Ruling

09816-23 Extinction Rebellion v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      15th June 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09816-23 Extinction Rebellion v The Times

 

Summary of Complaint

1. Extinction Rebellion complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Walrus comeback is more good news the greens won't admit”, published on 4 January 2023.

2. The article was a comment piece regarding “Thor, the walrus” and other walruses who had been seen within British waters. The article said that whilst sightings of walruses in “British waters” had previously been “vanishingly rare […] Two turned up in 2021” and then Thor arriving in 2022. The writer said it was “Nonsense” to state the additional walrus sightings were because the walrus was “a climate change refugee”. It said the reason was “because walruses [were] doing well, not badly” and that they were “thriving”. The writer said that when he “first visited Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic in 1978 there were fewer than 100 walruses there” whereas a “survey in 2018 found more than 5,500”. The article also reported that “Arctic sea ice has declined hardly at all in winter since 2002, and by about 20 per cent in late summer”.

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It said that whilst it recognised that the article was an opinion piece, it did not consider that individual statements in the article were clearly distinguished as conjecture, without placing qualifiers – such as “in my view” – in front of each statement. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that Arctic sea ice had hardly declined in winter since 2002, or by about 20 per cent in late summer. It said the correct position was that analysis had shown a downward trend since 1979 for all months of the year, and that, in February 2023, the level of ice was at an all time low.

5. The complainant also said that walruses were not thriving, nor was it “nonsense” that climate change affected their migration. It noted that walruses were classed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of species threatened due to melting sea ice.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the article was a short opinion piece. It noted it appeared under “the Thunderer” banner, which was an allusion to the paper’s historical nickname and a clear indication to readers the article was a pithy, polemical piece and not an academic survey of walruses and climate change.

7. The publication said that, despite the complainant’s objections, the article made no comment on the trend in ice decline from 1979. Instead, the article clearly stated that it was describing the level of ice in both summer and winter since 2002 only. The publication provided the data it had used to reach the conclusions and set out its methodology. It said this amounted to the average winter maximum being 2.4% less in the 2020’s than in the 2000’s which is said could reasonably be characterised as “declin[ing] hardly at all”. The publication said that the result of this calculation for the summer months was a 17% decrease in the amount of ice – and therefore that the 20% increase was an overestimate.

8. The publication said that other scientists may use a different methodology with the same data, or use a different data set entirely to find alternative conclusions to those derived by the writer. However, it said the data itself did not appear to be in dispute, and the writer had taken care not to publish inaccurate information by relying on this data, his calculations and by drawing the conclusions reported in the article from them. It also provided the views of another scientist, who stated they considered the publication’s methodology to be “very defensible”.

9. The publication said that the article clearly set out the writer’s view for why walruses are “thriving” and set out both his observational basis for this, and the results of the 2018 survey within the article. The publication also provided a separate article which also stated that the number of walruses in Svalbard was increasing. The publication again stated that different people may interpret the same data in different ways – but that the writer was entitled to publish his own interpretation of it. The publication said that the IUCN rating of walruses as “vulnerable” did not contradict the article or render it inaccurate.

10. The complainant rejected the publication’s response. It said that the methodology the publication had used was the average of the maximum spread for each day of each year, and only considered a small sample of values, losing the richness of the data. With regards to the publication’s position on walruses the complainant said this was based on “debunked” science and data. It also said that, in both cases, there was no contrary way of interpreting the data and the article was inaccurate and that the secondary scientist whose views the publication had provided was not objective.

Relevant Clause 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

11. The Committee noted, firstly, that the article was a comment piece, and was clearly annotated as such. Whilst newspapers are required to distinguish comment, conjecture and fact even in comment pieces – it made clear they are not required to start every sentence with a written indicator that the statements are the opinion of the writer. The Committee also noted that the article covered a subject of great public interest, and contentious debate, where there were different interpretations of the data available, including those of a scientific minority.

12. With regards to the matter of the sea ice, the Committee firstly made clear that it was only making findings on what was reported in the article itself – the level of change in sea ice since 2002. The publication had set out its data and methodology for reaching its conclusions, which supported the information in the article. Whilst the complainant may have considered that different methodology would be better, or that a different methodology may have better utilised the “richness” of the data, this did not mean that the publication was unable to report the conclusions it had reached. In the context of a short opinion piece, and not an academic journal, it was not misleading for the calculations not to appear in the article itself. On this basis, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The complainant had also said it was inaccurate to report that walruses were “thriving” as they were on the IUCN red list. The Committee noted that the article made clear the basis for stating that they were thriving – the writer’s personal experiences of walruses in Svalbard in 1978 compared to the far larger quantities that live there currently. Where the basis for the characterisation of walruses “thriving” was set out in the article, the Committee did not consider this to be a misleading term, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

14. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

15. N/A

 

Date complaint received:  13/01/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  30/05/2023