The Mad Viscount of Brenchly


At last week's Washington, D.C. Tea Party rally, I had a brief encounter with Lord Christopher Monckton, the eccentric British global warming skeptic, and former Saturday Night Live regular Victoria Jackson (who explained to a clearly confused Monckton that she was, in her words, a Hollywood "has been"). It's a subject on which I am underinformed—on all matters related to climate change I defer to Ron Bailey—so I didn't engage him in matters political or environmental, though I did ask Jackson when she last spoke to Ellen Cleghorne (around 1990).

I did, though, read my former colleague Dave Weigel's blog post on Monckton, detailing the dotty Viscount's skepticism that President Obama was a United States citizen. Digging a little deeper, I see that, while lecturing in Minnesota in 2009, Monckton claimed that the UN summit in Copenhagen would "impose a communist world government on the world." And in the United States, alas, we "have a president who has very strong sympathies with that point of view." All of this led The Spectator's Rod Liddle, a global warming skeptic and enemy of liberal pieties, to characterize the aristocratic Bircher as a "swivel-eyed maniac."

And now I see, via RealClearPolitics, that British journalist Johann Hari is attacking Monckton in the current issue of The Nation. Fair enough, though Hari, who Private Eye once accused of being a fantasist (and this 2002 story strikes me as very Stephen Glass-like), takes a few short cuts in his attack. For instance, he writes that Monckton "falsely claimed he is a member of the House of Lords and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. When challenged, Monckton has admitted to a weakness for telling 'stories that aren't actually true.'"

As Hari points out, both claims are demonstrably false. But here is the context for that quote, in which Monckton, apparently challenged about the Nobel and peerage, admits a "weakness for telling 'stories that aren't actually true." It can be found in this 2007 Scotsman article, which details Monckton's involvement in the jigsaw puzzle business (seriously):

Mr Monckton told The Scotsman that the story about him being forced to sell Crimonmogate, his 67-room pile near Peterhead, had been invented to boost sales [of his puzzle]. In fact, he said he had made a healthy profit from the first version of the puzzle, despite it being solved so quickly.

"[The house sale] was the story which the PR people dreamed up after we had three months of the best sales that any puzzle had ever had," he said. "They wanted to keep the momentum going to take us through to Christmas.

"I was selling the house anyway and they asked me if I would be willing to tell people I was selling the house because I was afraid somebody might solve the puzzle too fast. I said 'yes'. They said, 'Don't you mind being made to look an absolute prat', and I said, 'No-I'm quite used to that'. History is full of stories that aren't actually true.

It might not seem like a big deal, but journalists are not allowed to bowdlerize quotes in this way. Monckton, who has said so many stupid things in his time that Hari needn't manipulate his sources, was clearly not "admitting a weakness" for lying about his past, but suggesting that history is saturated with stupid PR stunts.

Also, when claiming that the climate deniers are like those industry-funded scientists in the 1950s who denied that smoking caused lung cancer, Hari writes that Clarence Cook Little, who headed an industry funded research team, said "he has discovered insurmountable flaws in the use of statistics and clinical data by 'anti-tobacco' (and quasi-commie) scientists. The press reports the 'controversy,' usually without mentioning that Cook Little is being paid by the tobacco industry." A peek in the archives—AP, New York Times, and a dozen other sources—and no reference to Cook using the term "anti-tobacco" and all mention his link to the tobacco industry. Reporting on his research in 1956, in which he says that his studies were "inconclusive," The Times identifies his industry affiliation in its subhead, and quotes Cook as stating that "it cannot be said that smoking has been absolved of suspicion; neither have the charges that smoking has a role in lung cancer been proven." But such nuance would muck up his lede, I suppose.

Cook Little was doubtless an industry stooge, but there is no evidence that I can find suggesting that, in collusion with the media, he set out to destroy the reputations of "quasi-commie" scientists.