Notes From the Margins…

We Need to Talk About Spiked

  • April 23, 2019
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There was a time when I thought of Brendan O’Neill and the Spiked Online crowd as a freakish but curious anomaly in the British media.

Occasionally I wondered how a former leftist sect once known for publishing apologetics for war crimes was able to reinvent itself as a pseudo-contrarian thinktank peddling rightwing strawman arguments in order to build media careers for its leading lights.

No one did this more successfully than Spiked’s editor Brendan O’Neill.   O’Neill basically writes from a template that can be adapted for whatever subject he thinks will get him the most attention.  Its gist goes as follows: that there is a conspiracy by the bien pensant liberal ‘elite’ or the politically-correct ‘chattering classes’ to stifle ‘free speech’. These groups do this because they hate ‘the masses’ or ‘the modern world’.

The same messages have been repeated year after year, article after article, tweet after tweet,  and O’Neill has done well out of them.   There was a column in the Spectator and appearances on tv, where O’Neill’s dreary unsmiling face has become a regular fixture, churning out the same shallow  rightwing contrarianism on the issues du jour.

Spiked and its various offshoots have also prospered.  It’s not often that organisations that once preached the dictatorship of the proletariat receive donations from the Charles Koch Foundation.  Such corporate largesse generally comes for a reason.    Despite its occasionally leftist rhetorical flourishes, there is nothing remotely leftwing about Spiked or its editor.

On the contrary, these former revolutionaries have long been fans of Nigel Farage and now officially support Farage’s Brexit Party.  They have defended the likes of Carl Benjamin aka Sargon of Akkad,  Tommy Robinson, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones against ‘corporate censorship’ and the ‘community-standards cops’.  When a group of racists were found burning a mock up of the Grenfell Tower and laughing at the victims O’Neill inevitably popped up to criticise those criticising them, just as he always does.

Spiked are always careful to frame these arguments as a defence of free speech, rather than overt support for the politics of the individuals and organisations concerned.  You won’t usually find them using words like ‘snowflakes’ or’social justice warriors’.   Whether attacking the Me Too movement, climate change activists, antiracists, Remainers or those who called for the repatriation of Shamima Begum, O’Neill and his cohorts invariably act as an outlier for alt-right positions without explicitly endorsing them.

Yesterday O’ Neill was at it again, with a hit piece that was vicious and dishonest even by his standards,  on the climate change activist Greta Thunberg, in which he argued:

Anyone who doubts that the green movement is morphing into a millenarian cult should take a close look at Greta Thunberg. This poor young woman increasingly looks and sounds like a cult member. The monotone voice. The look of apocalyptic dread in her eyes. The explicit talk of the coming great ‘fire’ that will punish us for our eco-sins. There is something chilling and positively pre-modern about Ms Thunberg.

Just to recap: Greta Thunberg is a sixteen year old girl.  In little more than a year, she has become the heart and soul of a global movement that is seeking to prevent an impending ecological catastrophe that the world’s leading scientists have repeatedly warned about.  Her courage and eloquence have inspired children, teenagers and adults across the world to take action – in some cases for the first time in their lives.

So there is nothing ‘pre-modern’ or ‘poor’ about her,  and she does not need fake sympathy from O’ Neill or anyone else.   But Thunberg has been diagnosed with Aspergers, OCD and selective mutism.

O’Neill’s depiction of her as a ‘millenarian weirdo’ and his focus on her voice and her mannerisms was pure dog whistle incitement to mockery and bullying – and some of the tweets that it attracted made it clear that this invitation was accepted.

On one level it’s easy to see why someone like O’Neill should loathe Thunberg.   If you move as effortlessly through the moral and political sewer as he does and adopt alt-right positions for money and attention,  you would naturally resent someone less than half your age who has a genuine passion, empathy and idealism – and has earned genuine admiration from millions of people for these qualities.

If you receive financial donations from big oil because of your own repeated climate change denialism,  it’s also inevitable that you would attack Thunberg and the movement she is part of.

For O’Neill ‘climate-change alarmism is becoming ever stranger, borderline religious, obsessed with doomsday prophecies’, and Extinction Rebellion is ‘ the latest manifestation of the upper-middle classes’ contempt for industrialisation and progress. It is at times indistinguishable from old fundamentalist movements that warned mankind of the coming End of Days.’

Say what you like about Extinction Rebellion and its tactics, but its ‘climate change alarmism’ is based on solid science, not the Bible, and taking action to protect and preserve the planet bears no relation whatsoever to whatever O’Neill imagines ‘old fundamentalist movements’ might once have been.  O’Neill only witnessed ‘a public display of millenarian fear and bourgeois depression’ which he found ‘deeply unnerving.’

