The email landed in Rachel Sherrington’s inbox just four days before Christmas. More than 2,000 words long and seething with passive aggression, it accused her of peddling conspiracy theories and promoting a smear campaign. The sender was a spokesperson from the right-wing think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), and the message threatened dire consequences if Sherrington – who’d only recently joined the climate news blog DeSmog as a reporter – didn’t make amendments to a story she’d published.
The piece was a detailed exposé showing the crossover between free-market think tanks with a history of promoting climate scepticism, and the people advising the government on trade deals. The IEA, which first became known in environmental circles for publishing papers questioning climate science, was one of the organisations named. In 2018, the think tank admitted to having taken donations from oil giant BP for more than 50 years. As recently as 2013, the founder of its Environment Unit was arguing that the link between growing greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts was “hard to prove”.
For Sherrington, the timing of the IEA’s email couldn’t have been more difficult if they’d tried. DeSmog’s staff were scattered and working remotely. Like many people, Sherrington’s editor – who she’d met just twice in person because of the pandemic – had left for his Christmas holidays. But the oddest thing about the email’s arrival on the 21st of December was that she had been waiting for the IEA to answer questions about her story for weeks.
In the run-up to publication – as is standard for journalists – she had sent several ‘right to reply’ emails requesting comment on the article. But instead of the straightforward written answers reporters would normally expect, she received a bizarre invitation to interview the IEA’s director general, Mark Littlewood, live over Zoom – with the added terms that the video would then be posted on the think tank’s YouTube channel.
Effectively, said Sherrington, “it was an invite to a very high profile public debate with very little notice. It didn't seem to be about them giving a comment on the article itself”. She politely refused, and asked again for the standard written response, only for Littlewood to post a screenshot of himself “waiting” for her to join the call on Twitter. Then, three weeks after publication, the email came. “It felt really like an attempt to intimidate,” said Sherrington, who describes the whole experience as “very stressful”.
These targeted tactics, it turns out, are not uncommon at the IEA. The think tank was recently accused by one of its own advisors of spending more time “trolling” its detractors than it does actually formulating policy. In January of this year, the organisation asked VICE to take part in a similar YouTube debate, instead of providing comment on an article. Meanwhile, Littlewood can be seen on Twitter challenging his critics to “interview me”.
Unfortunately for Sherrington, the impromptu invitation to a verbal sparring session wasn’t the end of it. She acknowledged the IEA’s points, and amended the article on the 23rd of December, but the think tank persisted. Two months later she received another lengthy email, informing her that the IEA would be filing a formal complaint with the media regulator IMPRESS. The message also contained a more explicit threat: "In the coming weeks the Institute of Economic Affairs will begin filming on a YouTube video documenting this episode, exploring DeSmog’s funding sources, and addressing the journalistic practices not just of DeSmog but you personally."
The fact that such an established think tank, which traces its origins back to 1955, would go so far out of its way to pursue a reporter for a small, grant-funded climate news site suggested Sherrington’s story had, in some way, touched a nerve. When VICE asked the IEA for comment on this incident, their spokesperson dismissed DeSmog, labelling its reporters “political campaigners” who “fixate on activist conspiracy theories,” rather than journalists.
They didn’t directly answer VICE’s questions about the YouTube video they said they would release about Sherrington. But they justified offering video calls instead of written responses to “activist outlets” like DeSmog because, they said, their answers were often taken out of context, and that “any response we give is treated as further evidence of mal-intent and conspiracy”. Citing, among other things, DeSmog’s lack of interest in the material the IEA publishes on “free market environmentalism,” they said: “We regard organisations like DeSmog [...] as being in the business of activism rather than journalism”.
Others see it differently, however. “DeSmog perform an essential service in holding companies, government and other organisations to account,” Fiona Harvey, the Guardian’s environment correspondent, said in an email. She recently worked with Sherrington’s colleagues to break a story about the UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s meetings with fossil fuel companies. Far from being activists, she wrote, “they’re great journalists,” adding: “Their investigations are in-depth and high quality, their revelations impactful, their writers skilled, and their attitude invincible.”
What’s undoubtedly true is that DeSmog – which employs just six full-time members of staff in the UK, and 10-15 freelance editors and contributors in the US – punches well above its weight in terms of breaking stories and digging out scoops. In recent years, it has grown to become a persistent thorn in the side of the climate denial industry, exposing the toxic web of front organisations, PR companies and lobby groups that fossil fuel companies (among others) pay to do their dirty work in spreading disinformation about the climate crisis.
Founded by Jim Hoggan, a successful Canadian PR man who was nearing retirement age in 2006, DeSmogBlog (as it was known) initially concentrated on malpractice in the PR industry. “[Hoggan] didn’t want his industry sullied by what he called ‘the Darth Vader PR firms’,” explained Brendan DeMelle, DeSmog’s executive director, over video call from Seattle.
“He had three bits of advice for clients,” DeMelle says. “One: Do the right thing. Two: Be seen to be doing the right thing. And, three: Don't get number one and number two mixed up.” Perhaps more crucially, he had the insider knowledge to spot when the powerful, psychologically persuasive techniques behind modern marketing were being used for more nefarious purposes.
If the blog’s early work – almost entirely funded by Hoggan himself and his business partner John LeFebvre – was slightly scattergun, it became more tightly focussed from 2010 onwards, when DeMelle was handed the reins, moving it to its current, grant-funded model. In 2012, he scored a major scoop when DeSmog published internal documents from the Heartland Institute – a notorious US think tank, listed by Greenpeace as a Koch Industries climate denial front group, that has attempted to cast doubt on the dangers of both climate change and smoking. In one leaked memo, marked “Confidential”, the Institute offered details of its “fight to prevent the implementation of dangerous policy actions to address the supposed risks of global warming.”
The UK arm of DeSmog, founded in 2014, has gone from strength to strength. Earlier this year, Rich Collet-White, DeSmog UK’s Deputy Editor, helped uncover the fact that contractors working on the hugely controversial new Cambo oil field were being charged with bribery and corruption (a charge that’s subsequently led to a guilty plea); that both David Cameron and Theresa May had personally lobbied for the company in question; and that the Conservative Party received £420,000 in donations from companies with an interest in North Sea extraction in the run-up to a crucial government review earlier this year.
None of this has left DeSmog short of enemies. DeMelle has had his personal details – including his home address – shared online. Shortly after I met him for coffee, Collett-White messaged to ask if I could keep any description of the location vague. “We've luckily not been subject to this ourselves, but colleagues know others doing similar work who've had letter bombs/threats to their premises,” he explained. And for a couple of months, the first thing Sherrington thought about each morning when she logged in was the IEA’s threat. “I was thinking, ‘Is there going to be a video?’ or ‘What exactly might they do?’"
In the end, the IEA didn’t follow through with their threat to make a video about Sherrington. They did, however, take the dispute about her article to IMPRESS. On 20th July 2021, after taking written submissions from both parties, the press regulator issued its verdict: The IEA’s complaint was dismissed. DeSmog, IMPRESS concluded, had taken “all reasonable steps to ensure accuracy”.
Sherrington felt vindicated. “We felt that the ruling would come down in our favour, but there was definitely relief across the team when it did,” she said. More importantly, she feels the whole unpleasant experience made her more determined than ever to keep going. To keep holding organisations like the IEA and others to account, and to keep shining a light on the aspects of their climate record that they may not want the public to see.