Reviewing factchecks of the Mail group

  • 20 Dec 2012, 12:31
  • Christian Hunt and Robin Webster

As part of its recent investigation into consumer energy markets, the ECC committee wrote to newspaper editors about the issue of accuracy in media coverage of energy bills. The committee received quite an extensive response from the Mail group, particularly responding to comments that we made about its coverage. We take a look at it.

In our submission to the Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Committee's investigation, we made the case that a series of newspaper articles:

"....overstate the current impact of green policies (or 'environmental and social costs') on energy bills. Some appear to be the result of simple errors (for example, confusing electricity prices with energy bills, or ignoring the impact of gas prices on bills), others are the result of research being reported in a what seems to us a highly partial or selective way."

The ECC Committee raised the issue with newspaper editors in a letter. It particularly invited the Chair of the Mail group to respond to our suggestion that it had reused inaccurate figures, even after those figures had been corrected following a PCC complaint.

The Mail has responded with a detailed submission addressing all the examples that we had raised. It concludes by saying that its explanations show that "Carbon Brief's complaints are unfounded". We think this is worth responding to - partially because this is the first time we've heard from the Mail on how many of these articles were sourced or written. The only previous contact we have had is when the Mail has been asked to substantiate a figure via the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

In summary, in four of the examples our original criticisms still stand. In one we think that the Mail's defence of its article is reasonable. Because these examples are now a year or more old, we'll have to over them in a bit of detail:

£200, or £300 on energy bills

In the last six months of 2011 we made three different complaints to the PCC over claims made by the Mail group about the impact of 'green taxes' on consumer energy bills.

The Mail said in a front page headline in June 2011 that green measures were then adding 15 to 20 per cent, or £200 to bills. Later the Mail on Sunday said that the figure was £300.

The actual figure was closer to £100, according to the energy regulator Ofgem. The Mail group recognised this in three PCC-negotiated corrections to its coverage. Further details are given in our blog post here.

One point we made was that the £200 figure was cited twice by the Mail on Sunday after the Daily Mail had corrected it. The Mail says:

"Carbon Brief's complaint is based on the assumption that the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday knew the £200 figure was inaccurate prior to publication. This is incorrect."

On 18 September 2011, two days after the Daily Mail printed its correction, the Mail on Sunday stated in separate articles that green subsidies add both £300 and £200 to bills.

The Mail says "the editorial team were not aware that the previous use of a similar figure by the Daily Mail had led to a correction" and "...this is unsurprising given that the newspapers have separate editorial teams and used different sources for the figures used".

When we pointed out via the PCC to the Mail on Sunday that the £200 figure was inaccurate and had already been corrected, the newspaper recognised the figure was wrong.

On October 13th 2011, the newspaper offered to correct its use of the £200 figure, in a letter to the PCC which was forwarded to us.

The Mail on Sunday then reused the £200 figure two weeks later on 29th October in the paper's main editorial column. On this occasion, the paper should have known that it was inaccurate - because it had already agreed to correct the earlier use of the figure.

The £300 figure - which did have a different source - was also inaccurate, and was later corrected by the Mail after we made another PCC complaint.

£1,000 for green energy?

On 13th July 2011, the Mail published a front page headline "£1,000 bill for green energy: families face huge annual levy to appease the climate lobby".

In our submission to the ECC Committee, we said:

"The Mail wrote a front-page headline article claiming that energy bills are "set to rise by around £1,000 a year - to £2,000" as a result of green policies, based on research by the bank Unicredit. This research was not publicly available. When we obtained a copy, the figure was cited just once, in a section which had been quoted in a blog by the FT some months before. It seems likely that the Mail had not seen the report. The report did not detail how the figure had been calculated, or specify how much of the projected cost increase would be due to green policies".

The Mail defends the figure, saying "the journalist spoke to Unicredit who confirmed that the passages quoted by the FT were accurate". It also says the article cited competing views, as it did - although not in a way that was likely to balance the front page headline.

