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How to write a Daily Mail article about climate change

  • 18 Apr 2012, 13:40
  • Robin Webster and Ros Donald

Digital Juice

Over the last few days, shell-shocked civil servants have seen clear evidence of just how effective the Daily Mail's brand of campaign journalism can be. A story that began on Easter Monday with an front-page attack on a proposed element of the government's energy efficiency loan scheme culminated in a full-scale Tory assault against the entire Green Deal and a retraction by David Cameron.      

Never mind the fact that the 'conservatory tax' didn't apply to most conservatories, wasn't a tax, and has apparently already been running in one (Tory-led) district council for five years with no problems at all. The Prime Minister has promised to reject the measures the Mail criticised, without waiting for the results of the consultation that proposed them.

This isn't the first time the Mail's had a political impact in this area. Last Autumn, for example, we saw George Osborne mimic the Mail line on green policies' contribution to energy bills - despite the evidence that the figures the Mail was citing were unfounded.

The Mail is a powerful political animal and over the last few months it has had the issue of climate science, and 'green' policy measures clearly in the sight-lines, so it probably won't be the last time either. So after spending a bit too much time than is good for us reading them, here are our pointers on how to write a Daily Mail article on climate change, based on our record of its campaign:

1. It's all going to be VERY EXPENSIVE

The Mail's key message on government 'green' policies kicked off with a front page headline last June: it's going to cost you.

Subsequently, however, the paper published three corrections to its claim that green energy measures add £200 - or possibly £300 - to current energy bills, following complaints that we made to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

How else can you make green policies seem jolly expensive? There's also the option of only reporting one side of research on the subject, or basing an article on results that only apply to one tenth of households. Then, why not throw in statistics it's impossible to interrogate? It's also fun to mix up electricity prices with energy bills -  try it and see your 'green tax' estimate double.

Most recently, the Mail has launched a full-frontal attack on the Green Deal. This seems a little strange to us, given that the scheme is the main plank of the government's policy to help bring down energy bills in the future by increasing the fuel efficiency of UK housing stock. But never mind.

2. Climate change isn't certain/ won't be that bad/ will give us cancer

Mail Online can't resist generating a bit of silly news out of relatively sensible climate science research. As a result, a few of its science headlines appear to have been written by the Daily Mail random headline generator. How about, for example, global warming could make us shorter? Or - a predictable personal favourite - climate change could give you cancer.

Recently, however, there's been a trend toward repurposing research to fit the paper's skeptical stance on climate change and mitigation policies. Over the last couple of weeks, for example, global warming hasn't been a problem because glaciers are growing, or because of past warming (the scientists concerned have responded to this misrepresentation of their work here and here respectively).

Adding a questioning sub-head is a useful tactic. Or, alternatively adding a rhetorical question: "Is this finally proof we're not causing global warming?" (no), or alternatively " could space dust be at fault for climate change?" (no)?

Or, you could always just herald a new ice age.

This line all adds up to editorials claiming the "science of climate change remains questionable" - providing a useful backup to those criticisms of green policies.

3. Rely on the blogs

To be fair to the Mail, it's come quite late to this party: Telegraph skeptics Christopher Booker and James Delingpole have been relying on the network of climate skeptic blogs for ever.

One of the strangest examples of this is the Register - an IT blog, which oddly also has a skeptical line on climate science. And there's also Watts Up With That, a very popular skeptic blog - although it doesn't appear to think much of the compliment.

Once a skeptic blog's angle on climate science appears on Mail Online, it's got a free pass to crop up in mostly skeptical reporting, especially in the States, citing a "UK newspaper" - a phenomenon discussed more generally in this piece in the New Yorker. Scientists have recently shown more of a tendency to speak up when they see their work being misinterpreted. But they will have a job matching the original reach of the Mail story.

It may not be irrelevant that two senior Mail journalists - environment correspondent David Derbyshire and science writer Michael Hanlon, have both departed in recent months, just as the Mail's climate coverage appears to have started mirroring the blogs.

4. Reuse, rewrite, recycle

If you haven't got that much time to devote to a piece, you can always rehash the same text from last week.

The Mail also makes a bit of a speciality of rewriting headlines to ensure they fit the editorial line. For example, when the Met Office released its assessment of the effects of climate change last December, the piece in the paper headlined  with "Water crisis, hotter days, floods - the weather for 2100" - very gloomy. But by lunchtime on Tuesday the online version had been reworked (twice) to provide a more positive interpretation. The end result: "Global warming would BOOST Britain's farm crops by 10pc". That's much better.

This example, meanwhile, takes the tactic to surreal extremes.

5. If you're stuck - there's always the GWPF

Nigel Lawson's climate skeptic thinktank the Global Warming Policy Foundation gets double kudos because it criticises green policies and its founder, Nigel Lawson, was former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's chancellor.

According to the journal ENDs, the Mail's dive into attacking climate policies had its origins in a lunch between Lawson and the Mail's editor Paul Dacre. At the height of the Mail's attacks on 'green bills' last July, we calculated that the Mail gave five times more space to the GWPF than any other news source on climate change.

So there you have it - we could probably start there tomorrow. And on the plus side, we couldn't help but enjoy a few articles - especially the exploding wind turbine on the front page during the UN climate talks in Durban last year. Luckily for us, we doubt the Mail will decide it's had too much of a good thing just yet: as a recent article for the New Yorker puts it, sometimes Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, "with Harmsworthian vim, will fixate on a subject." So we'll have some blog material for a while yet.

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