Decision of the Complaints Committee – 03688-19 Ward v Mail on Sunday
Summary of Complaint
1. Bob Ward complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code in an article headlined “Why what David Attenborough told BBC viewers about this raging orangutan fighting a digger is only part of the truth”, published on 21 April 2019.
2. The article was an opinion piece, in which the columnist criticised several claims made during a recent BBC documentary on climate change; he said that the documentary had presented an “alarmist” argument as to the effect and gravity of climate change which was not fully supported by evidence.
3. The columnist accepted that, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human activities were responsible for more than half the 0.6C – 0.7C global average temperature rise recorded between 1951 and 2010. However he challenged the suggestion made in the documentary that “nothing” had been done to combat the threat of climate change. For example, the article noted UK emissions had fallen by 43 per cent since 1990, and that “statistics say 56 per cent of our electricity came from low carbon sources in 2018”, and that the government had “pledged to ‘decarbonise’ electricity by 2030”.
4. The columnist disputed the documentary’s claim that “…extreme weather events such as floods and storms have already got worse and more frequent, thanks to global warming, along with wildfires”. His article cited IPCC reports published in 2013, 2014 and 2018 which suggested that there were no trends in the number of tropical storms, hurricane or cyclones in the North Atlantic basin; that “cyclones in the tropics would in future be less numerous, although some would be stronger”, and that there was no evidence for a climate-driven change in the magnitude or frequency of flooding. Furthermore, the article reported that a study showed that the number of wildfires across California had approximately halved since 1987, following a peak in the 1970s.
5. The columnist also challenged the documentary’s claim that ”…eight per cent of species are under threat solely because of [climate change]”, because he considered that this oversimplified a 2014 IPCC report on the subject. He also disputed that one third of the world’s coral reefs had perished due to ‘heat stress’ in the past three years as a result of climate change, as reported in the documentary, noting that the recent bleaching coincided with the El Nino event, and that some of the corals had begun to recover.
6. The columnist said that the documentary’s “most provocative claim of all” was that “IPCC computer model projections show that, by the end of this century, world average temperatures will be between three and six degrees higher than now”; the columnist disputed that this was what the computer model projections showed. He noted that the most pessimistic trajectory – known scientifically as Representative Concentration Pathway or RCP 8.5 – set out in the report predicted a 2.6 to 4.8 degree rise between now and the end of the century. He also doubted that this trajectory was likely to transpire; it required a population increase far higher than experts considered probable, a massive increase in the use of coal, and the reversal of emissions cuts already achieved by many countries. The article included a comment from a BBC spokesperson, who defended the documentary’s claim on this point.
7. The article was also published in substantially the same form online, under the headline “What [the presenter of the documentary] told BBC viewers about this raging orangutan fighting a digger is only part of the truth... and that's just one of the flaws in the great naturalist's 'alarmist' new documentary, writes [columnist]”.
8. The complainant said that the article contained several inaccuracies, in breach of Clause 1. He said that it was misleading to quote the figures referenced in the article in relation to human-induced warming, as a more recent 2018 IPCC report stated that, in 2017, human-induced warming reached approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels; by referring to the other report, the complainant was concerned that the article minimised the scale of human induced-global warming. He also said that the article overstated the steps taken by the Government in response to climate change: provisional data published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy indicated that 49.4 per cent of the electricity supplied in the UK in 2018 was generated from domestic low-carbon sources, rather than 56 per cent. Furthermore, the Government's Clean Growth Strategy of October 2017 suggested that annual emissions from the power sector could be reduced by 80 per cent by 2032 and by 2050, emissions should be close to zero; the complainant said that this did not amount to a pledge to “decarbonise” by 2030.
9. The complainant said that the article misleadingly minimised the impact of climate change on extreme weather events because it wrongly reported that the IPCC had found “cyclones in the tropics would in future be less numerous, although some would be stronger”. He said this could imply that the absolute number of strong tropical cyclones would be lower, whereas the IPCC report projected that while the total number of cyclones would decrease, the most intense ones would occur more frequently. He said that the article misled further by omitting regional trends in tropical cyclones and floods, failing to make clear that the report referenced only considered global trends in river flooding, and failing to include the report’s other findings that there had been increases in coastal flooding and regional increases in heavy rainfall. In relation to wildfires, the complainant said that it was misleading to cite figures for the number of fires, rather than the area burned, and noted that the article had claimed that the film had shown wildfires in California, when instead it showed wildfires in Montana. As such, it was misleading to ciriticise the film for linking the wildfires in Montana to global warming by referring to research on Californian wildfires. He also argued that there is evidence that the area burned by wildfires, rather than the number, has increased in California, and has been linked by researched to global warming.
10. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate to claim that the documentary had “simplified” the IPCC’s findings in relation to the percentage of species at risk of extinction; the film had not referred to the IPCC and its 2014 report, which the columnist said qualified the claim, was in fact published the year before the paper cited by the film which found that 8% of species were under threat – it was misleading to link the two findings. The complainant said that the article was misleading to focus on El Nino as the sole cause of coral bleaching, and to claim that many corals had recovered, as a report had found that “mortality level stress” in corals “…has increased in frequency and severity with a warming climate”, which he said was distinct from El Nino.
11. The complainant said that the article was misleading to suggest that the documentary had exaggerated the possible temperature rise set out by the IPCC or that it was unlikely to take place. He said that the documentary was not only referring to the IPCC computer modelling of the potential temperature rises for this century; it also took into account the same report’s estimation of the human-induced global warming since pre-industrial times. Adding these two figures gave a rise of between 3 and 6 degrees, and therefore, the documentary had not exaggerated the IPCC’s projections as suggested by the columnist. The complainant also that the “worst-case” scenario – otherwise known as RCP 8.5 – should not have been described as “almost certain not to take place” as claimed by the columnist; it was based on the latest population growth data published by the UN.
12. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It noted that the complainant disagreed with sources the columnist had relied on, however this did not constitute a breach of the Editors’ Code.
13. The publication said that the article accurately reported the average global temperature rise as set out in the 2013 IPCC report; these findings were not contradicted by the subsequent 2018 report. Furthermore, the publication provided a government press release which said that, “Low carbon electricity’s share of generation accounted for a record high 56% in the third quarter of 2018”; the publication said that it was not inaccurate to extrapolate this for the year as a whole, and noted that the figure of 49% provided by the complainant referred only to domestically generated electricity from low carbon sources, and did not include imported energy as included in the statistics provided in the government press release. Nevertheless, the publication amended the online article and offered to publish the following clarification online and in print:
“On April 21 we said that 56 per cent of our electricity came from low-carbon sources in 2018. This figure related to one quarter of the year and the total of UK-generated electricity in the full year was 53 per cent”
Furthermore, the publication said that the Government Committee on Climate Change recommended that, by 2030, the carbon emitted per KWhr of electricity generated should be reduced from 450g to below 100g; in practice, this would be close to decarbonisation, and so there was no significant inaccuracy on this point.
14. The publication said that the complainant had not provided any basis to suggest that the article had inaccurately reported any of the extreme weather reports referenced. In addition, it noted that it was not the case that the report the writer had relied on relation to flooding only concerned river flooding; in fact, it only excluded coastal flooding caused by tropical cyclones. The fact that the complainant considered that other parts of the reports, or other reports entirely, should have been referenced did not mean that there was any breach of the Code.
15. The publication said that the article did not dispute that climate change will lead to extinctions, and said it was not inaccurate to report that the documentary simplified the 2014 IPCC report; it was apparent that this report was more equivocal concerning the possible impact of climate change as it found that there was low confidence that the rate of extinctions had increased over the past few decades or that observed species extinctions could be attributed to recent climate warming. It also noted that the 2018 report referred to by the complainant said that the role of climate change in extinctions was “inherently difficult to quantify”.
16. The publication said that the article focussed on the El Nino period because the documentary referred to “the past three years”, when El Nino did cause a spike in sea and land temperatures worldwide, and aligned with the most recent bleaching events; neither the documentary nor the article discussed earlier bleaching events.
17. The publication said that the columnist was entitled to be sceptical of the documentary’s interpretation of the IPCC report on possible temperature rises, and explained his reasoning for doing so. It noted that the documentary did not make clear it was referring to a three to six degree temperature rise from pre-industrial times and the article included a response from a BBC spokesperson defending the documentary’s claims.
18. The publication offered to publish a letter from the complainant in response to the article if this would resolve his complaint. This was declined.
