We learned recently that the University of East Anglia retained Neil Wallis and the Outside Organisation to strike back at its critics. East Anglia has delayed responding to Andrew Montford’s FOI request for information on its relationship to Outside Organisation while it ponders the “public interest” – or more precisely, to give it additional time to try to think up reasons for refusing these documents.
Outside Organisation claimed to have almost immediately secured favorable coverage for the university, but, to date, contemporary news articles have not been surveyed to identify the fruits of Neil Wallis’ intervention. Hilary Ostrov begins the examination here (ht Bishop Hill here)
Update: 10 pm – Subsequent to the post, I sent an email to Ben Webster asking him about the article and received a cheerful reply including the following:
I have never spoken to Wallis and have never spoken to anyone from Outside Organisation in relation to UEA. I did not know until I read it recently that Wallis had worked for UEA.
So read the following with this in mind. Without confirmation of Webster’s source, the fact that Webster didn’t talk to Wallis doesn’t preclude the anonymous “source close to the investigation” referred to below having been coached by Wallis as part of their “covert” operations. Webster’s article, for the reasons outlined below, still seems to me the most likely fruit of Wallis’ endeavours relative to other candidates, but it’s just speculation for now.
Ostrov’s article includes a short review of articles in the run-up to Copenhagen worrying about failure. I disagree with the interpretation that the article advocates, but don’t have time to argue it here. Instead, I’m interested in the narrower question of what coverage Neil Wallis might have achieved and, in doing so, looked back at the contemporary news articles in this time frame.
At this point, it seems likely that the University of East Anglia retained Neil Wallis and the Outside Organisation in the last week of November 2009.
With this knowledge, it’s interesting to read a Nov 24, 2009 Guardian column by environmentalist George Marshall, arguing that East Anglia’s handling of Climategate was primarily a “PR” disaster.
One can only imagine that the UEA’s communications team is totally out of its depth. A less charitable conclusion is that they are defending the interests of UEA and are not concerned about (or have not understood) the damage to climate science.
I presume that Davies and Acton were reading the Guardian avidly at the time (the Guardian was first off the mark in UK press with coverage and continued to cover Climategate in more detail than other papers.) It’s not hard to imagine Acton and/or Davies reading this article and deciding to hire outside PR services. The selection of Outside Organisation nonetheless is an odd choice and we know little of why they were chosen, as opposed to a more conventional agency (e.g. Luther Pendragon).
Marshall’s article linked back to a Nov 20 article by Bob Ward in the Guardian where the supposed link to Copenhagen had been alleged early on. This was alleged early on in the New York Times as well. So it was in the air on the assumption that Neil Wallis came on the scene in the last week of Nov 2009 and would doubtless have been part of his briefing. In the Music World profile, Outside Organisation claimed to have obtained almost immediate results:
Outside The university’s Climatic Research Unit wanted Outside to fire back some shots on the scientists’ behalf after leaked emails from the unit gave climate change skeptics ammunition and led to an avalanche of negative press (left) [Daily Mail, Dec 2, 2009] about whether global warming was a real possibility.
“They came to us and said, ‘We have a huge problem – we are being completely
knocked apart in the press,’” says Sam Bowen. “They needed someone with heavyweight contacts who could come in and sort things out, and next week there was a front-page story telling it from their side.”
What are the candidate stories?
Ostrov draws attention to Ben Webster’s Dec 3, 2009 article in the Times (published by Rupert Murdoch) entitled “Climate e-mail hackers ‘aimed to maximise harm to Copenhagen summit’”. Webster’s lead paragraph is interesting as it cites a “source close to the investigation”:
E-mails alleged to undermine climate change science were held back for weeks after being stolen so that their release would cause maximum damage to the Copenhagen climate conference, according to a source close to the investigation of the theft.
Webster later referred again to the “source close to the investigation” as follows:
The computer was hacked repeatedly, the source close to the investigation said: “It was hacked into in October and possibly earlier. Then they gained access again in mid November.” By not releasing the e-mails until two weeks before Copenhagen, the hacker ensured that the debate about them would rage during the summit. Very few of the e-mails are recent. One, in which Professor Jones mentions a “trick” which could “hide the decline” in temperatures, was sent in 1999.
Webster had been placed in touch with Bob Ward as supposed authority on the timing (Ward made this argument as early as Nov 20 at the Guardian):
Bob Ward, director of policy at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, based at the London School of Economics, said: “From the timing of the release of the e-mails, it seems that the intention was not just to inform the public but to undermine mainstream climate researchers and influence the process in Copenhagen.”
Webster’s story in the Times took a directly opposite line to a highly critical article by Jonathan Leake in the Times on Nov 29 (see here) entitled The great climate change science scandal.
The obvious question: who was Webster’s “source close to the investigation” who said that the emails “were held back for weeks after being stolen so that their release would cause maximum damage to the Copenhagen climate conference”? Was it someone at the UEA? If so, what was the reason for the source not being identified? Or was it Wallis or someone connected to him? Was it the police? Ostrov points to a new connection between the Norfolk Constabulary and Counter Terrorism. Nonetheless, the police seem to have been pretty slow off the mark and my guess is that a December 3, 2009 story would not have originated with them. But just a guess.
One doesn’t expect Webster to give up his “source” but equally it seems pretty likely that Webster’s story was related to Outside Organisation’s “covert” operations on behalf of the university.
Webster did a follow-up article on December 7 here.
David King, who subsequently made a number of curious statements, including an odd mention of phone hacking in an interview, also turns up very soon after the putative hiring of Neil Wallis. On Nov 30, King placed a short statement on climate in the Mirror on Nov 30.
The Russian theme was also pushed on Dec 6 by Will Stewart and martin Delgado in the Mail. However, this article did not refer to “sources close to the investigation”.
During this period, there were numerous stories in the Guardian/Independent advocating the Bob Ward-style line on Climategate. The UEA did not need Neil Wallis to get favorable coverage in the Guardian.
It seems pretty conclusive to me that we can now identify the article referred to in the following quotation by Neil Wallis’ associate:
They needed someone with heavyweight contacts who could come in and sort things out, and next week there was a front-page story telling it from their side.
I agree with Hillary Ostrov that it was Ben Webster’s article in (Rupert Murdoch’s) Times.
PS – I had a very pleasant beer with Ben Webster in London in July 2010 at an outdoor cafe on the Thames. It would have been fun to ask him about this. I haven’t blogged much about my interviews with journalists but the potential irony hasn’t been lost on me.