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Carbon Brief The Press Complaints Commission and the Daily Mail

  • 03 Oct 2011, 12:00
  • Christian Hunt

Last Thursday, the Daily Mail website quietly 'disappeared' an article published by the paper in June headlined 'Hidden green tax in fuel bills: How £200 stealth charge is slipped on to your gas and electricity bills'. The article - a front-page splash - was the start of a campaigning series by the paper, as we detailed here. Undoubtedly, the series of articles has  shaped UK energy politics, establishing the idea of 'green bills' as common currency in the present debate.

The article's disappearance follows a PCC complaint we made which challenged the use of the £200 figure, which was  sourced to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, but not explained or referenced in any way. Ofgem, the energy watchdog, suggests that 'social and environmental measures' contribute less than half this amount - a fact which the Daily Mail recognised in their correction to the story printed a couple of weeks ago.

The removal of the article from the Daily Mail website presumably shows that it was impossible for the paper to do what it had originally agreed to do as part of the PCC process - correct the article - as the unsubstantiated figure was so central to the argument the piece made, that to remove it would make the story nonsensical.

You might hope that would be the end of the matter. Unfortunately not.

As we have  noted, the Mail on Sunday re-used the inaccurate number in a story after the correction had been published. In  two editorials just days later the Mail suggested that the likely contribution to energy bills from green taxes was £300. No reference was provided in either case for this new assessment - which is about three times higher than Ofgem suggest.

As we have noted, the Mail on Sunday re-used the inaccurate number in a story after the correction had been published. In two editorials just days later the Mail suggested that the likely contribution to energy bills from green taxes was £300. No reference was provided in either case for this new assessment - which is about three times higher than Ofgem suggest.

The most likely assumption is that the figure was taken from a recent Telegraph story, based on a leaked government memo, which argues that green measures will make up 30% of fuel bills - which is (very) approximately £300.

If so, however, it is a misuse of the figure - for two reasons. First, the briefing contained a mistake. DECC research suggests that green energy measures will add approximately 30% to electricity bills, not energy bills. Electricity bills represent only a portion of energy bills, and so the correct figure is about £130, not £300. The Guardian recognised this and corrected their coverage of the story, but the Telegraph has not.

Secondly, and somewhat more simply, the briefing discussed energy prices in 2020, not 2011. In their editorials, the Mail have advanced the clock 9 years without telling anyone.

By any measure, the Mail's use of figures on this issue so far could be described as 'misleading and distorted'. It seems likely that it arises out of the desire to tell a good story - that green taxes are responsible for the recent hikes in energy bills - and a lack of resources devoted to fact checking. That the Mail could print two contradictory assessments of the cost of green measures, as fact, in the same paper, suggests that not enough care is being taken on this matter.

The Mail do produce some excellent science reporting, and their campaigning on environmental issues on the issue of plastic bags - although it seems firewalled from much of their other reporting on environmental issues - is actually inspiring. But on this issue they are getting it badly wrong.

Hence, I have made two more complaints to the Press Complaints Commission over the matter. One about the Mail on Sunday's repeated use of the original £200 figure, and one about the Mail's use of (what we must assume is) the Telegraph's £300 claim.

The PCC prefer complainants not to publish correspondence about the process, so there will be limited information while these process. It may be that the complaints are not upheld - the PCC process is not straightforward. But this is a matter that we will continue to give our attention to, because we believe that accuracy is important in this debate.

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