Ruling

02464-22 Phillips v Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      1st September 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision the Complaints Committee – 02464-22 Phillips v Daily Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. Bruce Phillips complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Madness of our deluded worship of wind”, published on 28 March 2022.

2. The article presented the author’s criticisms of wind power and questioned the Government’s decision to relax onshore wind farm planning rules. The headline was followed by the sub-heading: “They despoil our glorious countryside, add £6billion a year to our household bills and are arguably the most inefficient solution to our energy crisis. So why is the Government planning to make it even easier to build them?”. The opening paragraphs stated that the UK’s “total primary demand for energy” supplied by wind power in 2020 was “less than 4 per cent”, with this providing “little more than one-thirtieth of the energy” the UK needed. The author then contrasted the output by wind and coal power on the day he wrote the article, suggesting that they generated 3% and 5% of the UK’s electricity respectively; he commented “As I write this article in still, fine spring weather, millions of tonnes of turbines stand largely idle”. The author then argued that “once turbines are up and running, they’re not reliable”, adding that wind farms needed to be “back[ed] up by fossil-fuel power stations” because it was not possible to “store electricity for any length of time without huge costs”. The article then stated “nor is it clear that wind farms reduce emissions significantly” and suggested that the following reasons may have hindered a “modest cut” in the UK’s emissions: other power stations were required to “back up the wind farms when the wind does not blow”, and quoted a study which confirmed erratic output from European wind farms; wind turbines themselves were built and maintained using fossil fuels, and had a limited lifespan; and the one source of energy whose economic rationale has been most damaged by wind power was “zero-carbon nuclear”. The article also reported that “wind turbines [were] near impossible to recycle, with the rare earth metals such as neodymium that are vital for the magnets inside most of their generators coming from polluted mines in China”. It then included the comments of two, named academics from the Renewable Energy Foundation, who argued that “the assumptions which underpin the BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] estimates of the cost of generation for wind and solar power are fanciful, and do not withstand even cursory scrutiny; under close analysis they disintegrate” and are “so far from the actual costs incurred [they] are not worth further consideration.”

3. The article also appeared online under the headline “Madness of our worship of wind: They despoil our glorious countryside, add £6 billion a year to our household bills and are arguably the most inefficient solution to our energy crisis. So why is the Government planning to make it even easier to build them?”. The text of the article was substantially the same as the print version.

4. The complainant said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). First, the article reported that only 4% of the UK’s total primary demand for energy was supplied by wind power in 2020; the complainant said that the correct figure was 9.74%. Second, the complainant said that the article suggested that coal supplied 5% of the UK’s electricity when, in 2021, it accounted for 1.96%. Third, he said that the author’s claim that wind turbines were “also near impossible to recycle” was misleading as they could largely be recycled.

5. In addition, the complainant said that the article was inaccurate to assert that “a grid powered by wind and nuclear [energy] will not work”, when it had “worked well” in Sweden, or to dispute that “wind farms reduced emissions significantly”. Furthermore, the complainant said the article was misleading to report that “once turbines are up and running, they’re not reliable”; the author had wrongly confused reliability with intermittency.

6. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate to report that “wind farms need[ed] backing up by fossil-fuel power stations” when the “wind does not blow” and because it was not possible to “store electricity for any length of time without huge costs”. He said that wind farms could be supported by renewable sources instead of fossil-fuel power stations, as shown in Norway, and denied that storage costs for electricity were “high”. In addition, the complainant said the article was inaccurate to describe nuclear energy as “zero carbon”, with the extraction, processing and transportation of uranium producing carbon emissions.

7. Finally, the complainant said that the article was misleading as it failed to mention that the Renewable Energy Foundation was an “anti-wind lobby group” with alleged links to the fossil fuel industry.

8. The publication did not accept it had breached the Editors’ Code. First, it said that the article was an opinion piece, which clearly presented the author’s personal view on the efficiency of wind energy in the UK. Taken in this context, the columnist’s assessments on whether a “grid powered by wind and nuclear [energy] will not work” or that it was unclear that “wind farms reduce emissions significantly” were fair and accurate. The author was entitled to make these assessments and had sufficient basis to do so. The text of the article made clear that, in the author’s view, understanding of the overall efficiency of winds farms required a broader set of considerations – from their construction and maintenance to the supporting infrastructure. It also noted that these assessments related solely to the UK energy system. Therefore, whether a power grid, primarily composed of wind and nuclear, worked well in another country did not automatically mean it would be appropriate for the UK market, or render the article inaccurate.

9. Furthermore, the publication said that the figure of 4% of energy supplied by wind power related to the total “primary demand for wind energy” and had been obtained from a recent report published by the government department, BEIS, which found that, in 2020, the UK obtained 4% of its primary energy from wind. It said that the figure of 9.74% provided by the complainant related instead to the percentage of electricity generated by wind power – a point later accepted by the complainant in direct correspondence with the publication.

10. Nor did the publication accept that the article’s reference to coal was inaccurate. The cited figure of 5% related to its contribution on the specific day the article was written, rather than the overall annual average. This was made clear by the text of the article: “As I write this article in still, fine spring weather, millions of tonnes of turbines stand largely idle, generating just 3 per cent of electricity. Coal contributes 5 per cent”. The publication said these figures had been sourced by the author from two separate online databases which provided live minute-by-minute estimates for the contributions of different sources of electricity to the UK grid.

