Decision of the Complaints Committee
04750-18 Wilkinson v Yorkshire Post
Summary of complaint
1. Kenneth Wilkinson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Yorkshire Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Fracking still wrong solution to energy needs" published on 27 July 2018.
2. The article was a comment piece in which the columnist assessed the suitability of fracking as a means of supplying energy in the UK after Brexit. It focused on the socio-economic and environmental impact of fracking. The article claimed that fracking negatively impacts house prices, insurance premiums, and the tourism and farming industries. The article reported that these claims featured in a now redacted DEFRA report. It went on to claim that the fracking industry didn’t have the capability to supply energy due to technical constraints and public opposition, and cited the need for investment in renewable energy to combat climate change. The article went on to report that there was a risk of earthquakes associated with the practice and cited the USA as a case study, specifically Oklahoma. It suggested that claims that better regulation in the UK would prevent this occurring were unfounded, and referenced a company that had breached key environmental permits but "escaped with a slap on the wrist from the Environment Agency". The article went on to call for an immediate ban on fracking.
3. The article appeared online under the headline "The heatwave is further proof that fracking needs to be halted". The online article appeared online in much the same format as the print version.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate because the reported claims had no basis in fact. He disputed that fracking was "dangerous" or "harmful" or that there was "huge" public opposition. He said that claims concerning increasing house insurance premiums and damage to farming and tourism were inaccurate and provided a series of studies challenging the positions set out in the article. The complainant said that there was no evidence that the industry could not "scale up" to meet demands. He said that the columnist had falsely attributed seismic issues in Oklahoma to fracking, when these were caused by waste water disposal associated with conventional oil production. The complainant argued that the article inaccurately suggested that a fracking firm would use extracted shale gas to produce plastic which would pollute the oceans. He claimed that the columnist presented misleading claims regarding regulation and compliance; the referenced company had been passed fit to operate the well by the industry regulator. Additionally, he was concerned that the article used the USA as a case study; he said that this cross-cultural comparison was not representative of fracking in the UK. He said that the article referenced a redacted DEFRA report and presented its claims in an authoritative manner, despite the covering note of the report stating that it was not "analytically robust", that it was an early draft and that it did not represent DEFRA's considered positions or statements of fact.
5. The newspaper denied that it had breached the Editors' Code of Practice. It said that the Code permitted newspapers to comment, editorialise and campaign; it said that it had clearly distinguished that this was an opinion piece. The publication denied that the claims had no basis in fact as alleged by the complainant and provided the sources of information on which the columnist's claims were based. These sources included academic literature and research, news articles and comments from insurance companies. The publication said that it was not inaccurate to reference the redacted DEFRA report: the article had made clear the report was controversial and therefore readers would know not to take the claims as categorical declarations of fact.
Relevant Code provisions
6. 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
8. The Code makes clear that Clause 1 does not prevent a newspaper from publishing opinions on divisive or controversial areas of debate, provided it takes care not to do so in an inaccurate or misleading way. The Committee noted that the article was clearly presented as an opinion piece and informed readers that the columnist was a member of a group opposed to fracking. The claims made in the article were clearly presented as partisan arguments within an opinion column where the columnist's background was made explicit and the contested nature of the issues acknowledged.
9. The Committee acknowledged the complainant's position that the article referenced a redacted DEFRA report. The article made clear that the report was controversial and stated that the report had "suggested" various effects resulting from fracking; the article did not claim it had confirmed them. In any event, this was still a published government report, the contents of which the columnist was entitled to comment on; there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
10. The Committee considered that both parties had provided sources which supported their respective positions and it was not for the Committee to rule on whether fracking was beneficial or detrimental; rather, its role was to rule on whether the publication had taken care not to present the views in an inaccurate or misleading way. The columnist was entitled to refer to the USA as a case study: the article made clear that he was acknowledging the argument that the US experience of fracking would not be replicated in the UK due its "gold standard" regulatory regime. The columnist went on to explain why, in his opinion, this argument did not stand up to scrutiny. The Committee considered that the article's claims were not baseless as alleged by the complainant and the sources provided by the publication supported them; there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i). The Committee acknowledged that the complainant disputed these sources but the columnist was entitled to make these claims, in what is a controversial debate, where there was an evidential basis for them. The Committee was satisfied that in the context of an opinion piece, the columnist's claims were not inaccurate or significantly misleading; there was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 30/07/2018
Date decision issued: 05/12/2018