The Mail does not say that the newspaper had seen the report or spoken with the author, and it also says that the report "was not publicly available". We wrote at the time that the source was a poor choice for a front page report, as the number was "at odds with mainstream estimates and comes from a report which is not publicly available, which the authors will not discuss, and which contains no further detail about how the figure was calculated." All of that appears to be the case.

One in four pushed into fuel poverty

On 12th October 2011 the Mail wrote an article headlined "Green taxes could force one in four into fuel poverty".

In our submission to the ECC Committee, we said:

"The Mail's headline misrepresented the report's findings which were that rising gas prices would account for a significant proportion of any rise in bills".

The Mail says in its response that the research for the article "was based on research by Deloitte". We think this might be a mistake as the article was based on a report released by Deutsche Bank.

As we detailed at the time, the Deutsche Bank report finds - and states clearly in the summary - that it is both the rising price of fossil fuels and measures designed to encourage decarbonisation which will push up bills, potentially pushing one in four people into fuel poverty.

The Mail says:

"...while the Deloitte report mentioned increases in gas prices as part of the explanation as to why energy bills were rising, a solution proposed to tackle these rises was the abandoning of a number of green policies".

This is correct, but it doesn't make the headline accurate.

Rocketing electricity bills

In December 2011, the Mail published an article claiming " Electricity bills to rocket by 25% because of 'green' targets, says Government".

In our submission to the ECC Committee, we wrote:

"This 25% figure was from an annex of the report, and applied only to the one in ten "non-typical" households which use electric heating and which would be disproportionately impacted. This was not mentioned in the article".

The Mail says that it didn't take the figure from the Annex. It says it was calculated from figures on p.17 of the report, which showed that low carbon policies would add approximately 23.8 per cent to electricity prices.

Bills and prices are not the same thing, which means the full effect of the electricity price rise only falls on around one in ten households.

But here we misinterpreted the Mail article - as the article recognises, the effect on bills is dependent on how much electricity is consumed, and energy efficiency measures can drive bills down by reducing consumption. And the article notes that the effect on households which heat their homes using electricity will be higher. We'll update our blog to reflect these points.

15% on your bills

In February 2012, the Mail used figures released by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) as the basis for a story headlined "Official: Green taxes add 15% to your bills."

In our submission to ECC, we wrote:

"The headline... inflated DECC's estimate of green costs from 7% to 15%, by conflating energy bills with electricity prices".

The Mail says that "Carbon Brief's complaint is… unfounded" because the first sentence of the article says that "Electricity prices are 15 per cent more expensive than they should be because of green policies" - and that a graphic makes it clear that the headline refers to electricity prices, not bills.

In fact, here the Mail is basically agreeing with us. When we highlighted that the headline was wrong, we noted that it was contradicted by the article. The Mail goes on:

"It is true that the hard copy of the article included the headline 'Official: green taxes add 15% to your bills... However this headline was not written by the journalist (as you are probably aware, reporters do not write headlines for their stories) and it appears that the word 'bills' are used rather than 'electricity prices' purely as shorthand because of the limited spaces for the headline."

In other words, the headline was wrong. This is recognised in an online correction, which states:

"An earlier version of this article suggested that green taxes would add 15% to energy bills. In fact, the 15% referred to electricity prices."

An editorial line?

Arguing - for example - that green policies are expensive and cost consumers around £100 a year seems to us reasonable editorialising.

But when such figures are wrong and significantly higher than they should be, it raises the question of why. The Mail argues that mistakes are "occasionally made" but that "the fact is these mistakes are the exception rather than the rule". It says:

"The accusation that ANL [Associated Newspapers Limited] is merely pursuing an 'editorial line' displays a misunderstanding of how ANL and its titles operate. ANL operates numerous and varied titles (each with their own entirely independent editorial teams) which themselves operate in different parts of the UK and, in the case of Mail Online, globally and employ an immensely diverse range of journalists. The primary purpose of these titles is to produce accurate reports of issues that are of concern to their readers".

Our view is that when the Mail and Mail on Sunday has covered this issue prominently - in front page headlines, in a campaign against green taxes, in editorials - the kind of mistakes we've documented have occurred often enough to make it difficult to pass them off as isolated exceptions.

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