Energy and Climate Change Committee expresses concern about suggestions of inaccuracies in energy bill reporting

  • 20 Dec 2012, 13:00
  • Christian Hunt

Earlier in the year, we provided evidence to the recent Energy and Climate Change (ECC) select committee hearing into consumer engagement with energy markets about the role the media plays in informing people about energy issues.

The ECC committee published its findings today, and amongst wider issues expresses concern about suggestions that poor or inaccurate media coverage of energy bills may be having an adverse affect on consumer perception.

The Committee's report says that lack of transparency about "where the money that people pay for their energy goes" is a "recurring theme" of the inquiry. It expresses concern that "consumers do not know who to trust to give them reliable, independent advice and information about energy matters." It recommends that the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC):

"...leads a full and frank conversation about the contribution that consumers are being expected to make to ensuring we have safe, secure and affordable energy supplies in future. In particular, it is crucial that consumers are aware that their bills may continue to rise unless they take action to reduce their energy consumption where possible."

Over the past year we have documented instances of poor reporting of energy and climate change - including some reporting which we believe is, in the words of the press complaints commission, "misleading or inaccurate".

We wrote our submission to the ECC Committee in March 2012, so it focuses on our experience analysing the media debate on energy bills from June 2011 to February 2012. After issues of how the media covered energy were raised by a number of submissions, including ours, ECC wrote to newspapers asking for their views, saying:

"Concerns have been raised in evidence to the Committee's inquiry into Consumer Engagement with Energy Markets that inaccurate reporting of the costs of 'green' energy policies, as levied on domestic energy bills, may be misleading the public."

How did the press respond? The report says that ECC received responses from six out of the 17 publications it contacted, including substantive responses from the Sunday Times, the Mail group, the Financial Times (FT) and the Telegraph.

Some of the responses are straightforward - the Sunday Times notes that it produces a wide diversity of articles on energy, and says that it doesn't have an editorial line on news reporting of the issue. The FT describes the procedures it has in place to check articles. This would appear to include being responsive to questions - when we've engaged with journalists from the FT we've found them helpful. The Telegraph responds saying it has published a range of articles highlighting different reasons for rising energy costs.

The Mail gives detailed responses to some of the examples we cited in our evidence, which is worth more discussion - we have done so here.

Finally, the Telegraph takes issue with a Committee at the House of Commons asking a newspaper to justify its reporting "based on vague, partisan criticisms from lobby groups". It's a shame that this is the Telegraph's perception of what is going on. The media has significant power in shaping people's views, and we think it's useful and valid to document problems with coverage in this area. ECC seems to agree. It responds:

"This surprised us: we believe it is perfectly proper for a Select Committee to give newspapers a right of reply when allegations are made about poor reporting. We note that one of the criticisms cited in our letter to the press had been made by DECC."

The Telegraph also suggests that the proper channel for raising such criticisms is through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

We've submitted a number of Press Complaints Commission complaints about what we felt were clear inaccuracies, leading to corrections published in the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Telegraph.

But in our experience, the Press Complaints Commission is not an effective way to get mistakes corrected. It takes a long time. Even relatively straightforward errors - a recent PCC complaint we made was about an article suggesting global CO2 emissions are falling - take weeks to correct. If corrections are published, they are generally not prominent.

Your own opinion, not your own facts

Despite these issues with process, the PCC Editor's guidelines do a good job of laying out what the aim of all reporting should be. We gave ECC our view:

"If you look at the PCC editors' code of conduct, what they say is the press should take care to not make inaccurate or misleading statements... I would completely support the right of media organisations to campaign on issues, to take whatever line they think, but it should be within the bounds of factual accuracy."

The PCC also say that "The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact." Both parts of this are important. Media coverage of energy issues - as with coverage of most political issues - is often rightly partisan, and the debate around energy policy provides plenty of opportunities for campaigning journalism. In many cases the media do a good job of interrogating UK energy policy.

But to do so, articles need to be accurate. With the UK mooting a dramatic shift in the way we produce energy, getting reporting of energy issues right seems to us something that all parties should be concerned with.

So what do we think would improve matters?

More thought and clarity from official bodies on how they present their research would help. A press regulator which can deal with inaccuracies more effectively and quickly would make a difference.

Headlines are prominent and probably more widely read than articles. But our experience suggests it's probably in headlines that the most mistakes occur, presumably because it's often not the journalist that writes them. It's also the case that headlines are often where the editorial views of a paper are expressed. Writing headlines is difficult - but more care to avoid errors in them would be a positive step.

The Sunday Times says that in its coverage:

"most articles dealing with reports by 'think tanks' or similar bodies will contain balancing comments from other experts too, either underlining or undermining the claims being made according to the strength of the supporting evidence."

This is presumably how it should always work, with balancing views appropriately placed, and not just relegated to the end of the article - what Ben Goldacre calls the caveat in paragraph 19.

Finally, it would be nice to be able to avoid the situation - now commonplace - where media coverage fixates on dramatic figures. Reports or press releases often seem to be written with this in mind, but in our experience this often leads to articles which obscure more than they reveal. That may well be too much to hope for, but hey - it's nearly Christmas.

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