Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07463-19 Ward v The Sunday Telegraph
Summary of Complaint
1. Bob Ward complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Telegraph breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The war on meat has begun, and there are many reasons to join the resistance”, published on 11 August 2019.
2. The article was an opinion piece on the effects of changing to a plant-based diet on climate change. The columnist said that the BBC had “misreport[ed] a United Nations report” and wanted people to “switch to a mostly plant-based diet in order to alter the weather”. The article also stated that “a recent ‘meta-analysis’ of all the peer-reviewed papers on this topic found that if the average Westerner gave up meat altogether it would cut their total emissions by just 4.3 per cent”. The article also contained a quote from Dr Bjorn Lomborg, who was described as an “environmental economist”, in which he said that “Eating carrots instead of steak means you effectively cut your emissions by about two per cent”. The article included the columnist’s view that “it is very difficult for humans to thrive on a purely plant-based diet" without being affluent and having access to balanced nutrition, and stated that a “study in rural Kenya found that eating eggs made children grow five per cent faster”.
3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same terms.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 for several reasons. He said that it was misleading to report that the BBC had “misrepresented” the UN report. He referred to a BBC article which had said “switching to a plant based diet can help fight climate change” and noted that the UN report had said "[b]alanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, such as those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-GHG emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health (high confidence)." The complainant said that the BBC, in advocating a plant based diet to affect climate change had not misrepresented the UN report and that the article was inaccurate on this basis.
5. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to report that if the average Westerner switched to a plant-based diet that their total emissions would be cut by 4.3%, as the study that this claim was based on did not include the figure 4.3%. He also noted that the meta-analysis referenced could not be said to represent “the average Westerner” as it looked at European countries and India, and not the US or Canada, where the impacts of a plant-based diet would be more apparent. He further disagreed that if everyone ate a plant-based diet then global emissions would only be reduced by 2%. The complainant said other sources had also disputed this figure, and referred to a study which placed the global emissions reduction at 10% in the same circumstances. He also said it was inaccurate to refer to Dr Lomborg as an “environmental economist” as he held no formal qualifications in economics.
6. The complainant said that it was misleading to say that “it is very difficult for humans to thrive on a purely plant-based diet" as there were many studies that said the opposite. He also said that the study referred to in the article that found that children in Kenya who ate eggs grew 5% faster was inaccurate as the study was not making a comparison between children who ate eggs and those on vegan diets.
7. The publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate . It said that the assertion that the BBC had misreported the UN report had been based on a tweet by the Science Editor of the BBC – his position at the BBC is displayed on his Twitter homepage, and his Twitter handle contained “bbc”. The Tweet in question said that the UN had reported that “switching to a plant based diet can help tackle climate change”, which several other people and publications had interpreted as being incorrect, for not acknowledging that the UN report did not recommend a solely plant-based diet.
8. The publication said that the 4.3% figure, although not referred to in the paper referenced by the complainant, came from a calculation by Dr Lomborg published in another newspaper. The publication went on to explain that 4.3% may even be an overstatement, as it did not take account of how the extra capital that would have been spent on meat would be spent. Factoring this in produced a figure of 2%, and the publication said that studies quoted by the UN report also demonstrated that the effect on carbon emissions would be a reduction of 2%. The publication provided the study on which this was based. Furthermore, it said that as Dr Lomborg had written a book published by Cambridge University Press in environmental economics, describing him as an “environmental economist” was not inaccurate.
9. The publication also said it was not inaccurate to state that the peer reviewed papers which were the subject of the meta-analysis related to the “average Westerner”. The studies were based in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and India. The publication said that the UK and Germany were the two most populous states in the EU plus UK, and combined with the Netherlands account for almost a third of Europe’s population. It said that this figure was only included to illustrate how much higher other sources of greenhouse gasses were – so would not be greatly affected even if other Western countries had been included. Nevertheless, the publication offered to publish the following as a gesture of goodwill in an upcoming edition of the newspaper in its established corrections and clarifications column on page 2:
A 11 August article said that a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed papers found that if the 'average westerner' gave up meat altogether "it would cut her total emissions by just 4.3 per cent". The countries studied in the relevant analysis were the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and India. It did not include data from North America or Australasia. We are happy to clarify.”
