For years, people have speculated about who is behind a shadowy group of well-connected ‘free speech advocates’ spreading far-right ideologies and climate science denial.
The group emerged from a libel trial and bankruptcy of the ‘Living Marxism’ magazine in 2000, has roots in the Trotskyist left, and is now the factory behind a production line of far-right polemic that has infiltrated mainstream media and politics. It currently has its public home on Spiked — a website dedicated to belligerent, populist, anti-environmental, Islamophobic ‘analysis’.
Until now, no one knew who funded the network.
Through a joint investigation with George Monbiot at The Guardian, DeSmog UK can reveal that the group are funded by the Koch brothers — the right-wing libertarian US oil billionaires who have been at the heart of climate change denial in the United States.
Our investigation shows that Spiked has received $300,000 from the Kochs over the past three years, including $150,000 in 2016 — the year of Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory and the UK’s Brexit referendum.
Koch Industries is the largest privately-owned energy company in the US. It has been described as a “kingpin of climate science denial”, outpacing ExxonMobil when it comes to donations to organisations opposing established climate science and regulations to combat greenhouse gas emissions.
The Koch brothers’ funding network has also been credited with the rise in the influence of far-right, libertarian, rampant free-market capitalist thinking in the US and UK.
That this network is substantially funded by foreign donors puts the group’s own claim to be radical iconoclastic “free-thinkers” in a new light.
Public tax returns from the Charles Koch Foundation show that in 2016 the organisation donated $150,000 to Spiked’s American fundraising arm, Spiked US Inc, through two separate donations (of $130,000 and $20,000). That is more than the total funding ($137,000) that Spiked US Inc declared on its 2016 tax return.
The Charles Koch Foundation also gave Spiked US Inc $20,000 in 2017, over half of the $37k in total declared by Spiked US Inc in 2017.
When approached by this investigation to clarify its funding relationship with the Charles Koch Foundation, Spiked’s managing editor, Viv Regan, revealed that it had actually received as much as $300,000 from the foundation over the past three years.
Spiked’s editor, Brendan O’Neill, also writes for Reason Magazine, owned by the Reason Foundation, which has received $1 million from the Charles Koch Foundation over the past two years.
Contrast Spiked US Inc’s tax return with Spiked’s UK accounts (which by law do not have to contain as much detail as US public accounts), and it seems that almost all of the organisations’ resources appear to come from the US.
In 2016, the UK company, Spiked Limited, recorded total shareholders funds of £11,439. In 2017, that figure was just £8,651.
So what does the Kochs’ money buy? A certain amount of “libertarian advertorial”, for sure.
For instance, an article in 2016, the year Spiked received $150,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation, attacked the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, in which the Koch brothers have a major interest. Nowhere does that article’s author declare the relationship between Spiked and the Kochs.
Regan responded to our investigation by publishing deeper detail about the Kochs’ relationship with Spiked, in which she said:
“In the past three years the Toleration and Free Speech Programme at the Charles Koch Foundation has given Spiked US Inc $300,000 to produce public debates in the US about free speech, as part of its charitable activities.”
“We’re very proud of our work on free speech and tolerance, and we are proud to be part of the programme.”
The Charles Koch Foundation did not respond to DeSmog UK’s request for comment.
Brendan O’Neill, Frank Furedi, Claire Fox and Mick Hume were all also contacted for a response but did not reply.
Given the Kochs’ reputation for manipulating democracy through dark money donations, it seems an odd thing for these ‘free speech’ advocates to be proud of.
The Kochs are one of the largest funders of libertarian causes and climate science denial in the world. DeSmog UK has previously revealed how the Kochs push their libertarian, deregulation agenda through organisations with ties to the Brexit Leave campaign and based out of offices in and around 55 Tufton Street.
Through its network, the Koch brothers have been accused of backing movements that have “undermined American democracy and have helped wealthy elites block progress on problems such as climate change and income inequality”. Their influence is so far-reaching that the network the brothers support has been dubbed the ‘Kochtopus’.
The Kochs aren’t just political operators, their companies are serious polluters, too — generating 24 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.
As Tim Dickinson writes for Rolling Stone, “as a young man Charles Koch fell under the sway of a charismatic radio personality named Robert LeFevre, the founder of the Freedom School, a whites-only libertarian boot camp in the foothills above Colorado Springs, Colorado.”
“LeFevre preached a form of anarchic capitalism in which the individual should be freed from almost all government power … LeFevre’s stark influence on Koch’s thinking is crystallized in a manifesto Charles wrote for the Libertarian Review in the 1970s, recently unearthed by Schulman, titled ‘The Business Community: Resisting Regulation’.”
