‘The Mail on Sunday’ forced to acknowledge it published fake news about climate change

‘The Mail on Sunday’, a UK national newspaper, has been forced to publish a lengthy admission today that an article on climate change by one of its reporters, David Rose, was fake news.

On 5 February 2017, the newspaper published, over two and a half pages, a news story by Mr Rose under the headline ‘EXPOSED: How world leaders were duped over global warming’. The article was also published on its website, which it shares with its sister newspaper, the ‘Daily Mail’.

The story alleged that an academic paper by Dr Thomas Karl and colleagues at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which was published in the journal ‘Science’ in June 2015, “exaggerated global warming and was timed to influence the historic Paris Agreement on climate change”.

The paper on ‘Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global warming hiatus’ presented the results of a new analysis of oceanic and land surface temperatures, and concluded that they “do not support the notion of a ‘slowdown’ in the increase in global surface temperature”.

Mr Rose based his story, after a tip-off from Dr Judith Curry, mainly on a blog and interview with Dr John Bates, a former NOAA employee, who had not been involved in the study, but who was critical of the way in which its data had been archived.

Mr Rose’s article stated that Dr Bates “has shown The Mail on Sunday irrefutable evidence that the paper was based on misleading, ‘unverified’ data”.

However, it was immediately clear that Mr Rose’s story was untrue, so I submitted a complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a regulator funded by a group of British newspapers, including ‘The Mail on Sunday’.

My complaint detailed 30 false claims in Mr Rose’s article.

Now, after a seven-month investigation, IPSO’s Complaints Committee has decided that Mr Rose’s article was inaccurate and misleading, and contained multiple breaches of its Editors’ Code of Practice.

Clause 1(i) of the Code states: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text”. Clause 1(ii) states: “A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.”

The violation was considered so serious that IPSO has forced ‘The Mail on Sunday’ to publish a 647-word “adverse adjudication” outlining its findings. The full decision is due to be published tomorrow on IPSO’s website.

The adjudication states that the Complaints Committee “decided that the newspaper’s claims that Dr Bates’ testimony had provided “irrefutable evidence” that the paper had been based on “misleading, ‘unverified’ data”, leading – as the headline claimed – to world leaders being “duped” over global warming, and “convinced” to invest billions in climate change, went much further than the concerns which Dr Bates had detailed in his blog or in the interview; they did not represent criticisms of the data collection process, but rather, were assertions of fact that the data had been demonstrated conclusively to be wrong and had a significant impact on the decision making of world leaders, with an additional implication this had been part of a wilful attempt to deceive”.

In addition, the adjudication points out that Mr Rose had included “significantly misleading statements” about the archiving of data used for the academic paper, and that he had accompanied his article with a graph that had created a “significantly misleading impression” of trends in global average temperature. The fake graph has already been removed from the online version of the article.

In an important caveat, the adjudication stressed that the Complaints Committee’s “central concern was whether the article had accurately reported Dr Bates’ concerns”, and it did not assess whether Dr Bates’s claims were true.

In fact, it became apparent very soon after the publication of Mr Rose’s article that several of Dr Bates’s allegations were false.

In particular, Dr Bates’s post on the Climate Etc blog, set up by Dr Curry, stated that “Tom Karl constantly had his ‘thumb on the scale’—in the documentation, scientific choices, and release of datasets—in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming hiatus and rush to time the publication of the paper to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy”.

However, Dr Bates backed away from his accusations of scientific fraud when challenged by other journalists, and he told a reporter at Associated Press that there had been “no data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious” by Dr Karl and his co-authors.

It also emerged that Dr Bates’s complaints about data archiving had already been investigated by NOAA and found to be “without substantial merit”, according to Dr Jeremy Berg, the Editor-in-Chief of ‘Science’.

Furthermore, it was patently clear that the paper had not been “rushed” to influence the United Nations climate change summit in Paris in December 2015, as it had been submitted to the journal almost 12 months before.

Most reputable media ignored Mr Rose’s false claims when they were published in February. However, a few outlets, such as ‘The Times’ and Fox News, were fooled and erroneously reported the story without checking its veracity.

In addition, Representative Lamar Smith, who chairs the Committee on Science, Space and Technology at the United States House of Representatives, was also taken in by Mr Rose’s article and cited it in a letter he wrote on 14 February to the Acting Administrator of NOAA.

It is perhaps surprising that he and others were not more sceptical of the accuracy of Mr Rose’s article given his track record of inaccurate and misleading reporting about climate change. But Representative Smith has been carrying out a campaign against Dr Karl and his co-authors since their paper was published in June 2015. I have today written to Representative Smith to draw his attention to the IPSO ruling.

This is a significant victory for the long-suffering readers of ‘The Mail on Sunday’ who have been subjected to a campaign of misinformation by the newspaper, often under a banner headline of ‘The Great Green Con’, about the causes and consequences of climate change.

Some of Mr Rose’s previous articles have been based, for instance, on a fake cover of ‘Time’ magazine that he found on the web, and a typographic error on the website of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

This is another shameful moment for the British media because Mr Rose’s article misled audiences around the world. But I am glad to say that the UK has many excellent science journalists who, unlike Mr Rose, take great care to uphold the public interest by reporting accurately about climate change, as I know first-hand from my co-opted membership of the Board of the Association of British Science Writers.

Nonetheless, fake news stories about climate change are a significant threat to the public interest in the UK, United States and other countries. The expert community must continue to fight back against the deluge of propaganda from climate change deniers.

Earlier this year, Wikipedia’s editors decided to classify the ‘Daily Mail’ as a “generally unreliable” source. I will be drawing the attention of Wikipedia’s editors to the adjudication in the hope that they add ‘The Mail on Sunday’ to their list of fake news sources.

In addition to publishing the 647-word adverse adjudication from IPSO, I hope that Geordie Greig, the editor of ‘The Mail on Sunday’, will apologise to Dr Tom Karl and the other co-authors of the academic paper, who were wrongly attacked in Mr Rose’s article.

 

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.