A new ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has provided further evidence that it cannot be trusted to uphold standards of accuracy in the reporting of climate change.

IPSO was launched in September 2014 after the Press Complaints Commission was dissolved in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry. It is funded by its member newspapers, which do not include some major publications such as The Guardian and the Financial Times.

Its complaints process begins with an initial phase of mediation between a complainant and the newspaper(s). If resolution cannot be achieved, the complaint usually proceeds to an investigation and eventually a ruling by its Complaints Committee, which is composed of current and former journalists and other members, none of whom are professional scientists.

IPSO does not consult experts during the investigation of its complaints, even when the subject matter, such as climate change, is technical.

Since its creation, IPSO has published rulings on several articles about climate change, but has rarely upheld complaints, often excusing inaccurate and misleading information as “opinions”.

For example, it refused to rule against an article in the Daily Mail that wrongly claimed there is no link between climate change and heatwaves. It was published on the hottest day in summer 2018, when hundreds of people died as a result of heatwave conditions.

However, IPSO has partially or completely upheld a few complaints, including an article in The Mail on Sunday by David Rose, which resulted in the newspaper being forced to publish a lengthy adverse adjudication.

On 30 October 2020, IPSO published its ruling about a complaint I submitted in April 2019 about an article in The Mail on Sunday by David Rose which attacked a BBC programme about climate change that was narrated by David Attenborough.

Mr Rose has a history of producing articles that breach the Editors’ Code of Practice, some of which have required The Mail on Sunday to publish adverse adjudications by IPSO. He also has a track record of writing systematically inaccurate and misleading articles about climate change. For instance, Mr Rose has more than once falsely claimed that the well-documented decline in Arctic sea ice extent has slowed or reversed, in one case basing his story on a typographical error. In another article, he referred to reports of a coming ice age, based on a cover of Time magazine he found on the web that turned out to be fake.

On 21 April 2019, The Mail on Sunday published a lengthy article by Mr Rose making several false claims about the BBC programme ‘Climate change – the facts’. Some were straightforward errors apparently resulting from Mr Rose’s failure to check facts. For example, the article stated that “Government statistics say 56 per cent of electricity came from low carbon sources in 2018.” During the complaints process, the newspaper admitted that Rose had mistakenly used quarterly instead of annual figures, and attempted to amend the online version of the article, only to mistakenly suggest that the correct number was 53 per cent instead of 49 per cent.

The article also wrongly suggested that “the Government has pledged to ‘decarbonise’ electricity by 2030”. The newspaper accepted that this statement was also wrong and changed the online version to state, still incorrectly, “the Government has pledged to reduce carbon emissions to below 100g/Kwhr by 2030”.

However, the newspaper refused to accept many other blatant falsehoods in the article. For instance, Mr Rose’s article states: “Another memorable segment of the film showed a father and son narrowly escaping from one of several devastating fires last year in California. These, too, were ascribed to global warming. Surprisingly, several recent scientific papers suggest that wildfires have been declining in recent years – even in California, where statistics gathered by the local agency, Calfires, says the number across the state has roughly halved since 1987, following a peak in the 1970s.”

This was inaccurate and misleading in several respects, as I explained in my original complaint. However, a further glaring falsehood in Mr Rose’s article became apparent during the course of my exchange with IPSO and the newspaper – the segment of the film showed a father and son escaping wildfires in Montana, not California.

And, of course, the evidence has been piling up since the publication of Mr Rose’s article that climate change is having a major effect on the risks of wildfire in California. The seven largest wildfires recorded since 1932 have occurred in the last three years, including five in 2020. Researchers have been documenting the very clear evidence that climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires in the State. But Mr Rose, like Donald Trump, denies the facts.

Incredibly, IPSO ruled that Mr Rose’s article had not breached the Editors’ Code of Practice, despite its many inaccurate and misleading statements, instead emphasising that it was “an opinion piece” and “newspapers can publish opinions and views on contentious issues, such as climate change”.

This continues a widespread practice by many newspapers and IPSO of applying a de facto exemption for opinion articles from fact-checking and compliance with clause 1(i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, which currently states: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.”

The Editors’ Code of Practice Committee is currently carrying out a review of the Code. In its submission to the consultation earlier this year, the Grantham Research Institute called for the tightening of clause 1(i) to state: “The Press must take reasonable steps to ensure that they do not publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text. These measures should be applied equally to all material, including opinion articles.”

The submission also recommended that the Editors’ Codebook should provide stronger guidance on how comment desks should check the scientific accuracy of opinion articles, including that they should consult their specialist reporters, such as science or environment correspondents, about the content before publication as part of the commitment to Clause 1(i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

While there are examples of good reporting on climate change by many UK newspapers, there are still many examples of articles that are systematically inaccurate and misleading. Such articles are clearly not in the public interest as they misinform readers, exposing them to increased personal risks of climate change impacts and hindering their participation in decision-making processes.

Lobby groups are currently exploiting the failure by IPSO to uphold the Editors’ Code of Practice. The Global Warming Policy Foundation, which promotes climate change denial and campaigns against policies to greenhouse gas emissions from the use of fossil fuels, has a network of allies and cheerleaders, such as Mr Rose and Viscount Ridley, who regularly disseminate their propaganda through newspaper columns.

Lord Ridley, who is a member of the Foundation’s all-male ‘Academic Advisory Council’, criticises any attempt to challenge his false claims in newspaper articles, even when they are partly or wholly successful.

When Mr Rose learned of his most recent let-off by IPSO, he complained on Twitter about having to “spend many hours defending myself, writing memos etc”, adding that “It’s time consuming – and unpaid – work”, before Trumpishly declaring that he had been “vindicated”.

How long will it be before IPSO starts to put the best interests of the British public ahead of the ideological obsessions of ‘lukewarmers’?

Read the full submission by the Grantham Research Institute and the Grantham Institute at Imperial College here.

Keep in touch with the Grantham Research Institute at LSE
Sign up to our newsletters and get the latest analysis, research, commentary and details of upcoming events.