’s an ongoing debate over whether human influenced climate change is a scientific fact. What does that debate look like over in the UK?
Monbiot: Well, in the rest of Europe, I’d say that people are rather more enlightened, and science is held with somewhat more respect than I think it is either in the UK or in the US, where science is often perceived as something as easy to dismiss and as subject to alternative realities as anything else in politics. Both politicians in the US and in the UK are very adept at creating an alternative universe in which they manage to invert much of what we know about the world.
And the difference, I think, between the US and the UK is that we have a regulated media. Which means we don’t have an equivalent of Fox or any other overtly politicized broadcasting channel. We have it a great deal in the newspapers, of course, and the great majority of newspapers tend heavily towards the right because, unsurprisingly, they’re owned by either large corporations or very rich men. And large corporations and very rich men want the same as everybody else: they want a better world for the likes of them. And a better world for the likes of them means, on the whole, a worse world for everybody else. And they try to engineer that better world for themselves by distorting the evidence and misreporting what goes on in the world.
So they’ve created a debate about climate change which bears no relationship to any such debate taking place in the scientific community. It’s entirely a media concoction and media debate. And people can talk about it until they’re blue in the face. It doesn’t actually change scientific facts.