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6 January 2017 14:51

Guest post: Press complaints process is ‘exercise in futility’ for scientists

Multiple Authors

Guest postsGuest post: Press complaints process is ‘exercise in futility’ for scientists

This is a comment article authored by two scientists who have made complaints to regulators about coverage of climate science in the media. The first case is written by Dr Phil Williamson, associate fellow of the University of East Anglia and Science Coordinator of the UK Ocean Acidification research programme from 2010-2016. The second case is written by Prof Terry Sloan, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Lancaster and author of Introductory Climate Science; Global Warming Explained.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), a self-regulator for the newspaper and magazine industry, sets out the rules that many UK publishers have agreed to follow.

IPSO’s starting point is promising. The Editor’s Code of Practice and the committee’s own vision – to “support those who feel wronged by the press, uphold the highest professional standards” and “provide redress” where standards have been breached – provide as good a basis as any for balancing freedom of the press with ethics, honesty and the public interest.

But something goes badly wrong in Ipso’s decision-making, at least in our experiences.  Engagement with Ipso on issues of scientific accuracy would seem an exercise in futility.

Case 1: Williamson v The Spectator – ocean acidification

On 30 April 2016, climate-skeptic writer James Delingpole published an article in the Spectator under the headline, “Ocean acidification: yet another wobbly pillar of climate alarmism”.

The article stated that the evidence increasingly suggests that ocean acidification – the process of human-caused CO2 dissolving into seawater, lowering its pH – is a “scaremongering theory” and a “trivial, misleadingly named, and not remotely worrying phenomenon”. The theory, said Delingpole, “appears to have been fatally flawed almost from the start”.

Almost everything that could be scientifically wrong with Delingpole’s article was wrong. Despite this, and many other careless errors, Ipso ruled against my complaint, and follow-up appeal, deciding that the article had not breached the editors’ code of practice. On issues of accuracy, the code states:

“The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images…A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence…The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.”

The Spectator’s response, via Ipso, was to strongly defend almost all aspects of the original article, dismissing my complaint as “a squabble between two people with strong opinions on a contentious matter”. I contested that response, with reference to the overwhelming evidence that ocean acidification presents a serious threat to marine life. Yes, there are uncertainties on some aspects, involving rigorous debate between researchers, but those were not the issues challenged by Delingpole.

Ipso’s ruling on this dispute seemed to swallow the relativist framing that everyone is entitled to present their own opinions as facts. It considered the article “clearly a comment piece”, even when there was no heading to that effect in the print version and that it is labelled online as a feature. The committee’s decision that the article conformed to the necessary distinction between comment, conjecture and fact, as required by the Editors’ Code, was based on just a couple of sentences written in the first person.

If it is the committee’s contention that this was “clearly a comment piece”, then Ipso’s usage of the term ‘clearly’ would seem so lax and inexact that all articles in The Spectator (except perhaps Portrait of the Week and the Crossword) would come under that category.

Moreover, if the status of the article as a comment piece is indeed clear and self-evident (and therefore apparently exempting it from the accuracy standards of the Editors’ Code), why was that not recognised by the Ipso Secretariat before it agreed to investigate my complaint?

Intriguingly, Ipso also suggested in its ruling on ocean acidification that while part of its job is to investigate issues of accuracy, this does not extend to arbitrating on whether information is factually correct. Ipso told me:

“The Committee’s role is not to make findings of fact or to resolve conflicting evidence in relation to matters under debate. Rather, it assesses the care taken not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and establishes whether a distinction is clearly made between comment, conjecture and fact, in determining whether the Code has been breached.”

Such care should, according to the Editors’ Code, be of the “highest professional standards”. Unfortunately, in this case, Ipso didn’t seem to give any attention to the “care taken”. I provided the committee with evidence of carelessness, yet this was not mentioned in its ruling.

Delingpole’s sources were not properly peer-reviewed science, but instead included pressure group reports and disputed newspaper coverage. Furthermore, Delingpole had not carried out basic fact-checking, e.g. contacting named individuals. He also selectively quoted an ocean acidification scientist, with the result that the meaning was significantly changed.

Case 2: Sloan v The Sunday Telegraph – global temperature records

On 24 January 2015 the Sunday Telegraph published an article by Christopher Booker entitled “How we are STILL being tricked with flawed data on global warming”. In this article, Booker claimed that the ground-based measurements of the average global temperature were increasingly showing quite different results from the satellite based measurements.

I investigated this statement by making a detailed comparison between the main ground-based and the satellite-based measurements, showing that they are all in agreement with each other within the measurement uncertainty. This level of agreement between the data sets is, in fact, remarkable given the very different methods of measurement.

One can only be sure that two measurements of a quantity are different if the difference is greater than the measurement uncertainty, something which is obvious to all acquainted with scientific measurement.

As this was not the case when comparing the two sets of measurements, it seemed clear that the Sunday Telegraph had violated the accuracy clause of the editor’s code of practice. I complained to Ipso about this, but it was rejected on the grounds that the treatment of the data was a “matter of interpretation”.

There were a number of other errors of fact in the article by Booker included in the complaint to Ipso. All were rejected. For example, Booker says:

“This data has been subjected to continual adjustments invariably in one direction. Earlier temperatures are adjusted downwards, more recent temperatures are adjusted upwards, thus giving the impression that they (the temperatures) have risen much more sharply than was shown by the original data.”

It is true that adjustments are necessary in the data to correct for changes in calibrations and changes of weather station routines. I submitted to Ipso a graph of the adjustments showing that they are roughly 50% upwards and 50% downwards, in contrast to Booker’s “invariably in one direction”. Even though Booker’s was a serious article, Ipso accepted his erroneous claim as an “element of hyperbole”. The committee did, however, acknowledge that the newspaper had come “close to the line” on this one.


Ipso’s findings in both our cases seem to be based on the following: That all the (scientific) issues discussed in the original articles are a matter of opinion or belief, not verifiable facts; that the articles were clearly distinguished as comment and, therefore, substantive inaccuracies, distortion and misinformation are allowable; and finally, that it is not the role of the committee to determine the veracity of information given in the original articles.

Taken together, our above summaries of the committee’s findings indicate that IPSO has neither the will nor the competence to properly investigate scientific complaints such as these.

In that case, Ipso’s decision-making process (except in the most extreme circumstances) would seem to be based on finding a form of words to defend shoddy journalism on the basis of ‘free speech” arguments, regardless of the editors’ code. That is hardly in the public interest, and damages the reputation and credibility of Ipso as an independent regulator.

If the technicalities of a scientific complaint are outside Ipso direct competence, then there is an easy answer: seek independent expert advice nominated by an outside body such as the Royal Society.

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