11. In addition, the publication did not consider that the article was inaccurate or misleading to report that wind turbines were “near impossible to recycle”. The article did not state that no parts of a turbine were recyclable, rather it was “near impossible” to recycle the structure in its entirely as a result of some of the components used: namely, rare earth metals, such as neodymium, which the article referenced. Nor did the publication consider that the article was misleading to describe a power source which could not be relied upon to produce electricity in all weather conditions as “unreliable”, with the text of the article explaining the basis for this description.

12. In circumstances where the complainant did not appear to dispute that power stations, including those of non-renewable sources, were currently required to support wind farms, the publication did not consider that the article was inaccurate to report that “wind farms need[ed] backing up by fossil-fuel power stations” when the “wind does not blow”, regardless of the potential for other solutions. Nor did the publication consider that the article was inaccurate to report that the costs associated with the storage of electricity over time were “huge” or to describe nuclear energy as “zero-carbon”. It further noted that in the context of the article as a whole, where the author sought to contrast nuclear energy with “obvious” carbon-emitting sources, such as coal and gas, and where it was widely accepted that nuclear energy did not produce carbon emissions as a direct result of electricity production, the article was not inaccurate to describe the source as “zero-carbon”.

13. Finally, the publication did not consider that the omission of the alleged links of the Renewable Energy Foundation to the fossil fuel industry rendered the article inaccurate or misleading where it accurately reported the comments made by the academics who worked for this organisation. They were statements of opinion, which the text of the article made clear, and the publication was entitled to report them.

Relevant Code Provisions

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

14. Columnists are free under the Editors’ Code to campaign, to be partisan, and to express an opinion. Nonetheless, newspapers must still abide by the terms of Clause 1, which require a publication to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.

15. The complainant had raised a number of objections to the columnist’s commentary on wind energy. This, however, was a comment piece and the columnist was entitled to set out his position on the topic, seeking to challenge the government’s apparent support for this source of energy. The columnist did not consider that a “grid powered by wind and nuclear will work” in the UK or that it was “clear that wind farms reduce emissions significantly”. This was clearly framed as the columnist’s opinion based on the totality of circumstances discussed in the article; the Committee noted that assessments relating to probability and significance were inherently matters of interpretation. The columnist clearly set out his reasons for his view, and there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information. There was no breach of Clause 1.

16. Notwithstanding this, the columnist had, on multiple occasions within the article, made statements of fact relating to the specific contributions of different energy sources to UK energy consumption. First, the complainant disputed that “less than 4 per cent” of the UK’s total primary demand for energy was supplied by wind power in 2020. In circumstances where: the text of the article made clear that this figure related specifically to “total primary demand for energy” in 2020; the figure had been obtained from a report by a government department, BEIS, which stated that that 4% of the UK’s primary energy was obtained from wind in 2020; and it was accepted by both parties during the course of IPSO’s investigation that this figure had been accurately reported, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. Second, the complainant disputed that coal supplied “5 per cent” of the UK’s electricity, when he said that in 2021, it accounted for 1.96%. The article made clear that the disputed figure related to the contribution of coal, at a specific time on a specific date, to electricity production; it did not relate to the annual average of overall energy supply. Further, this figure had been obtained from two separate third-party websites using real time data, and the Committee was satisfied that the publication had taken sufficient care under Clause 1 not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and that no inaccuracy was established. There was no breach of Clause 1.

18. The Committee then considered whether the article was inaccurate to report that wind turbines were “near impossible to recycle”. In circumstances where the complainant did not appear to dispute that some elements of the machinery were difficult to recycle, the Committee did not consider that it had grounds to establish an inaccuracy on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.

19. In addition, the Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate to report that wind turbines were “unreliable”; that they needed “backing up by fossil-fuel power stations”; and that the associated costs for the storage of electricity was “huge”. The Committee noted that wind turbines were dependent upon favourable weather conditions in order to produce power; that the current system in the UK was supported by non-renewable sources, regardless of the potential of other solutions; and that the storage of electricity had a significant cost, irrespective of technological developments and longer-term reductions in costs. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

20. While the Committee recognised the complainant’s concerns that the columnist had described nuclear energy as “carbon-zero”, it did not consider that this brief reference rendered the article as a whole inaccurate or misleading, where it did not appear to be in dispute that, at the point of generation, nuclear-produced electricity did not emit carbon emissions, and therefore no correction was required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

21. Finally, the Committee considered the complainant’s concerns regarding the quoted academics. In this instance, there was no suggestion within the article that the views reported represented a scientific consensus – but rather that the academics, who were identified in the article, held specific points of view. In reporting these concerns, the newspaper was not obliged to report on the alleged links between the academics and other organisations/ industries. Nor did the absence of such information raise a breach of the Code, where the claims made were clearly presented and attributed as such, a basis was provided from them, and where it was not in dispute that the newspaper had accurately reported these views. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion(s)

22. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

23. N/A

Date complaint received: 12/04/22

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:12/08/22