The other day George Monbiot of the Guardian had me round for the weekend at his country seat in Machynlleth, Wales. You’ll never guess what we had for dinner after a fine afternoon’s sport shooting the red kite which infest that region like a verminous plague. First, we had leatherback turtle soup; then a delicious tranche of foie gras à la Nigella; then a superb escalope of cruel-reared veal in a wild okapi reduction on a bed of endangered tropical hardwood; then finally, the pièce de résistance, candied polar bear cub paws marinaded in Château d’Yquem. Afterwards, the world’s third most famous Old Stoic (after Perry Worsthorne and his seducer the late George Melly) proposed a toast: ‘To the eco-bollocks that makes me my fortune!’
No, no, really, I jest. Granted, the world of eco-propaganda can be awfully lucrative, what with all the money sloshing around from advocacy groups like Greenpeace and from big oil companies like Shell trying to ‘greenwash’ their image by giving handouts to the Guardian environment pages. But not for a moment do I imagine that George Monbiot writes his paranoid, hair-shirt, anti-capitalist eco-screeds in order to please his paymasters. Nope, I’m quite sure the dear chap genuinely, sincerely believes every word he writes.
The same is true of most journalists, from hardcore leftists such as Polly Toynbee, Rod Liddle and David Aaronovitch right across the political spectrum to Douglas Murray and Paul Johnson. No more could Polly be bribed to write in praise of free-market capitalism for the Daily Mail than Charles Moore could be persuaded to write a meditative ‘on boshing my first E’ piece for the Guardian or Nick Cohen could be coaxed into writing ‘Why I totally heart George Galloway’ for Jihadism Now. Journalists, for all their failings, tend to be romantics: they’re in this game to write what they believe in, rather than to whore themselves to the highest bidder.
This is why I was so gobsmacked a few months ago when Monbiot suddenly took it upon himself publicly to declare his income sources, apparently in a bid to shame his ideological opponents into confessing the extent to which their own jottings were funded by sinister business interests. ‘Lawksamercy!’ I thought. ‘Is this really how lefties think? That if the likes of Christopher Booker and me weren’t being so handsomely paid to shill for Big Evil Capitalism Inc, what we’d naturally be doing is penning articles about the pressing need for more wealth redistribution and sustainability?’
What Monbiot is suffering from here is a bad case of the ‘motive fallacy’. This is the notion that if you have some particular interest (financial or otherwise) in holding an opinion this must automatically render it untrustworthy. In his book Bad Thoughts: A Guide To Clear Thinking, Jamie Whyte exposes the flaw in this argument: ‘A man may stand to gain a great deal of peace and quiet from telling his wife that he loves her. But he may really love her nevertheless.’
Monbiot is also doing his trade a signal disservice. There are one or two bad eggs in this business — mostly, I can’t help noticing, journalists of a left-liberal persuasion who seem to think it’s OK to make up facts and quotes if it’s for the greater good of the progressive cause — but I’d say the vast majority of us are quite agonisingly scrupulous in trying to preserve the integrity of our brand, even if it costs us financially.
A few years ago, I was asked to write a rant-piece for a tabloid newspaper along the lines of ‘Why Jeremy Clarkson is a bad thing’. My problem — a not inconsiderable problem, given the £1,200 being offered for about half a morning’s work — was that I didn’t think Jeremy Clarkson was a bad thing. Reluctantly, I said no.
On another occasion, with a new book out which I was very keen to publicise, I was given the chance of writing a massive cover article for a large-circulation newspaper about my youthful memories of a certain leading politician. When I realised that the only memories the paper was interested in were the grubby, mildly incriminating ones, I pulled out. So I lost the publicity; I lost the article fee; and the furious editor blacklisted me from ever writing for his paper again.
Really, though, this isn’t high-mindedness on my part — just pragmatism. One of the things readers value in a columnist is intellectual consistency. They don’t mind what position you take on a given subject — unpredictability is good — but if ever they thought you were trading your moral or intellectual integrity for 40 pieces of silver they would cease to have faith in your brand. The question of who funds whom and by how much is a red herring. (And a weird obsession of leftists.) All that matters is: does that money corrupt the finished product? Any journalist worth his salt is far too jealous of his reputation to let it do so.
Sure, it may well be that the vast, unwieldy team of environment journalists employed by the Guardian have a strong vested interest in ramping up the eco hysteria in their reportage to please their sponsors, in much the same way that the Top Gear team might have a strong vested interest in saying enthusiastic things about Ferrari. But I don’t suspect for one second that such mercenary considerations affect by one iota the way they think, act or behave. Face it, Clarkson was always going to be nice about Ferraris anyway.
There’s a world of difference between being bought and being paid for. How sad that Monbiot is too blinded by ideological bitterness and self-loathing puritanism to appreciate it.