Many of you will have followed the saga of my complaint via the UK Press Complaints Commission against the Telegraph. After lots of toing and froing, the PCC verdict is finally here. Drum roll, drum roll, drum roll…
And of course I lost. This backs up the advice I received from a number of different people who’d made complaints via the PCC in the past. If there is any level of interpretation needed in the complaint, the PCC appear to have a policy of ruling against the complainant.
For me, there are two meanings of “significant” in the context of whether the Telegraph article was “significantly misleading”.
Firstly, there is statistic significance. Is it right to say that an original estimate is wrong if a new estimate is made at a later date, with more information available, and the confidence intervals of both estimates overlap significantly?
Secondly, there is the significance of the effect that it will have on readers. Some will take it at face value and decide not to trust climate models.
I undertook this complaint to find out about the process, because of the idea of creating a platform for the public to raise complaints together against inaccurate or misleading press articles. I’ll write up my thoughts on that in a few days. In the meantime, here is the final correspondence with the PCC:
Further to our previous correspondence, the Commission has now made its assessment of your complaint under the Editors’ Code of Practice.
The Commission members have asked me to thank you for giving them the opportunity to consider the points you raised. However, their decision is that there has been no breach of the Code in this case. A full explanation of the Commission’s decision is below.
If you are dissatisfied with the way in which your complaint has been handled – as opposed to the Commission’s decision itself – you should write within one month to the Independent Reviewer, whose details can be found in our How to Complain leaflet or on the PCC website at the following link:
Thank you for taking this matter up with us.
And the verdict itself. I think it is interesting that they refer to climate change as being a politically sensitive subject:
Commission’s decision in the case of
Bell v The Daily Telegraph
The complainant expressed concern about the publication of an article which was, in his view, inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The article reported that the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had found that ‘the world [had been] warming at a rate of 0.12C per decade since 1951, compared to a prediction of 0.13C per decade’ in the IPCC’s 2007 report. The complainant believed that the difference between the 2007 forecast and the 2013 revised number didn’t justify the claim that climate scientists had previously been ‘wrong’.
Under the Clause 1 (i) of the Code, newspapers must take care not to publish inaccurate information, and Clause 1 (ii) makes clear that a significantly misleading statement must be corrected promptly, and with ‘due prominence’.
Anthropogenic climate change is a politically contentious subject. It is not the Commission’s role to stifle, or in any way to hinder the free exchange of opinions and information, which serves to enrich the quality of the debate on this topic. Newspapers are entitled to report on, and to interpret the findings of the numerous scientific studies which have been published in this complex area as long as, in doing so, they have not misled readers.
In the ‘summary for policymakers’ section of the 2007 IPCC report on climate change, it was stated that ‘the linear warming trend over the last 50 years (0.13C [0.10C to 0.16C] per decade) [was] nearly twice that for the last 100 years’. The 2013 report noted that the calculated rate of warming since 1951 was ‘0.12C [0.08 to 0.14]’. The newspaper was entitled to interpret this calculation as a downward revision in the pace of observed climate change, even where the IPCC had not explicitly acknowledged that this was the case in the report. Indeed, the margin of error in the 2013 report had also been revised downward. In this context the claim that the 2007 calculation was ‘wrong’ was not significantly misleading. This was especially the case where the extent – and significance – of the revision was clearly stated in the article. While the Commission welcomed the newspaper’s attempt to obtain comment from the IPCC before the publication of the article, there was no breach of the Code.