Ruling

01570-18 Ward v The Sunday Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      14th June 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01570-18 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 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Climate change theorists are determined to blame it for bad weather, even if they can’t agree why”, published on 21 January 2018.

2. The article was a comment piece, in which the columnist responded to a letter which had been written by the complainant and had been published by the newspaper on 14 January. The complainant’s letter had challenged the claims made in a previous article written by the columnist, dated 6 January 2018.

3. In the article under complaint, the columnist claimed: “when people set out to fool others, it will eventually catch up with them… there was a delightful example of this on our letters page last week when that well-known propagandist for global warming, Bob Ward, tried to challenge what I had written about the recent series of unusually cold winters in North America”.

4. The columnist criticised scientists, and the complainant, for “ignoring” “freezing US winters”. He also criticised their attempt to explain why these winters were further proof of global warming. The columnist also criticised figures from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which the complainant had referred to in his published letter. The columnist noted that NOAA figures suggested that ”seven out of the past 10 US winters have in fact been ‘warmer than average’”, but claimed that the figures have lately been “significantly ‘adjusted’, to suggest that several famously severe winters, such as those in 2008 and 2014, were not unusually cold by the standards of the 20th century”.

5. In the article, the columnist referred to a series of blog posts which analysed, and challenged, NOAA’s figures and the corrective adjustments which had been made to raw climate data. The columnist said that the adjustments which NOAA had made to official US temperature figures in recent years, which he described as “suspect” and “questionable”, was “one of the greatest scientific scandals of our time”.

6. The article also appeared in substantively the same form online, under the headline “Global warming theorists are tripping over themselves to explain America’s cold winters”, published on 20 January.

7. The complainant did not accept that North America had experienced a "recent series of unusually cold winters".  He said that this claim appeared to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how meteorological records are compiled. While the complainant noted that areas of the United States had experienced short spells of cold weather, he said that the meteorological winter in the northern hemisphere occurred over three months between December-February; these short periods of time were therefore not representative of overall trends in seasonal temperatures. The complainant further said that North America comprised of the countries of Canada, the United States of America and Mexico; he said it was not possible to obtain measurements on the seasonal temperatures of the whole of North America as no meteorological organisation produces analyses of the winter temperature for the whole of that land mass.

8. The complainant said that NOAA ranked seasons according to mean temperature; its records had shown that seven of the 10 past winters were warmer than the 20th century average for the United States. He noted that according to NOAA, the winters of 2007-08 and 2013-14, which the columnist had highlighted as particularly cold, were respectively only the 68th and 33rd coldest since records began in 1901.

9. The complainant also disputed that NOAA’s figures had been significantly “adjusted” to suggest that several recent winters in North America had not been unusually cold.

10. The complainant said that in order to ensure that climate records remain accurate, the meteorological agencies make a series of corrections to account for errors in raw data created by, for instance, the time of day at which temperature measurements were taken. The complainant said that these adjustments served a legitimate purpose to ensure an accurate record: some of these adjustments had resulted in temperature measurements for some weather stations being reduced, and some adjustments had resulted in the temperature measurements from some weather stations being increased. The complainant said that all of these corrections had been published and subject to independent scrutiny. The complainant said that the columnist had inaccurately suggested that the meteorological records of the United States and Canada had been tampered with to hide the truth about recent climate trends.

11. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that it was a newspaper for general public consumption; its readers were not geographers or meteorologists, nor did the newspaper purport to set out scientifically verifiable evidence to the same standard as a scientific journal.

12. The newspaper said that it was accurate to claim that North America had suffered a series of cold winters and provided a number of examples of coverage in other publications which had commented on the cold weather. It said it was artificial to specify the literal parameters of the North American landmass, or even the definition of winter itself, as the complainant had sought to do.

13. The newspaper said that the unusually cold weather in January 2014 was the subject of comment within the scientific community and provided an extract from a scientific magazine: ““The cold was extreme, and deadly. In Minnesota, the wind chill was down to -51 °C”. This article contained a comment from a forecaster of the NOAA Weather Prediction Centre in Maryland: “It is 20 years since the entire mainland US was affected like this”. The newspaper also provided links to coverage relating to the winter of 2008, which referred to “the snowiest winter ever recorded in North Dakota”. The newspaper said that this coverage, in part, informed the public perception of unusually cold weather in North America.

14. The newspaper said it was not in dispute that NOAA’s figures have been adjusted, nor was it in dispute that the effect of these adjustments was the reduction of historical temperatures and the increase in the warming trend. The newspaper said that the blog referred to in the article had set out, in a series of posts, two sets of data: NOAA figures and the raw data from weather stations across North America. The newspaper said the columnist, like the author of the blog, was entitled to prefer the accuracy of the raw data and disagree with the corrective adjustments which had been made by NOAA, to set out his own comments based on that judgment and to comment on the discrepancy between the two sets of data. It noted that readers were pointed towards the blog, where the issues were set out in full, and were therefore free to agree or disagree with the claims made.

15. The complainant disputed the accuracy of the blogposts which the columnist had relied upon; in particular, he disputed the conclusions which the author of these posts had reached on the legitimacy of NOAA’s corrective adjustments to raw climate data.

Relevant Code provisions

16. 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.

Findings of the Committee

17. Clause 1 does not prevent a newspaper from publishing controversial opinions on topics which continue to be divisive, such as the existence or impact of climate change. Newspapers are entitled to publish opinions on such topics, and communicate this information in an accessible way, provided that it takes care not to do so in an inaccurate or misleading way. 

18. The newspaper provided a number of examples of coverage, from both within and outside of the scientific community, which commented on the cold weather which had affected areas of North America over recent winters, including the winters of 2008 and 2014. The columnist was entitled to rely on this coverage to form the basis for their claim that recent winters in North America had been unusually cold and there was no failure to take care over the accuracy by doing so. The complainant had argued that winter temperatures should be determined by considering seasonal mean temperatures over a three month period using data from a specific landmass. However, in the context of an opinion piece within a publication for general public consumption, the Committee did not establish that readers would have been misled in a significant way, where it was a matter of public record that areas of North America had experienced periods of extreme cold weather over recent winter months. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. It was a matter of public record that “adjustments” had been made by NOAA on raw climate data to take into account differences in how, when and where these measurements had been taken; it was not in dispute that some of these adjustments had resulted in the temperature measurements from weather stations to increase. The columnist had questioned whether it was appropriate for the adjustments to have been made on the raw data; they did not comment further on why these adjustments had been made, nor did they interrogate the validity of the corrective action which had been taken by NOAA. The columnist had commented that the adjustments were “suspect” and “questionable”. The complainant strongly disagreed. However, this was an opinion which the columnist was entitled to express and he did not state that raw climate data had been tampered with by NOAA, as suggested by the complainant.

20. The columnist was entitled to reflect critically on the corrective adjustments which NOAA had made to raw data records, in circumstances where it was a matter of public record that some of these adjustments had resulted in temperature measurements from some weather stations being increased. The Committee did not establish that the columnist’s discussion of these adjustments represented a failure to take over the accuracy of the article, nor did it establish that the columnist’s discussion of this issue was significantly misleading or inaccurate, such as to require correction. There was no breach of the Code.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 13/02/2018

Date complaint concluded: 24/05/2018