Note: On 18 August 2023, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) pointed out, following a complaint from the Daily Mail, that the following commentary breached its rules about the exchange of information that had occurred during its complaints process, which are supposed to remain secret. In response, this commentary has been modified to remove the relevant documents.

In March 2023, IPSO published its new corporate strategy. It sets out “five strategic principles that will underpin IPSO’s work”, including: “Build transparency to improve trust and understanding of our regulation by the public and by policymakers.” It appears that this principle does not apply to IPSO’s deeply flawed complaints process.

The Daily Mail has once again exploited a lack of effective press regulation in the UK in order to promote misinformation about climate change, writes Bob Ward.

In the latest in a series of fundamentally flawed decisions, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) allowed the Daily Mail to cite the newspaper’s own hyperbolic coverage to justify a false claim that a major report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had used “hysterical language”.

This is further confirmation that IPSO is simply not willing or able to hold its member newspapers to account for misleading the public about climate change, and adds to growing calls for its replacement with a truly independent regulatory system that prioritises the public interest.

On 21 March 2023, the Daily Mail published an absurd leading article under the headline ‘Climate hysteria’, which significantly misrepresented the content of the Synthesis Report of the Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Prepared by 93 experts from across the world, the Synthesis Report brought together the findings of three comprehensive assessments of the physical science basis, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and mitigation of climate change.

Written in characteristically sober language, the report’s Summary for Policymakers was approved line by line by the governments of 195 nations, including the United Kingdom, during a marathon seven-day session.

Among the main conclusions of the Summary for Policymakers was:

“Continued greenhouse gas emissions will lead to increasing global warming, with the best estimate of reaching 1.5°C in the near term in considered scenarios and modelled pathways. Every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards (high confidence). Deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a discernible slowdown in global warming within around two decades, and also to discernible changes in atmospheric composition within a few years (high confidence).”

The publication of the report on 20 March 2023 received worldwide media coverage, including a hyperbolic news report by the Daily Mail. The opening sentences of the newspaper’s story stated:

“Time is running out for humanity to curb global warming that will plunge the planet into disastrous flooding, heatwaves and famines, a major UN report warns.

“The study by hundreds of leading scientists says the world is ‘nearing the point of no return’ – but could still prevent catastrophe.”

The newspaper included very few actual quotations from the IPCC’s report, preferring its own version of the experts’ findings.

The leading article that accompanied the news report misrepresented the IPCC’s findings and seems to have been written by someone who had not read them. It stated:

“The prophecies of catastrophe by UN climate scientists yesterday were distinctly familiar. Disastrous global warming. Disastrous floods, heatwaves and famine. Time running out for humanity.

“Yet we’ve heard such hair-raising predictions many times over the years and they often fall short of reality.

“Nobody believes more strongly than the Mail that we should strive to look after our planet for our children and grandchildren.

“But wouldn’t it be easier to trust the green lobby – and encourage people to make sacrifices to help the environment – if such hysterical language was avoided?”

The IPCC report did not contain “prophecies of catastrophe”. Indeed, the words “catastrophe” and “disastrous” do not appear at all in the report. Nor is the phrase “time running out for humanity” present in the report; instead it was taken from the newspaper’s own account.

The accusation that the IPCC report used “hysterical language” is untrue.

The claim that “we’ve heard such hair-raising predictions many times over the years and they often fall short of reality” is also false. The projections in previous IPCC reports have proved remarkably accurate. The contribution of IPCC Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report concluded:

“Overall, there is medium confidence that past projections of global temperature are consistent with subsequent observations, especially when accounting for the difference in radiative forcings used and those which actually occurred (limited evidence, high agreement).”

The newspaper was also wrong to describe the authors of the report as “UN climate scientists”, as they are not employed by the United Nations but instead work at universities and research organisations around the world, and were nominated by member governments of the IPCC, including the UK.

And of course, it was also completely false to describe the authors as “the green lobby”.

The Daily Mail, like other right-wing national newspapers in the UK, regulates itself through the so-called Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). The regulator is funded by its member newspapers and magazines, and was created in September 2014 after the Press Complaints Commission was disbanded following criticisms of its failures around the tabloid phone hacking scandal.

However, some major newspapers, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent, are not members of IPSO and regulate themselves in other ways.

One of the supposed functions of IPSO is to enforce compliance by its member publications with the 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.”

IPSO only investigates potential breaches of the Code in response to one or more formal complaints. Unfortunately, the IPSO Complaints Committee does not include any scientists, and it refuses to consult external experts during its consideration of complaints.

The Complaints Committee has a history of rejecting complaints about inaccurate and misleading articles about climate change in IPSO publications, often allowing false claims to stand as opinions or points of view.

After the publication of its inaccurate and misleading article on 21 March, I contacted the Daily Mail to seek a correction. The newspaper refused, in violation of Clause 1(ii) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, which 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”.

I then submitted a complaint to IPSO, which initially attempted to mediate before presenting my case to its Complaints Committee.