It also offered to amend the online article to read:
“The BBC, misreporting a United Nations report, wants us to switch to a mostly plant-based diet in order to alter the weather. Would it work? No. A recent “meta-analysis” of all the peer-reviewed papers on this topic found that giving up meat altogether would cut individuals' total emissions by just 4.3 per cent.”
And it offered to add a clarifying footnote which would state:
“CLARIFICATION: This article, now amended, originally stated that a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed papers found that if the 'average westerner' gave up meat altogether "it would cut her total emissions by just 4.3 per cent". The countries studied in the relevant analysis were the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and India. It did not include data from North America or Australasia. We are happy to clarify.”
10. The publication said that the statement “it is very difficult for humans to thrive on a purely plant-based diet" was subjective, and was meant to convey the difficulties of being purely vegan when not from an affluent background or country. It also said that the findings of the study relating to the growth of Kenyan children when their diet contained eggs had been reported accurately, and it provided the relevant study.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. 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
12. The article had referred to a meta-analysis of peer reviewed papers which it reported had made a finding which related to “the average westerner”. However, the finding was based on studies undertaken only in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and India. The Committee found that it was misleading to report these findings as relating to “the average westerner”. The description represented a failure to take care under Clause 1(i). As the article referenced the research to support its position on the environmental impact of giving up meat, the territorial scope of the research was significant, and the description needed to be corrected under Clause 1(ii).
13. As part of its first substantive reply to IPSO, the publication offered to publish a clarification. The Committee considered that the proposed wording identified the respect in which the article had been misleading and set out the correct position. Further, the Committee considered that the publication of the clarification in its established corrections and clarifications column represented due prominence, as did the revision of the online article and the addition of a clarifying footnote which would be visible to readers. The Committee found that there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
14. The claim that the BBC had misreported the UN report was based on a Tweet posted by the BBC’s Science Editor in which he said that the UN study had found that switching to a plant based diet can help tackle climate change. The UN report had acknowledged the benefits to the environment of a balanced diet of both plant and animal-based products. In these circumstances, it was not misleading for the columnist to have claimed that the BBC, by virtue of the tweet, had misrepresented the report. As it was the BBC’s Science Editor who had shared the Tweet seemingly in his official capacity, the Committee found that it was not misleading to refer to the “BBC”, rather than to the individual who had posted the Tweet. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that it was inaccurate for the newspaper to have reported that “a recent meta-analysis of all the peer-reviewed papers on this topic found that if the average Westerner gave up meat altogether it would cut their total emissions by just 4.3%”. The figure was based on Dr Bjorn Lomborg’s interpretation of a meta-analysis of studies which had been produced for another publication. He had noted that a 2015 literature review had found that switching to vegetarianism reduced an individual’s carbon emissions by 1,190 pounds a year and he had calculated that this represented “4.3% of emissions for the average person in a developed country”. He also considered that when other variables were taken into account, such as how money saved from not buying meat would be used, the real effect would be a 2% reduction in emissions. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant disagreed with the way in which the reported figure had been calculated by Dr Lomborg, and noted that the article under complaint had not attributed the calculation to him, the newspaper had accurately reported what he had said. Reporting this figure did not represent a significant inaccuracy requiring correction under Clause 1(ii). There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i) on this point.
16. Additionally, the Committee did not find it misleading to refer to Dr Lomborg as an “environmental economist” given that he had written a book on environmental economics. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.
17. The article was an opinion piece, and it was clearly signposted as such as it had appeared in the “Sunday comment” section, under the writer’s by-line and was written in the first person. The assertion that “it is very difficult for humans to thrive on a purely plant-based diet" was, therefore, clearly distinguished as the author’s opinion, which under the terms of the Editors’ Code, the newspaper was entitled to publish. While the complainant disagreed with this opinion and had provided a study to support his view, this did not make the article misleading in breach of Clause 1.
18. The complainant had expressed concern that the reference to the study of the growth of children in Kenya was inaccurate as the study had not compared their growth to children on vegan diets. However, the article had stated only that the study had found that eating eggs had made the children grow 5% faster in order to demonstrate the health benefits of eating eggs. The article had not claimed that the study had found that children had grown 5% faster than children on a vegan diet. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. There was no breach of Clause 1.
19. The complaint was partly upheld on Clause 1(i).
Remedial Action Required
20. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
21. The correction was offered with sufficient promptness and prominence to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii) and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 19/09/2019
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 22/05/2020Back to ruling listing