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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496