Decision of the Complaints Committee 00210-14 Ward v The Mail on Sunday
Summary of complaint
1. Bob Ward complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Exposed: Myth of Arctic Meltdown”, published on 31/08/2014.
2. The article reported that the Arctic ice extent had increased over the last two years.
3. The complainant was concerned that the article gave the inaccurate impression that the long-term decline in Arctic sea ice had reversed. He said that the article had omitted the fact that the Arctic sea ice extent in August 2014 had been the seventh-lowest recorded level since records began. He also said that the article had not made clear that the 2012 reading had been the lowest on record, nor had the article explained that, on numerous occasions, the ice extent had increased for one year, without reversing the overall decline.
4. Further, the complainant said that the article had inaccurately reported that there was no evidence that the number of polar bears were declining. He said that latest estimates indicated that, of the 19 sub-populations of polar bears, four are declining, five are stable and one is increasing; there was not enough data to estimate trends for the other nine sub-populations. The article had included a graph recording Arctic Sea extent over the last ten years headlined “How melt has slowed over 10 years”. The complainant said that the graph was significantly misleading as the linear trend in the sea ice extent data was steeper for the period between 2004 and 2014 than it was for the entire record of 1979 to 2014.
5. The complainant said that the newspaper had also inaccurately reported the comments made by the American politician Al Gore; it said that in 2007 Mr Gore had suggested that the North Polar Ice Cap could be completely gone in seven years. The complainant said that it had been significantly misleading to omit that, while he had cited one study which predicted that this would be the case, he had also cited a different study which had suggested it could happen by 2029.
6. The complainant said that the newspaper should acknowledge that the article was inaccurate and significantly misleading, publish his letter in full and provide an assurance that it would take greater care to ensure that future articles on this issue were accurate.
7. The newspaper said that the “myth” mentioned in the headline was the claim that the Arctic might be ice-free by 2014. The article had reported the unexpected increase in Arctic sea ice over the past two years, but it had made clear that the long-term trend remains in decline, caused, at least in part, by human activity. The newspaper said that the article had included a considerable amount of balancing material and had quoted several scientists.
8. In relation to polar bears, the article had acknowledged that that there was “no reliable data from almost half the Arctic, so it cannot say whether numbers are falling or rising”. It had not been significantly misleading on this point.
9. The graph headlined “How melt has slowed over 10 years” had been accurate; readers could see for themselves how the levels of ice have gone down over the past 10 years, and up in the last two.
10. While the newspaper did not accept that the article was significantly misleading, it offered to publish a lightly amended version of the complainant’s letter. The complainant’s letter would make clear that he considered the article to be misleading.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
12. Topics such as the effects of climate change and global warming remain matters of intense discussion and debate. Under the terms of Clause 1, newspapers are entitled to publish controversial or unorthodox views on such issues, provided that they are not inaccurate or significantly misleading.
13. The article presented the author’s view that forecasts regarding the melting of Arctic ice had overestimated the rate of decline. The complainant did not dispute that measures showed that the Arctic ice extent had increased over the last two years. The article had made clear that the long-term trend still showed a decline, and the coverage had included commentary from a number of scientists, expressing a variety of views on the matter, including one who had stated that he was “uncomfortable with the idea of people saying the ice had bounced back”, and warned against reading too much into the ice increases. The article had made clear that scientific opinions regarding the significance of the most recent data varied. In this context, the omission of the information that the measure in 2012 had been the lowest on record, and that 2014 had still been the seventh lowest since records began, was not significantly misleading. The article did not suggest that it had been established as fact that the long-term decline in Arctic sea ice had reversed.
14. The article had made clear that the Polar Bear Specialist Group admitted that it did not have the necessary data to establish whether the numbers of polar bears was rising or falling. In this context, it had not been significantly misleading to suggest that there was no scientific evidence to establish that the number of bears was declining.
15. The article had been illustrated with a graph which plotted the Artic Sea extent in millions of square kilometres, titled “How melt has slowed over 10 years”. While the Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the linear trend in the sea ice extent data was steeper for the period between 2004 and 2014 than it was for the entire record of 1979 to 2014, in circumstances in which the complainant did not dispute that the graph had been plotted accurately, the Committee was satisfied that the presentation of the data had not been significantly misleading.
16. The complainant was concerned that the newspaper had misrepresented a speech by Al Gore. As Mr Gore had cited a study which projected that the Arctic sea ice could disappear by 2014, it had not been significantly misleading to omit that he had also cited a different study which had suggested it could happen by 2029. The Committee also noted that the newspaper had tried to contact Al Gore for comment on this matter. There was no breach of the Code. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a letter from the complainant.
17. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 17/09/2014
Date decision Issued: 16/02/2015Back to ruling listing