How the UK’s feeble system of media regulation fails the public interest on climate change

Posted on 16 Mar 2012 in

The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the Press has mainly been focusing mainly on issues arising from the alleged hacking of phones by journalists at some national newspapers. But the Inquiry would perform a great service for the public interest if it also investigates the way that some parts of the media are choosing to cover the issue of climate change.

There is unequivocal scientific evidence that the Earth is warming, and little real argument that the main cause is the indisputable increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases due to human activities such as burning fossil fuels. The consensus view within the scientific community is that if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise unchecked, there are very clear risks of further warming that could damage the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the world through changes in extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and other climatic impacts.

In the UK we are already seeing the effects of climate change, with seven of the ten warmest years on record all having occurred since 2001. The UK public can also see a range of policy responses, ranging from the growth of alternative energy sources to reduce emissions, to greater investment in sea and flood defences to prepare for those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided. Hence climate change is a major public interest issue in the UK.

Many national newspapers and broadcasters are serving the public interest by covering both major developments in the understanding of the challenges posed by climate change and the options for overcoming them, but some parts of the media are failing their audiences, preferring instead to champion unscientific, or even anti-scientific, coverage of climate change.

Most national media frame climate change as an environmental issue, and primarily one of science with a bit of politics and economics thrown in. News reporting of climate change is usually carried out by science reporters, or environment reporters who often have science backgrounds. By and large this reporting is of a high quality and avoids inaccurate and misleading information as required by the Editors’ Code of Practice of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in the case of newspapers, and Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code in the case of television and radio companies.

However, some parts of the media have exploited weaknesses in the regulatory systems to promote demonstrably inaccurate and misleading information to the public about the causes and potential consequences of climate change, often under the guise of ‘balance’.

For instance, in March 2007, Channel 4 broadcast ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, a television programme that sought to convince viewers that a change in the activity of the sun, rather than the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, is responsible for rising global temperatures. The programme contained numerous factual errors, as well as a doctored graph, and generated more than 250 complaints to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom, including one from me.

After a year of considering the complaints, Ofcom published its ruling in July 2008. It found that the programme has been unfair towards some scientists, but refused to judge the inaccuracies in the programme to be a breach of the Broadcasting Code because it could find no evidence that they had “materially misled the audience so as to cause harm or offence”. Ofcom acknowledged that the programme was “a polemic clearly going against the prevailing scientific view on global warming”, but judged that “it is important, in line with freedom of expression, that broadcasters are able to challenge current orthodoxy”. In essence, Ofcom decided that broadcasters can show documentaries and other ‘factual’ TV programmes which are factually inaccurate and which mislead viewers as long as they do not cause demonstrable harm or offence.

National newspapers are able to take advantage of a similar loophole in the PCC Editors’ Code of Practice. In March 2009, The Sunday Telegraph published a column in which Christopher Booker reported the views of Dr Nils-Axel Mörner who claims that global sea level is not rising. The article contained numerous inaccuracies, so I wrote a letter to The Sunday Telegraph to correct them. The newspaper refused to publish any responses to the article, so I made a complaint to the PCC. After a long exchange, the PCC finally reached a verdict in December 2009. It ruled that the newspaper had not breached the Editors’ Code of Practice because in reporting Dr Mörner’s comments “its responsibility was for publishing his views accurately rather than for the accuracy of his views”. In essence, the PCC decided that newspapers are permitted to breach the Code by publishing inaccurate and misleading information as long as it is opinion.

This surprisingly lax interpretation of the Code, which treats the laws of physics as just ‘a point of view’, has allowed The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Mail on Sunday, in particular (along with the Daily Express which is no longer accountable to any regulator since withdrawing its funding for the PCC), to publish with impunity numerous inaccurate and misleading articles about climate change.

In the case of the Daily Mail, owned by a company that apparently takes climate change seriously, its systematically inaccurate and misleading coverage is part of a campaign against the UK Government ‘green’ policies which was reportedly agreed at a lunch between Paul Dacre, the newspaper’s editor, and Lord Lawson, the founder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a campaign group.

And there are indications that these systematic misrepresentations of the science of climate change are leaving many people grossly misinformed. The most recent annual survey for the Department for Transport found that nearly one in four of the UK public is not convinced that climate change is even happening. Let us hope that the Leveson Inquiry finds time to investigate how parts of the UK media are harming the public interest through their climate change coverage.