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.
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.