The newspaper’s defence was weak. It argued that the criticisms in its leading article were not specifically aimed at the IPCC report, and cited a list of completely unrelated material that it claimed could be legitimately attacked. For instance, it justified its criticisms on the grounds that “the article is not referring solely to the IPCC report”. I pointed out that whether or not the criticisms were aimed specifically or generally at the IPCC report, they were still inaccurate and misleading.

However, the newspaper continued with this ludicrous line of argument. For instance, in defending the statement that “we’ve heard such hair-raising predictions many times over the years and they often fall short of reality”, the newspaper provided the following rambling explanation:

“Turning to your specific point, there has been widespread coverage of ‘such hair raising predictions’ – the corresponding news article in the same paper (attached) sets out that the report had claimed that ‘time was running out for humanity’ and ‘nearing the point of no return’. Antonio Guterres said that the report is a ‘survival guide for humanity’ and that ‘humanity is on thin ice’. Ross Clark gave more examples in his follow-up piece to this story (attached) where he said that Greenpeace had claimed the report was ‘our final warning’; Ed Miliband said that we need to act to ensure children had ‘a liveable future’. Dominic Lawson wrote in November 2022 (attached) about Just Stop Oil claiming that the Government’s decision to license more drilling in the North Sea would kill ‘millions’ of people and that Greta Thunburg [sic] said that by 2030, the world would face ‘the end of civilisation as we know it’.”

This tactic of conflating the IPCC report with a wide range of largely irrelevant comments is a false argument. On this basis, it could have grouped it with novels and described the report as a work of fiction, arguing that it was not specifically criticising the IPCC report.

At no point did the newspaper quote from the IPCC report, instead quoting from its environment correspondent’s hyperbolic account of the report, which appeared in the same edition of the newspaper under the headline ‘Climate calamity close to point of no return, says UN’, and online. As mentioned above, the opening sentences of the article were:

“Time is running out for humanity to curb global warming that will plunge the planet into disastrous flooding, heatwaves and famines, a major UN report warns.

“The study by hundreds of leading scientists says the world is ‘nearing the point of no return’ – but could still prevent catastrophe.”

Hence the Daily Mail offered a circular argument. It complained that the IPCC report had used “hysterical language”, but instead of quoting from the report it instead quoted its own hyperbolic news article about the report.

The circularity of the argument obviously led to thorough confusion among the IPSO Complaints Committee. When IPSO shared the initial draft of its adjudication [available to download at the top of this page], siding with the newspaper, I discovered that it stated: “The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code…The IPCC report had claimed “time was running out for humanity” and “nearing the point of no return”.

I pointed out that this was wrong and IPSO eventually made a correction but refused to ask the Committee to reconsider its adjudication. It also rejected my request to clarify if the anonymous author of the Daily Mail’s leading article had even seen a copy of the IPCC report before attacking it.

The final adjudication, which has been published by IPSO today, concludes that the Daily Mail’s leading article did not breach the Editors’ Code of Practice:

“The complainant had raised a number of objections to the newspaper’s commentary on the IPCC report and the wider issue of climate change. The article under complaint, however, was an editorial piece, and the newspaper was entitled to set out its position on the topic – in particular, its view that the language deployed regarding the issue was often hyperbolic. The column clearly set out the newspaper’s position on this, and it had been able to provide a clear basis for its characterisation of the language as ‘hysterical’.”

This is the latest in a series of failures by IPSO to hold its member newspapers to account for inaccurate and misleading coverage of climate change. It has demonstrated repeatedly that it is unwilling, or unable, to distinguish facts from fiction on climate change.

Its latest ruling states: “The Editors’ Code makes clear that newspapers can publish contentious or controversial opinions or arguments, as long as these are clearly distinguished as such. Where there are factual claims, care must be taken not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. The Committee emphasised that its role was to evaluate the complaint under the Editors’ Code and not to attempt to reach a position on matters best left to public debate.”

Hence it continues its practice of treating all statements about the science of climate change as if they are just matters of opinion, and any claim by a member newspaper, no matter how demonstrably false it is, can be justified as a ‘different point of view’.

This means that the Daily Mail and other member newspapers are free to systematically and repeatedly mislead their readers about the risks of climate change, putting them at higher risk, and undermining democratic debate. How can the public make informed decisions when they are being bombarded with such misinformation from the Daily Mail and other newspapers?

In the past, the Daily Mail has published inaccurate and misleading articles about climate change that, for instance, wrongly suggest that heatwaves are not becoming more frequent and intense. IPSO has also refused to act on complaints about these articles, placing the personal political views of newspapers’ owners and editors ahead of the public interest.

The newspaper is currently running a campaign against electric vehicles, publishing articles that hide the truth from its readers. It is highly misleading and full of double standards.

Of course, the Daily Mail does not enjoy high levels of trust in its truthfulness among the public. A recent survey of ‘News consumption in the UK’, published by Ofcom last year, found that even among their readers, only 63 per cent believe the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday are accurate, a significantly lower percentage than for many other newspapers.

Since 2017, Wikipedia’s editors have classified the Daily Mail as a “generally unreliable” source.

The latest adjudication is just the latest in a long list of flawed decisions by IPSO’s Complaints Committee in response to complaints of inaccurate and misleading claims about climate change.

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