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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

16.01.2012 | 4:00pm
ScienceZombie stats: When inaccurate numbers refuse to die
SCIENCE | January 16. 2012. 16:00
Zombie stats: When inaccurate numbers refuse to die

It’s the dodgy energy stat that just won’t go away – the suggestion that ‘green charges’ make up 20% of your energy bill.

It’s unsubstantiated. It’s at odds with the most recent figures from industry regulator Ofgem, which put the proportion of an average bill caused by ‘social and environmental costs’ at 7%. And both the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday have published corrections to the figure after intervention from the Press Complaints Commission.

But none of this has stopped the Mail on Sunday using it, again, in an opinion piece headlined ” Reveal this ‘green tax’ on fuel bills‘”. In yesterday’s paper the editor of the Financial Mail Lisa Buckingham wrote that:

“Profit margins [for energy companies] average about seven percent over the economic cycle – not rock bottom not up there with the banks either.

And about 20 percent of bills are nothing to do with them. They reflect the barrage of Government-mandated ‘green’ charges'”

Bear in mind that this is in a piece which argues for more transparency over green costs. Getting the proportion of the bill that comes from Government measures right should be a basic first step.

Both the Mail and the Mail on Sunday have previously  published (separate) corrections withdrawing the figure – in print and online. The original articles were amended online, and, we had been told, annotated in the Mail’s databases to make sure that the figure wouldn’t be re-used.

It obviously didn’t work. So what does it take to get rid of an inaccurate and unsubstantiated stat?

Where did the figure come from?

The 20% figure first appeared as a Mail front page headline back in June, which read “Hidden green tax in fuel bills: how £200 stealth charge is slipped onto your gas an electricity bill”.

It came from a quote by Dr Benny Peiser, director of the climate skeptic think-tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation. He suggested  that green energy measures are adding 15-20 percent (or up to £200) to household energy bills. The Mail repeated the claim in numerous articles and the figure was also cited by other newspapers (including the Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and the Express).

Noticing that it was substantially higher than other estimates, and wasn’t referenced, we made a PCC complaint about the figure. In September a correction appeared in the Mail which recognised that (at the time) “According to Ofgem, the correct figure for environmental costs is currently no more than 9%” – or about £80-90.

Just a few days after the Mail’s correction, the Mail on Sunday repeated the same claim – presumably demonstrating that they don’t pay much attention to the corrections process.

We brought it to the attention of the PCC and the paper. You would hope that by this point it would be straightforward to get the Mail to deal with the matter promptly, but actually, while they were contemplating the matter, the Mail on Sunday used the £200 figure again.

Finally, in November the MoS published a second correction to both articles. And that was the last we saw of the 20% figure, until it reappeared yesterday.

We should point out that since Ofgem, DECC and the Climate Change Committee have all produced reports summarising their research on energy bill costs, the debate around energy bills seems to have been getting marginally more accurate and sensible  – including in the Mail.

Hence it’s a shame that this has happened again. This incident also doesn’t say much for the power and impact of the Press Complaints Commission, given that a newspaper can repeatedly publish information which it knows to be misleading after repeated PCC intervention.

Well, hopefully this is what the Leveson inquiry is for…


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