· Decision of the Complaints Committee 04762-15 Wadhams v The Times
Summary of complaint
1. Professor Peter Wadhams complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) and Clause 14 (Confidential sources) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Climate scientist fears murder by hitman”, published in print and online on 25 July 2015.
2. The article was based on an interview with the complainant, a professor of ocean physics, in which he expressed concern that several scientists researching the impact of global warming on Arctic ice may have been assassinated. It noted that the complainant had said that there were only four people in Britain, including himself, who were “really leaders” on ice thickness in the Arctic, and that three of these individuals had died in 2013. The article included the complainant’s position that “it seems to me to be too bizarre to be accidental but each individual incident looks accidental, which may mean it’s been made to look accidental”. The complainant had also suggested that he may have been targeted, as he had been involved in an incident during the same period, in which another driver had attempted to force his car off a motorway.
3. The complainant said that the article misrepresented comments he had made to the journalist, and that in any case his conversation with the reporter had not been intended for publication.
4. The complainant said he did not believe, as the article suggested, that the three scientists who had died in 2013 had been assassinated. Rather, he made clear to the reporter that any initial fears he may have had in this regard had been rapidly dispelled. The complainant said that he had believed that the purpose of the interview was to discuss the question of ice thickness and extent in the Arctic. He objected to the fact that the published article had not focused on this subject. The complainant said that the journalist had indicated that he would contact the complainant further prior to publication, and considered his failure to do so to be a breach of Clause 2.
5. The complainant said that his conversation with the journalist had been “off the record”, and that to publish the details raised a breach of Clause 14.
6. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It provided a recording of the journalist’s conversation with the complainant, in which the complainant made all the statements attributed to him in the article.
7. The newspaper denied that there had any confidentiality agreement in place in relation to the interview. It said that the complainant was practiced at dealing with the media and had spoken freely and at length to the reporter, and that the complainant had introduced to the conversation his concern that fellow scientists may have been assassinated. It noted that at one point the complainant had requested that the conversation go “off the record”, making clear that he was aware the conversation prior to that point had been “on the record” and intended for publication. The newspaper had not published material provided by the complainant during the “off the record” part of the conversation. At the end of this section, the journalist had told the complainant that he was “switching back to ‘on the record’”. The newspaper regretted that the journalist had not telephoned the complainant again prior to publication, as he had indicated he would do. Nonetheless, the newspaper did not have a policy of offering pre-publication copy approval to interviewees. Any such phone call would have been no more than a courtesy call, or a request for the complainant’s response to further questions in light of any new information that might have come to light from other sources. The agreement to call the complainant again did not constitute a promise of confidentiality.
8. The complainant said that he had not heard the reporter say that the conversation was going back “on the record”.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. 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.
Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply)
A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.
Clause 14 (Confidential sources)
Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
Findings of the Committee
10. The Committee had listened to a recording of the complainant’s interview with the journalist, provided by the newspaper, in which he made the statements attributed to him in the article. The article had accurately reported his position as he had explained it to the journalist. There was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The complainant objected to the fact that he had not received further contact from the journalist prior to publication. Clause 2 does not include a requirement to seek pre-publication comment; rather, it provides an opportunity to reply to inaccuracies. The Committee had not established the existence of any inaccuracies. There was therefore no breach of Clause 2.
12. The Committee noted that, of the approximately 30-minute “on the record” interview, about 20 minutes focused on the complainant’s suspicions about the deaths of fellow scientists. During the discussion of these concerns, the journalist had clarified a number of specific points with the complainant, and had noted further details which he intended to check independently, signalling that the material under discussion was likely to form part of a published article. At one point in the interview, the complainant expressed concern that some views he wished to raise were potentially libellous, and requested that a part of the interview be conducted “off the record”. Nothing from this section was published. At the close of this section of the interview, the journalist signalled clearly that the conversation would be going back “on the record”.
13. At the end of the interview, as the journalist was saying goodbye, the complainant expressed doubt for the first time about the publication of material relating to the deaths of the other scientists. The journalist said that he would not publish this information without speaking to the complainant again.
14. Clause 14 imposes a moral obligation on journalists to protect the identity of sources who have provided information on a confidential basis. In this instance, the complainant had not requested during the interview that he be treated as a confidential source, nor had he made reference to any such request in the course of his complaint. Rather, his concern related to the question of whether information he had provided in the course of an interview with a journalist was intended for publication. The complainant had requested that one section of his interview, from which no details were published, take place “off the record”. This demonstrated his awareness that the rest of the conversation had taken place “on the record”, and that any comments he had made might be published. While it was regrettable that no further conversation had taken place as the journalist had suggested, the agreement to speak further did not represent an undertaking by the journalist not to publish material without the complainant’s consent. The complainant’s expression of doubt at the close of the interview did not render him a confidential source. There was no breach of Clause 14.
15. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 26/07/2015
Date decision issued: 11/09/2015Back to ruling listing