“Charles lays out principles that gird today’s Tea Party movement. Referring to regulation as ‘totalitarian’, the 41-year-old Charles claimed business leaders had been ‘hoodwinked’ by the notion that regulation is ‘in the public interest’. He advocated the ‘barest possible obedience’ to regulation and implored, ‘Do not cooperate voluntarily, instead, resist whenever and to whatever extent you legally can in the name of justice’.
It is not difficult to see the parallels with the worldview promoted in articles on Spiked.
Spiked’s content and contributors have their origins in a network based around the ‘Living Marxism’ (LM) magazine and ideals. The LM Network is an extensive clandestine group that works around a common agenda of ‘libertarianism’, which operates with deep media penetration and political influence.
Yet despite the obvious connections, “the network has no public presence or acknowledged existence”, as Powerbase notes.
The organisation has been described by critics as “media-friendly Tory extremists” and by others as a cult.
Given the focus of much of Spiked’s content on seemingly radical market deregulation, it’s perhaps surprising to find that it has roots in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) — a far-left group that operated in the eighties and nineties.
The network’s contemporary output can be described as climate change denying, islamophobic, anti-feminist, anti-environmental, anti-organic, pro-GM, pro-corporate and pro-market deregulation.
The group operates through a multitude of front groups and organisations that form and dissolve and re-create over years. Most of the individuals involved operate under ‘cadre’ names or false identities.
LM and Spiked contributors’ aliases:
Mick Hume (aka Eddie Veale); James Heartfield (aka James Hughes); Fiona Fox (aka Fiona Foster)
While the group may be best known for the splenetic clickbait of the magazine Spiked — first edited by Mick Hume (who was previously the editor of the RCP’s The Next Step), and now in the hands of Brendan O’Neill — it also operates through a number of other organisations.
Although the network publicly denies its own existence, privately ex-members are less sanguine.
One such member, Don MIlligan, has himself recorded this continuity:
“The Revolutionary Communist Tendency, a breakaway from the Socialist Workers Party, was founded in 1978. It became the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1981 and was dissolved in 1997. It lives on in somewhat spectral form in the circle of people and organisations grouped around Spiked.”
In 1999, the journalist Andy Beckett went to a Living Marxism-organised conference, and also records acknowledgement that the group’s roots are apparently from the radical left. Beckett interviewed Hume about his background and observed:
“He rehearses the LM worldview: the globe is ‘at the end of a political cycle of left and right’; class, once the foundation of all left-wing thinking, ‘is not a political factor’; there is ‘no alternative to the market’. Instead, the LM project has evolved into ‘reclaiming the human subject’.
“What Hume is reluctant to mention is that, until three years ago, Living Marxism was the official journal of a more obscure organisation: the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). After a long, uncharacteristic pause, and a certain amount of looking at the floor, Hume admits that he ‘spent 10 years in the RCP‘. What about the other staff of LM? ‘The network of people I live and work with contain lots of people who were members of the RCP.’ Hume tries to sound casual. ‘I didn’t think you were going to write about the RCP and all that’.”
The LM network is hard to identify also because it has had to publicly reinvent itself a number of times.
In 2000, a high court libel jury forced the Living Marxism magazine into closure and bankruptcy. It was to be the catalyst for the first of the group’s many renewals.
Living Marxism’s Editor, Hume, a Times columnist from 1999-2009, published an article which claimed that ITN deliberately misrepresented a haunting picture of Fikret Alic, an emaciated Bosnian Muslim at Trnopolje camp in 1992.
The result was an expensive libel case that forced the magazine’s closure. Hume and his co-publisher defendant, Helene Guldberg, were personally pursued for £375,000 in damages.
Out of this debacle grew, almost instantly, a new set of organisations with the same personnel, worldview and politics. As Guardian journalists John Vidal and David Pallister noted at the time:
“On the same day as the verdict was delivered, LM‘s co-publisher Claire Fox, a 40-year-old former social worker and teacher, and two colleagues formed a plan for a month of ‘thought provoking’ conferences in London, Oxford, Manchester, Edinburgh, Paris and Frankfurt. As the Institute of Ideas, Fox and her team have drawn into their project many of the leading cultural institutions in the capital.”
Climate Science Denial
Spiked and the LM network are replete with anti-environmental and climate change denial articles over many years: “Have we really wiped out all the animals?”“The myth of a climate crisis”“Don’t panic – the end is not nigh”“Lets fracking get on with it”.
But why is this group so passionately against the environment?
The group take an extreme libertarian line: “ban nothing, question everything” was an early slogan. The approach inevitably led to coalition and partnerships with the far right. Vidal and Pallister note how LM’s content foreshadowed such moves:
“Until its closure, LM more or less aped the conservative rightwing political, economic and cultural libertarian arguments being pushed heavily in the US by free market organisations like the Reason Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute and the Cato Institute. These are all funded by industry but are just the tip of a vast network of “freedom” groups all linked intellectually and semi-formally by the loose coalition known as the Freedom Network.”
The Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute are at the heart of the US’s climate science denial nexus.
The Heritage Foundation emerged as one of the most influential forces behind Donald Trump‘s transition team. The group has been a fervent opponent of the Kyoto Protocol and its online database of “policy experts” includes many climate change skeptics such as Patrick Michaels, Sallie Baliunas, Thomas Gale Moore, Robert Balling, and Fred Singer.
The network’s collaboration with far-right think tanks is one constant since its early days.
As the journalist Nick Cohen has written:
“The RCP won support from, and published the views of, the most extreme advocates of free-market capitalism – the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain, and the Cato Institute and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in the United States.”
“In the 1990s, it opposed poll tax demonstrators, the anti-apartheid movement and trade union campaigns against public spending cuts. It supported Neil Hamilton, climate science denial, GM foods and ‘heroic’ fat cats. It was, to slip into Marxist jargon, ‘objectively’ a part of the Tory party.”
Monbiot also notes the LM network’s links with the IEA, and writes that in 1998, “the avowedly anti-imperialist LM began running articles by Roger Bate of the Institute for Economic Affairs, which advocates, among other interesting ideas, that African countries should be sold to multinational corporations in order to bring “good government” to the continent.”
These themes of supposedly better governance through deregulation can now be found at very heart of British politics in the IEA’s recent activity pushing for a hard Brexit and highly deregulated US–UK free trade deal that could have disastrous consequences for the environment.
For example, there is the IEA’s latest report on agri-business, which echoes many of the LM themes and obsessions about ‘tech’ and ‘innovation’ in agriculture, and was the subject of part of the recent Greenpeace sting on the IEA.
The recent Unearthed exposé revealed the IEA was at the heart of moves to “insist that any US–UK free trade deal allows controversial US agricultural products such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef to be sold in UK supermarkets.”
But it’s not just the company the LM network keeps that encourages it to be anti-environmental.
The author Jay Griffiths has identified Futurism as the root of the recent resurgence of fascism and the libertarian alt-right. Futurism provides a framework for the network to formulate man-over-nature and anti-environmentalist polemics.
As Griffiths writes:
“Such detestation of the natural world, amounting to biophobia, is one of the hallmarks of libertarians and alt-Right alike. Today’s British libertarians coalesced in the 1990s around the Revolutionary Communist Party and its magazine Living Marxism (LM), with human domination of nature their soap-box theme.”
“Environmentalists were public enemy number one. Far-Right anti-environmentalists such as Ron Arnold, of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in the US, were given a platform to rant: ‘This is a war zone,’ he wrote. ‘Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement.’”
Griffiths points to the work of climate science denier James Delingpole, as a key example of the current LM approach to the environment.
According to Delingpole’s own website, his “dislikes” include “the ‘global warming’ myth” and “The European Socialist Superstate.”
He now writes for Breitbart London, the UK offshoot of the alt-right website run by President Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
Griffith’s points to an article that Delingpole wrote for Breitbart shortly after Trump’s presidential election victory. In it, he implores the president to attack environmentalists that “ruin the lives of others”. “Smite them, salt them, and crush them underfoot”, Delingpole writes.
Image: Screengrab of a story by James Delingpole for Breitbart London
Griffiths also points to an “infamously deceitful” 1997 TV series, Against Nature. This was made by UK libertarian Martin Durkin and his company Kugelblitz, “the name of Nazi-manufactured weaponry”, Griffiths notes. Durkin made a follow up 2007 called ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, which was also widely panned for its scientific inaccuracies.
But why was Durkin’s 1997 work so “infamously deceitful?”
As Monbiot explains, the documentary put forward the thesis that “environmentalists are the true heirs of the Nazis” as they sought to “impose limits on progress”.
As Monbiot notes, the programme was littered with members of the LM network:
“The assistant producer of Against Nature, Eve Kaye, was one of the principal coordinators of the RCP/LM. The director, Martin Durkin, describes himself as a Marxist, denies any link with LM, but precisely follows its line in argument. The series starred Frank Furedi, previously known as Frank Richards, LM’s regular columnist and most influential thinker, and John Gillott, LM’s science correspondent, both billed as independent experts.”
“Line by line, point by point, Against Nature followed the agenda laid down by LM: that greens are not radicals, but doom-mongering imperialists; that global warming is nothing to worry about; that ‘sustainable development’ is a conspiracy against people; while germline gene therapy and human cloning will liberate humanity from nature.”
