The Press Complaints Commission has thrown out a complaint about David Rose's Mail on Sunday article about climate sensitivity. This is the text of their ruling.
The complainant, an environmentalist and the author of greenerblog.blogspot.com, was concerned that the newspaper had published an article on the subject of climate change – both in print and online – which contained a number of alleged inaccuracies, misleading statements and distortions in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Under the terms of Clause 1, “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information”; “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected promptly and with due prominence”; and “the press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”.
In this instance, the article under complaint formed part of a “four-page special report” entitled “The Great Green Con”. The piece was written from the perspective of investigative journalist David Rose and, in the Commission’s view, readers would have recognised the article as one individual’s analysis of the information provided by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). When reporting scientific findings, publications must often present complex information to a general readership; this may involve an element of interpretation. The newspaper was permitted, under the terms of the Code, to publish such interpretation of scientific data, however strongly disputed.
The Commission considered each of the points raised by the complainant in turn and carefully took note of the supporting material supplied by both parties.
The article was accompanied by a graph showing estimated temperature changes over time alongside the average temperature for the same period. The complainant said the newspaper had misrepresented the nature of computer model hindcasting (where known or closely estimated inputs for past events are entered into a model to see how well the output matches the known results) when it described the earlier temperature records in the graph as having been “plotted in retrospect”. The complainant said that if the graph had been accurately “plotted in retrospect” by hand, it would have displayed a post-1998 levelling off of surface temperatures. The Commission considered that the newspaper was free to rely on a graph produced by computer model hindcasting showing predicted data originating from the IPCC and actual temperatures supplied by the Met Office. While the complainant’s position was that the newspaper could have better explained to readers the processes behind generating such a graph, the Commission could not conclude that the description of predictions “plotted in retrospect” misrepresented what had been done in this instance. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
With regard to the article’s claims that “the graph confirms there has been no statistically significant increase in the world’s average temperature since January 1997” and “the awkward fact is that the earth has warmed just 0.5 degrees over the past 50 years”, the complainant argued that this might possibly be true of the world’s average surfacetemperature, but the phrase “world’s average temperature” implied that all temperature measurements were included. He said that when the continuing increase of ocean temperature is included, a statistically significant increase in the world’s average temperature has continued since 1997. The Commission could not agree that the phrase “world’s average temperature” would automatically be understood to include ocean temperature. It considered that the readers would have understood the figures to represent surface temperature, as experienced in their day-to-day lives. The Commission’s role is to administer the Editors’ Code of Practice and it emphasised that it is not the correct body to test veracity of the scientific data relied upon by the columnist. However, it was able to conclude that the newspaper had not presented those figures to readers in such a way that would have misled them as to what was being shown by the graph.
The Commission noted that, contrary to the complainant’s assertion, the article did not refer to Dr David Whitehouse as an “expert” in the field of climate change. Rather, he was given the broader description of “avowed climate sceptic” and author. In the absence of any complaint from Dr Whitehouse that his position had been misrepresented, the Commission was unable to conclude that the newspaper had breached Clause 1 of the Code on this point.
Although the complainant considered that the newspaper should have explained to readers the background of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the Commission made clear that the Code does not require newspapers to publish exhaustive information on a particular subject. The omission of details about the political motivations of the Global Warming Policy Foundation did not render the article misleading or significantly inaccurate in such a way that would necessitate subsequent correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). In any case, the Global Warming Policy Foundation was mentioned in the context of the report penned by Dr Whitehouse and, as his position as a sceptic was made clear, the Commission considered that it would have been clear to readers that the organisation was not impartial on the issue of climate change.
The complainant was concerned that the article’s reference to the “global cooling” theories of the 1970s was misleading as the idea was only put out by a very small group of scientists at that time. The Commission noted his position that just seven scientific papers from the era suggested cooling, while six times that number suggested warming. He had argued that the prevalence of global warming theories meant that it was wrong for the newspaper to state that “in the Seventies, scientists and policymakers were just as concerned about a looming ‘ice age’ as they have been lately about global warming”. This was plainly a matter of interpretation of scientific papers (which the complainant did not dispute existed) and the Commission considered that the newspaper was entitled to set out its editorial stance that historical concerns about global cooling are comparable to modern day fears about global warming.
The complainant objected to the article’s assertion that “the forecasts have also forced jobs abroad as manufacturers relocate to places with no emissions targets”. He asked the newspaper to provide examples of where more than one manufacturer had relocated to places with no emissions targets where the motivation of “no emission targets” was the primary driving factor. The Commission noted that the during the complaints process the newspaper had supplied material detailing how companies – such as steel manufacturers and oil refineries – have closed or relocated due to carbon constraints. The complainant had accepted the newspaper’s evidence that energy levies may be a factor in some firms relocating and the Commission was satisfied that there was no breach of the Code on this point.
No breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) was established by the complaint.
Finally, the Commission noted that the complainant had initially expressed concerns about the reporter’s alleged misrepresentation of comments made by Professor Myles Allen in relation to past predictions for temperature change and revisions to those predictions. In regard to complaints about matters of general fact under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code – where there are no obvious first parties cited in the article, who might complain – the Commission emphasised that it can indeed investigate complaints from any concerned reader. However, in this instance, the disputed comments were clearly attributed to Professor Allen (who had subsequently clarified his position in an article published in The Guardian newspaper).
During the complaints process the complainant had indicated that he was content to leave it to Professor Allen to complain about these issues, rather than pursue the matter himself. The Commission noted that Professor Allen had written in support of the complainant’s case, but had not submitted his own formal complaint to the PCC. The Commission explained that it had subsequently written separately to Professor Allen, providing him with the information necessary to allow him to make his own complaint, but no reply had been received. The Commission made clear that should Professor Allen decide to complain separately, then it would be happy consider the matter further.