Fundamental flaw in Press watchdog’s complaints process helps newspapers to promote climate change denial

Credit: Lisa-Blue/iStock

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has today published details of a decision that exposes a fundamental flaw in its process for dealing with complaints about fake news articles about climate change.

IPSO was set up in 2014 by a group of newspapers in the wake of the UK Government’s failure to implement fully the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry.

It is funded by its member newspapers, which do not include ‘The Guardian’ or the ‘Financial Times’. It considers complaints that are covered by the Editors’ Code of Practice.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee decided not to uphold my complaint about an article published last summer in the ‘Daily Mail’ which denied that climate change is having any effect on heatwaves in the UK.

The article was written by Christopher Booker, a veteran columnist for ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ who regularly promotes climate change denial and writes occasional propaganda pamphlets for the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The article appeared under the headline ‘The predictable cry has gone up: climate change is causing the heatwave. Sorry that’s just hot air…’. The final paragraph stated: “We shall continue to have abnormally hot summers from time to time, just as we did in 1976 and 1846, way back before global warming was invented.”

The article made many other demonstrably false claims. For instance, it stated that “this kind of summer heat is far from unprecedented” because the Central England Temperature record showed that June 2018 was only the 18th warmest June since 1659 based on monthly average temperature even though it is not an indicator of the occurrence of heatwave conditions.

Mr Booker and the newspaper successfully persuaded IPSO that, because there is no official definition of heatwave, they should be able to make up their own meaning. They ignored the fact that the record of Central England Temperature shows that 2018 had the fourth warmest June since 1878, based on average monthly maximum temperature.

Mr Booker’s article also stated: “Neither, until the past few weeks, have we seen a single summer to compare with the sweltering 2003”. This was also false. The Met Office’s web page on heatwaves states: “In August 2003, the UK experienced heatwave conditions lasting 10 days and resulting in 2,000 deaths. During this heatwave, a record maximum temperature of 38.5°C was recorded at Faversham in Kent. In July 2006, similar conditions occurred breaking records and resulting in the warmest month on record in the UK.”

Even more importantly, the article also completely ignored analyses showing that the frequency of heatwaves has been increasing in the UK. For instance, a paper by Michael Sanderson and colleagues at the Met Office on ‘Historical trends and variability in heat waves in the United Kingdom’, published in the journal ‘Atmosphere’ in 2017, concluded: “Positive trends in numbers and lengths of longest heat waves were identified at many stations using data from 1961. These results are consistent with the anthropogenic climate warming signal.”

Unfortunately the IPSO Complaints Committee decided that the article did not breach the Editors’ Code of Practice and that Mr Booker was allowed to make up his own definition of heatwave, ignore the results of experts, and present meteorological information in a selective and misleading way.

This decision constitutes an utter failure by IPSO to enforce the Editors’ Code of Practice. It has allowed the ‘Daily Mail’ to escape punishment for the publication of a reckless and irresponsible article that may have endangered the lives of its readers.

Summer 2018 was the warmest on record in England, with two periods of heatwave conditions towards the ends of June and July. Mr Booker’s article was published on 26 July 2018, which turned out to be the hottest day of the summer, with maximum temperatures in many parts of England of more than 30°C that triggered a heat wave warning from the Met Office and Public Health England.

The latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that there were hundreds of additional deaths in England and Wales during the heatwave conditions at the end of July 2018.

The Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change has warned many times over the past few years that people are being exposed to additional risks on hot days because they wrongly believe that the incidence of heatwaves is declining and so do not take precautions to prevent their homes from overheating.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee also highlighted, in a report published on the same date as Mr Booker’s article, the importance of the public receiving accurate information about the growing risks of heatwaves.

Since Mr Booker’s article was published, even more evidence has emerged of the impact of climate change on heatwaves in the UK. In December the Met Office released the results of an analysis showing that the intensity of the heatwave during summer 2018 was about 30 times more likely than would have been the case without climate change.

And a study published earlier this week of the Central England Temperature record found an overall twofold to threefold increase in heatwave activity since the late 1800s.

Unfortunately, Mr Booker’s article is still adding to the confusion and misinformation about heatwaves, because IPSO’s failure to hold the ‘Daily Mail’ to account means that the error-filled online version of the article still appears on the newspaper’s website.

While IPSO occasionally takes action after complaints about fake news on climate change, its Complaints Committee too often makes ill-informed decisions about inaccurate and misleading articles and fails to hold its member newspapers to account.

For instance, last year it did not uphold my complaint about another article by Mr Booker in ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ that wrongly claimed that North America is not warming.

The reason for these repeated failures is a fundamental flaw in the way IPSO’s Complaints Committee considers complaints about scientific issues such as climate change: it does not consult experts when making its decisions.

I have now written to Sir Alan Moses, who chairs both IPSO and its Complaints Committee, to ask him to review and amend the complaints process so that expert advice is sought.

Unless IPSO’s complaints process is improved, climate change deniers like Mr Booker will continue to exploit inadequate fact-checking by newspapers in order to promote misinformation that can harm the lives and livelihoods of the public.

 

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.