Based on what I have seen and heard about the London protests, I can only conclude that you  would have to be blind or a bit of a jerk really, to find the Extinction Rebellion ‘unnerving’, and O’Neill is definitely in the latter category. And being a Brendan O’Neill article, you had to have this:

It struck me that this was a march against people. Most radical protest and direct action is aimed at officialdom or government or people with power. This macabre schlep through London was aimed squarely at ordinary people. Banners and placards made no disguise of the marchers’ contempt for how the masses live. They detest mass society and its inhabitants: the masses.

Got that?  The ‘double-barrelled eco-snobs’ and members of the ‘angry bourgeoisie’ who protested in London are doing this because they are against people and they hate the masses.  Well obvs.

The best that can be said of this analysis is that it lacks empirical rigour.  O’Neill then returns to the movement’s ‘child-like saviour, the messiah of their miserabilist political creed’ and claims that ‘ what they have done to Ms Thunberg is unforgivable.’

So having smeared Thunberg as a ‘weirdo’ he feigns sympathy in order to portray her as a helpless instrument of a movement that has ‘pumped her – and millions of other children – with the politics of fear. They have convinced the next generation that the planet is on the cusp of doom.’

You have to be flying very low indeed to make arguments like this, but O’Neil has yet more pearls to place before his readers:

Don’t do as she says. Instead, refuse to panic, mock the blather about hellfire, and appreciate that mankind’s transformation of the planet has been a glorious thing that has expanded life expectancy, allowed billions to live in cities, and made it possible for even the less well-off to travel the globe.

Well you can see why the Koch brothers like Spiked.  The rest of us would do well to give O’Neill and his gang a very wide berth, and pay more attention to the ‘millenarian weirdo’ who he so disgracefully tried to smear.


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  1. Nik

    23rd Apr 2019 - 2:29 pm

    For the love of god I cannot wrap my mind around O’Neill and Spiked. You just made me google both and quite frankly I am confused to what the f is going on there. Never heard of Spiked or Living Marxism.

    Out of all the weird things I just read these blew my mind the most:

    “In his 2012 Huffington Post article titled “If You Were Abused By Jimmy Savile, Maybe You Should Keep It to Yourself”,[4] O’Neill argued against victims of sexual abuse by high-profile individuals coming forward publicly, arguing that “I think there is more virtue in keeping the abuse as a firm part of your past, rather than offering it up to a scandal-hungry media and abuse-obsessed society that are desperate for more episodes of perversion to pore over”.


    “O’Neill has described himself as “an atheistic libertarian”. He is opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Australia, arguing that it has been “attended by authoritarianism wherever it’s been introduced”.

    all the while being “associated with the Revolutionary Communist Party”.

    • Matt

      23rd Apr 2019 - 3:27 pm

      I’d forgotten about that Savile piece…there’s so much of this bullshit. To be honest it’s very difficult for anyone to wrap their minds around O’Neill and his gang, unless you share their peculiar political depravity. It’s probably bad for your health to make too much effort to do this. Perhaps its the product of a kind of libertarian/far-right convergence or perhaps it’s more simple, as in: ‘ Having horrible opinions in exchange for money’

  2. Barbara harvey

    25th Apr 2019 - 1:23 pm

    Best to show the falsehood of his argument then ignore him.I’ve seen Greta and I am grateful to her for what she is doing.

  3. brady

    15th May 2019 - 3:35 pm

    “‘climate change alarmism’ is based on solid science”: science is never “solid”, that’s the point = thanks for Spiked for sharing the contrarian view = and never ignore …

  4. Lilliana

    24th Aug 2020 - 10:06 pm

    Brendan satan o’Neil. Such an insidious and manipulative journalist, who quite frankly doesn’t deserve the honour of that title. I despise how he discredited dawn butler for highlighting police racist practices. And thereafter having the audacity to use Martin Luther king’s name as part of his anti woke argument. Hate him. I’m grateful to people who call him out for what he truly is.. a racist in disguise of an “aesthetic libertarian “…. perlease.!!

  5. Frank

    15th Dec 2020 - 6:03 pm

    Really interesting piece. I find that many of the Spiked positions are pretty good.
    Not everything of course. When they get things wrong they can get them badly wrong. But just routinely, day to day, they are often saying the things that you don’t hear in too many other places.

    But I’ve had enough experience now of this online world of trying to talk politics with strangers who disagree with you. There isn’t much point.
    It’s a real pity though because it would be extremely rewarding if the left and the non-left could engage in political debate.

    I watch the two comedians on their Triggernometry Youtube channel as well as watching Ash Sarkar etc on Novara Media. They can both make very good points about issues, but you could never get them to have a reasonable discussion.
    It’s a cultural divide more than a political one I think.

    Like this row over BLM and the Millwall fans booing.
    You can either agree with Rod Liddle about it, or LBC’s James O’Brien (who thought it was just about white racists booing black footballers).
    What is pretty obvious though is that James O’Brien does not want to take on board what Rod Liddle (or Brendan O’Neill) said about it.
    So nothing ever gets resolved.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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