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
The Mail then reported - in September - that green policies
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
Each time the inaccurate figures appeared, they were
repeated by other newspapers (including the
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
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
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
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