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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.