Broadcasting the documentary turned out to be a mistake for Channel 4, with the channel “forced to make a humiliating prime time apology” after it received a damning ruling from the Independent Television Commission regarding the programme’s editorial standards which led to “distorted” views.
Image: The ruling from the Independent Television Commission over complaints about Martin Durkin’s 1997 documentary, ‘Against Nature’
Never ones to shy away from controversy, the LM network — via Spiked — has continued to publish deliberately provocative content on the environment. For instance, James Heartfield (or Hughes) wrote an article for the website in June 2018 blaming the Grenfell tragedy on carbon targets.
This would appear to be straight out of the Koch playbook — shoehorning a deregulation agenda into any and every news story, no matter how tragic.
The network’s influence goes beyond words on a page, however. In rooms across the country, these ‘experts’ can be found pushing their world view under the auspices of creating space for radical thinking.
The group’s modus operandi is well-worn. They create an event, curate it and shape it around a series of edgy-sounding phrases and contemporary themes (usually about “free speech” — or the “right to be offensive”) and then pack the programme with colleagues interspersed with unsuspecting and often credible people.
The group’s long legacy of support for right and far-right causes is mirrored in their collaborations and partnerships. This years ‘Battle of Ideas’ is partnered with groups as diverse as the security company G4S, the Ayn Rand Institute and Genomics England.
The event, which James Delingpole enthusiastically called the “annual festival of free speech”, had pharmaceutical giant Bayer (now merged with Monsanto) and PR agency Pagefield as their primary “Battle Champions”.
This follows a long-running practice of collaboration with big businesses (often pharmaceutical and tech companies) and packing their highly curated events with a dazzling mix of the network’s front organisations.
Alongside Bayer (Monsanto) and Pagefield, you’ll also find the Sir William Perkins School for Girls, the NATS air traffic control body, and All In Britain, and Catholics for Choice.
Scattered amongst these corporate supporters and oddball organisations are groups that all look strangely familiar: Culture on the Offensive, Reason, World Byte, The Academy, Academics for Academic Freedom, Big Potatoes, Liverpool Salon, Birmingham Salon, Dublin Salon, East Midlands Salon, Leeds Salon,The Manifesto Club, Living Freedom — and, of course, Spiked.
Each of these is a creation of the LM network presented as if they are autonomous spontaneous groups acting in collaboration.
The lobby research group Powerbase list the following other groups established by LM members:
Africa Direct; Audacity.org ; Campaign Against Militarism (defunct); Campaign for Internet Freedom; Channel Cyberia (defunct); Families for Freedom (defunct); Feminists for Justice; Freedom & Law (defunct); Future Cities Project; Global Futures; Institute of Ideas; Irish Freedom Movement; Libero! (defunct); Litigious Society; London International Research Exchange; Parents Against the Charter; Sense about Science; Spiked Online; Transport Research Group (now the Future Cities Project); WORLDwrite ; Workers Against Racism Linkswende; NOVO (Germany).
These are front groups often set up by the same people, often from the same address, all from the same small pool of speakers and with the same agenda.
For example, Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked, co-founded the anti-regulatory Manifesto Club and has spoken at the Battle of Ideas, the Brighton Salon, Leeds Salon and Manchester Salon.
And James Panton was a co-founder of the Manifesto Club whose steering committee includes Frank Furedi, Brendan O’Neill, Josie Appleton (Spiked/Institute of Ideas), Dolan Cummings (Spiked/research and editorial director of Institute of Ideas) and Bill Durodie (Living Marxism, Spiked, Institute of Ideas).
Such multiple associations can have significant advantages when it comes to spreading particular ideas.
For instance, LM associates James Heartfield and James Woudhuysen set up a building industry consultancy called Audacity and then sought funding from building companies. The consultancy then published Heartfield’s book ‘Let’s Build’ calling for government support for the building industry. Heartfield’s book then became required reading across the rest of the network such as the Birmingham Salon, Spiked and WORLDbytes.
This is straight from the Koch playbook: create multiple front groups, resource them, and let them spin.
The Spiked/LM network and the forces that the Koch Industries represent have in common not just a veneer of libertarianism and an endless stream of rhetoric about “free speech”, but also a way of operating characterised by secrecy.
As Monbiot revealed, a Republican consultant who has worked for Charles and David Koch told the writer Jane Mayer that “to call them under the radar is an understatement. They are underground.”
Their primary aim is disruption and chaos and to prevent any restraint on the actions causing the climate breakdown in which we are engulfed. Far from being “free thinkers” dedicated to liberty for the common person, we now know Spiked and the LM network are ‘proudly’ at the bidding of these billionaire oil barons.
Editing and additional research by Mat Hope.
Main image: DonkeyHotey CC BY 2.0