How Fleet Street is still misleading the public over climate change

The right-wing press is attempting to fool the public into believing that its opposition to green policies is based on robust evidence, rather than dogmatic ideology.

One of the most important findings of the Leveson inquiry was that some newspapers publish intentionally inaccurate and misleading articles when promoting a political agenda. Nowhere is this betrayal of the public interest more glaringly obvious than in the coverage of climate change policy.

In his final report, Leveson stated: "I have come to the conclusion that there does exist a cultural strand or tendency within a section of the press to practice journalism which on occasion is deliberately, recklessly or negligently inaccurate".

He also pointed out that "there can be no objection to agenda journalism (which necessarily involves the fusion of fact and comment), but that cannot trump a requirement to report stories accurately". Leveson added: "Particularly in the context of reporting on issues of political interest, the press have a responsibility to ensure that the public are accurately informed so that they can engage in the democratic process".

It is unclear whether the new regulatory regime for the press that is eventually introduced as a response to the inquiry will put an end to these deliberate distortions and misrepresentations. Meanwhile, some newspapers continue to exploit the weakness of the existing self-imposed rules.

The Telegraph, Mail and Express titles have been campaigning vigorously for the past few years against public policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as part of a broader agenda to promote a heady mixture of free market fundamentalism and anti-environmentalism, which is also championed by UKIP and the right-wing of the Conservatives.

Like their political allies, these newspapers have attempted to fool the public into believing that their opposition to renewable energy, carbon pricing and other measures is based on robust evidence and reasoning, rather than dogmatic ideology.

A clear example of this strategy was provided this weekend by a double-page spread in the Mail on Sunday, under the headline "Ecotastrophe!", which warned that the UK’s climate change policies would "drag us to a new Dark Age".

The article was written by David Rose, who regularly produces articles that both reject the scientific evidence for climate change and exaggerate massively the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

His latest polemic reprised a previous article from August 2012 in which he drew attention to the fact that a key MP and two members of the independent Committee on Climate Change had openly-disclosed links to green companies and organisations.

Rose’s new article included extensive quotes from Professor Gordon Hughes, but failed to reveal his affiliation to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a lobby group set up by Lord Lawson to campaign against climate change policies.

Professor Hughes was commissioned by the foundation to write a pamphlet attacking the case for wind energy, which was later shown by researchers at Imperial College to contain fundamental flaws.

Rose frequently relies on the foundation for stories and gives great prominence to the views of its spokespersons. Despite his apparent concern over conflicts of interest, Rose has never mentioned, let alone investigated, the £1m from secret donors that the foundation has received to finance its lobbying activities.

But the most serious distortions by Rose were contained in a sidebar to his main article, headed "Exploding the myths about climate change".

For example, Rose claimed that it is a myth that "the world is continually getting warmer", and suggested that there has been "a pause" in global warming since January 1997. However, he failed to tell readers that the trend in annual global average temperature over the past 16 years has been upwards, albeit at a slower rate of increase than previously, and that it is not statistically significant because this period is too short to detect the warming signal with certainty among the noise created by natural short-term climate variability.

He also described the fact that "global warming is already causing extreme weather" as a "myth", and stated that "if anything, weather has become less, not more extreme in the past 50 years". But a review published last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the latest research found an abundance of scientific evidence for increases in heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall events in many parts of the world since the middle of the 20th century.

Most incredibly, Rose dismissed the possibility of the Arctic eventually becoming free of sea ice during the summer, instead asserting that "the growth of Arctic winter ice this year is the fastest on record". But he ignored the fact that the area covered by sea ice in the summer has declined by almost 50 per cent since 1980, much faster than scientists predicted.

Articles such as this not only hide the true motivations behind a newspaper’s agenda, but also damage democratic debate by providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public.

A crucial test for any new press regulations will be the extent to which they deter these kinds of gross distortions and misrepresentations, while still allowing newspapers to legitimately pursue their own agenda on issues such as climate change.

A general view of Drax Power Station at night in Drax, north Yorkshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories