Repeating inaccurate global warming study claims did not amount to a separate breach of the Editor’s Code of Practice for the Mail on Sunday, the Independent Press Standards Organisation has ruled.
The newspaper this week published a clarification admitting two articles from February 2017 repeated claims made in an article earlier the same month that was then under investigation by IPSO following an inaccuracy complaint.
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IPSO’s Complaints Committee later upheld the complaint and ruled the article breached accuracy standards. But, the press regulator has since said that there was no breach of the code in the two following articles.
Its Complaints Committee cited the importance of freedom of expression and the fact the Mail on Sunday was still defending the accuracy of its coverage when the subsequent misleading claims were published.
The newspaper was covering claims made by climate scientist Dr John Bates in response to a 2015 study which suggested there had been no “pause” in global warming in the 2000s.
Dr Bates claimed the author of this so-called “Pausebuster” paper had failed to correctly archive the work, affecting other researchers’ ability to scrutinise it, and said it was based on “faulty” data.
IPSO said the newspaper had been entitled to report Dr Bates’s views but found it had presented them in an “inaccurate and misleading” way, leading to a breach of the code under Clause 1 (accuracy).
The regulator said the first article, published on 5 February 2017 and headlined “Exposed: How world leaders were duped over global warming“, wrongly suggested there was “irrefutable evidence” that the study had been based on “misleading, unverified data” and that world leaders had therefore been “duped”.
IPSO said the breaches of the code were “very significant but mainly related to broad points about the presentation and significance of Dr Bates’s claims rather than simple points of inaccuracy”.
The exception was the inaccurate labelling of a graphic, which was acknowledged as an inaccuracy in an article on 12 February.
However, neither the ruling nor the adjudication mentioned similar claims made in subsequent articles on 12 and 19 February last year.
The original complainant, Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, therefore submitted another complaint to IPSO in September last year.
The article published on 12 February – “How can we trust global warming scientists if they keep twisting the truth?” – was a comment piece by the same journalist, described as an “uncompromising response” after the earlier coverage “sparked fury from the climate change lobby”.
The 19 February article – “US Congress launches a probe into climate data that duped world leaders over global warming”- reported that a US Congressional committee intended to investigate Dr Bates’s claims.
Both articles repeated claims, or variants of the claims, from the original coverage, IPSO said, as well as new claims related to Dr Bates’ account.
Ward said he had contacted the Mail on Sunday to complain about its 5 February coverage before the subsequent two articles were published.
IPSO has said it did not consider the latter two articles a further breach of the code, despite the republication of “substantially similar claims” made in the original story.
This was partially due to IPSO’s need to proportionately regulate freedom of expression, the ruling said.
IPSO’s guidance says the Editors’ Code of Practice should not be interpreted “so narrowly as to compromise its commitment to respect the rights of the individual, nor so broadly that it infringes the fundamental right to freedom of expression”.
The regulator said: “While the newspaper was aware of the complainant’s objections to its coverage, and those of others, at the time of publication of the 12 and 19 February articles, it was robustly defending the accuracy of its coverage.
“It continued to stand by its coverage, as it was entitled to do, up to the point at which IPSO found it to be in breach of the code, at which point it co-operated with IPSO’s requirement of remedy.
“In the full context, and taking into account the importance of freedom of expression and its obligation to act proportionately in regulating freedom of expression, the committee declined to establish a further breach of Clause 1 in relation to the republication of substantially similar claims as part of related coverage on 12 and 19 February.”
A spokesperson for IPSO also explained why the republication of the inaccurate claims “did not represent a separate failure”.
“The articles under complaint here were follow-up pieces to the 5 February coverage and were published before IPSO’s investigation of the complainant’s concerns was initiated,” they said.
“Having fully investigated the complainant’s concerns, the committee decided that in this instance, the republication of the claims on 12 and 19 February did not represent a separate failure by the Mail on Sunday to take care over the accuracy of its coverage, beyond the breach it had already established.
“Nonetheless, it decided that the newspaper was required by the terms of Clause 1 (ii) to correct the coverage to ensure that readers were not misled, and that it had offered to do so in appropriate terms. This is why no further breach was established.”
The Mail on Sunday published a page 2 clarification this week which said: “In September 2017, the Independent Press Standards Organisation upheld a complaint against a February 5 article ‘Exposed: How world leaders were duped over global warming’.
“Two subsequent articles on February 12 and February 19 contained claims regarding an influential study about global warming, which have been found to be in breach of the Editors’ Code: namely the claim that the study was known – irrefutably and as fact – to be critically flawed, based on misleading unverified data, and had led world leaders to be duped by its findings. Corrections to these articles have been published online.”
A note at the end of each of the 12 and 19 February online articles tells readers “matters in this article were subject of a complaint” which had been upheld by IPSO.
“IPSO adjudicated that the [5 February] article had been wrong to assert there was irrefutable evidence that data in the “Pausebuster” paper was false or misleading or that world leaders had been duped by it when reaching the 2015 Paris Agreement,” the note continued.
“IPSO said the article was misleading in stating that the ‘Pausebuster’ authors had failed to archive the data when they had, in fact, uploaded it to an FTP site.”