Relevant Code Provisions
19. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) 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.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
20. The Code makes clear that newspapers can publish opinions and views on contentious issues, such as climate change. However, these must be clearly distinguished as such, in line with the obligations of Clause 1(iv), and where there are factual claims, care must be taken not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.
21. The article had accurately reported a 2013 report by the IPCC in relation to the rise in global average temperature between 1951-2010. The 2018 report cited by the complainant, which encompassed the rise in temperatures since pre-industrial times, did not contradict these findings, or mean that the reporting of these figure was inaccurate or misleading. There was no failure to take care over the presentation of these figures, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
22. It was only in the third quarter of 2018 that 56 per cent of electricity that was generated domestically came from low carbon sources, however, where it appeared to be accepted that, overall, approximately half of electricity was generated from low carbon sources in 2018, the article was not significantly misleading as to the overall trend as to require correction. However, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to make clarify this. Where the current government plan was to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector by 80% by 2030, it was not significantly misleading to describe this as a pledge to “decarbonise” by this time; the article did not report that this was a pledge to reduce emissions to zero by 2030. The article did not give any significantly misleading impression as to the government’s plans on this point as to require correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
23. The article accurately reported the IPCC’s findings on cyclones; it was evident from the wording that despite a lower overall number of cyclones, a greater number would be stronger than at present; it did not make any claim as to the relative number of strong cyclones compared to weaker cyclones. While the Committee acknowledged that the IPCC had also found “regional trends in tropical cyclone frequency and the frequency of very intense tropical cyclones have been identified in the North Atlantic and these appear robust since the 1970s”, the article had explicitly referenced the Panel’s comments on trends in global cyclones. The absence of reference to its comments on regional trends did not render this reference to global trends inaccurate or misleading.
24. The reference to flooding was brief in the context of the overall article; the article was not an in-depth exploration of the possible effects of climate change on various types of flooding and there was no requirement to reference coastal flooding caused by tropical cyclones, or that heavy increases in rainfall had also been detected in this context; failing to do so did not give a misleading impression as to the IPCC’s findings on the possible impact of climate change on flooding in general. Furthermore, the article accurately reported the study’s finding that the number of wildfires in California had almost halved since the 1970s; it did not make any claim as to the area affected by wildfires, and the fact that the film showed Montanan wildfires did not make the article’s reporting of the research inaccurate. There were no significant inaccuracies and no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
25. The 2014 IPCC report found little evidence that extinction rates had increased, or that these could be solely attributed to climate change. The Committee acknowledged that the 2018 IPCC report did cite a study which claimed that 8% of species were under threat as a result of climate change, however it noted that it also said that extinction caused by climate warming is “inherently difficult to quantify”. The columnist was entitled to rely on the 2014 report, and made clear that he was using this as his source; there was no misleading impression as suggested by the complainant and no breach of Clause 1. Furthermore, the article did not dispute that warmer sea temperatures had damaged the corals, and did not make any claim as to wider trends in coral health over the past 30 years. The columnist was entitled to highlight that recent coral bleaching had coincided with El Nino, and the Committee noted that it was apparent that the role of climate change in coral bleaching was a subject of debate. There was no misleading impression as to the reports cited by the columnist, and no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
26. The columnist explained why he considered that the documentary had exaggerated the IPCC predicted temperature rise; the worst case trajectory predicted a rise of 2.6 – 4.8 degrees from now until the end of this century. The columnist also gave a basis for his view that “there is evidence that RCP 8.5 is almost certain not to take place”, as it required a population growth contrary to estimates by experts, and the reversal of emissions cuts. The newspaper had been able to point to research which supported the columnist’s interpretation and the columnist was entitled to highlight its findings, despite the existence of contrary evidence, particularly in the context of a comment piece. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant disagreed with these assessments, and noted his position that the three to six degree rise quoted in the documentary was an accurate approximation of IPCC projections comparing temperatures with pre-industrial levels. However, it also noted that the timelines for comparison were different, that the documentary had not qualified that these specific figures referred to an increase from pre-industrial levels, and that the article included a comment from the BBC defending the statistic used in the documentary. The Committee considered that the columnist was entitled to rely on statistics and studies to support his opinions, and found that he did not inaccurately report the findings of these studies when doing so. There was no failure to take care over the presentation of these findings, and no breach of Clause 1.
27. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 30/04/19
Date complaint concluded: 18/10/19
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.
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