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Energy bills and the PCC: Our submission to the Leveson Inquiry

  • 27 Feb 2012, 11:30
  • Christian Hunt

Last week the Leveson Inquiry published evidence we submitted. It describes our experience of negotiating with the UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and the Mail group to obtain three corrections to articles which have given misleading estimates of how much so-called green taxes - or environmental and social policies - are adding to household energy bills.

Looking back over the process shows how intervention by the PCC -  the UK's press self-regulatory body - was unable to prevent the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday from repeatedly printing errors in its reporting on this issue. These errors always seemed to inflate green policies' contribution to energy bills - neatly dovetailing with the paper's editorial line.

The Mail's articles first claimed in June last year that 'green taxes' were adding £200 to yearly domestic fuel bills, a figure provided by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. It wasn't clear where this figure came from - at the time, this was more than twice the estimate provided by UK utility regulator Ofgem.

When approached by the PCC, the Mail couldn't produce any research or analysis which supported the figure, and the GWPF didn't respond when we emailed on several occasions. The Mail subsequently corrected the figure, but it was reused twice by the Mail on Sunday.

The Mail then reported - in September - that green policies were adding £300 to energy bills, giving no source. It turned out that the  article had misquoted a leaked government briefing, which described potential figures for 2020, taking them as current costs.

Each time the inaccurate figures appeared, they were repeated by other newspapers (including the Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and the Express), and online.

Our submission covers the process we went through with the PCC to get corrections to the coverage. Over six months, the Mail and Mail on Sunday eventually responded to three PCC complaints. The inaccuracies (one of which had originally appeared as a front page headline) were ultimately corrected by three rather small notes on pages 2 or 4 of the paper.

Our experience suggests that although the PCC is a dedicated group, and its staff have been very helpful, its limited powers and capacities mean that newspapers with an interest in selectively reporting the truth or publishing unsubstantiated statements may do so in the knowledge that any censure will be minimal.

So what would it take to change things? We didn't provide specific suggestions, but it's worth reading those put forward by the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and the Association of Medical Research Charities in their submission on scientific reporting, as they  seem pretty sensible.

Most relevantly, they suggest that articles should be well referenced. Providing the name of reports or studies that are cited to provide figures, or just linking them in online coverage goes a long way towards helping people check stories for themselves.

In the examples we've looked at no source was referenced in the articles in question to substantiate the figures used. Requirements for better referencing would also make it easier to assess the work of writers like Christopher Booker who regularly discuss scientific issues without providing any references at all.

Researchers have to properly reference their work. With articles published online as a matter of course, where hyperlinks and extra space are readily avaiable, why not journalists as well?

The Wellcome/CRUK/AMRC submission also includes this suggestion:

We recommend that any future model of press regulation should ensure that corrections, clarifications and apologies are given equivalent prominence to the original article, including online coverage and promotion.

This is probably the change which would have the most immediate impact. If editors knew that there was a possibility they would have to correct their front page headline with another front page headline, they might think more carefully about the figures behind a big splash. Based on our experience, that would be no bad thing.

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