SPECIAL REPORT, Conclusion
How press reform can help stop the spread of falsehoods and misinformation
Writing exclusively for Hacked Off as part of a series of long-reads, scientist Bob Ward – Director of Policy at the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and Environment – concludes his special report on how the newspapers misrepresent matters of scientific fact, and how complaints-handler IPSO lets them get away with it.
In his own words, Bob sets out the arguments for reforms to press regulation to better protect the public from dangerous falsehoods and misinformation.
Since IPSO [the press complaints handler] was first established by the big newspaper companies in 2014, Bob has written to the body 13 times with complaints about inaccurate climate change coverage in the press.
In Chapter One, Bob gave a detailed account of his own experiences with IPSO, and how the complaint’s handler failed to properly sanction press inaccuracies in a number of climate change stories.
And, in Chapter Two, he explored newspaper coverage on coronavirus and highlighted a wealth of misreporting in this area.
“the failure of the regulator to act, alongside the rampant spread of false information on social media, are helping to create a culture of misinformation that is harming lives and livelihoods.”
Below, in this final instalment, Bob sets out his concluding views and calls for reform.
A fundamentally flawed process
IPSO and its members are currently operating in a way that leads to the regular publication of inaccurate and misleading articles about health and environmental risks. Some of its members, including ‘The Daily Telegraph’, ‘The Sunday Telegraph’, ‘Daily Mail’, ‘The Mail on Sunday’, and ‘The Spectator’, regularly publish articles that systematically mislead readers about these issues, including climate change and COVID-19. It is the same small group of individual authors who write most of these articles as opinions and comments.
Newspaper comment desks only rarely fact check the scientific accuracy of these articles or consult their own specialist science, environment, or health reporters. The publication of false information is often justified as being an opinion or alternative viewpoint. It reflects practices inside both newspapers and the regulator which do not distinguish between credible and discredited sources, between facts and opinions. Furthermore, it appears that the prerogative of journalists and others to write whatever they want is considered more important than the responsibilities of newspapers to provide the public with accurate and reliable information.
IPSO does not proactively monitor compliance with the Editors’ Code of Practice and relies instead on complaints. As outlined in previous sections, many inaccurate and misleading articles about climate change and COVID-19 do not become the subject of complaints, and audiences never learn of their flaws.
For those who complain to IPSO about articles that breach the Editors’ Code of Practice, the process can be very slow and unsatisfactory. After its staff make an initial assessment, complaints that are taken forward are first subjected to a mediation process between the complainant and the publication. If the complaint is not resolved, IPSO’s staff carry out an investigation before it is eventually considered by the Complaints Committee. The Committee, which does not include any professional scientists, refuses to consult outside experts before reaching its decision. The IPSO appeals system only considers the complaints process and not the substance of the verdicts. The whole process from submission of a complaint to publication of the decision usually takes several months.
IPSO rarely takes action as a result of complaints against its members for the publication of articles that mislead readers about health and environmental risks, even though they usually contain multiple breaches of Clause 1(i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. Some complaints are filtered out by its staff. Those that do proceed to the IPSO Complaints Committee usually escape penalty because inaccurate and misleading claims are effectively exempted as expressions of “comment” or “conjecture” under Clause 1(iv).
This permission to publish false claims as expressions of opinion is embedded in ‘The Editors’ Codebook: The Handbook to the Editors’ Code of Practice’, which is published by Editors’ Code of Practice Committee. In the section on ‘Comment, conjecture and fact’ on page 39, it cites the ruling of the IPSO Complaints Committee on the complaint by Professor Terry Sloan about an article by Christopher Booker which was published in ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ on 25 January 2015. As explained in the previous section, Professor Sloan pointed out that the article was clearly inaccurate and misleading. But defending the decision not to act, the Codebook states that “when the Sunday Telegraph received a complaint about an article on the controversial topic of climate change, IPSO ruled that a columnist was entitled to set out his position, even if his interpretation of data was disputed by others”. It noted: “The newspaper said climate change was a controversial subject in which all claims were contestable by reference to opposing studies and opinions”.
The Codebook also states: “IPSO said the article was an opinion piece in which the columnist sought to challenge established scientific views on global warming. There was still dispute about the interpretation of historical temperature data, and the columnist was entitled to select evidence to support his position.” It concluded that the article “was a comment piece and the columnist was entitled to set out his position on the topic and the complaint was not upheld”.
Understandably, Professor Sloan did not agree with IPSO’s ruling about his complaints. Writing together for the website ‘Carbon Brief’ about their experiences of submitting complaints, Professor Sloan and Dr Williamson concluded: “Ipso’s findings in both our cases seem to be based on the following: That all the (scientific) issues discussed in the original articles are a matter of opinion or belief, not verifiable facts; that the articles were clearly distinguished as comment and, therefore, substantive inaccuracies, distortion and misinformation are allowable; and finally, that it is not the role of the committee to determine the veracity of information given in the original articles.” They added that “IPSO has neither the will nor the competence to properly investigate scientific complaints such as these.”
It is clear that many experts do not have any confidence in IPSO because of its failure to act in response to complaints about inaccurate and misleading articles about environmental and health risks.
A failing organisation, resistant to reform
Despite the many significant shortcomings of its complaints process, IPSO has proved very reluctant to implement, or even consider, improvements. For instance, in January 2019, I wrote to the then chair of IPSO, Sir Alan Moses, to draw his attention to the systemic failings of the complaints process.
I indicated that these problems had been highlighted by the refusal to uphold my complaint about the article by Christopher Booker which wrongly claimed that there is no link between the growing risks of heatwaves and climate change. I wrote that the failures stemmed from the fact that “the Complaints Committee does not seek advice from experts when considering scientific issues, such as climate change”, and warned: “This fundamental weakness is being exploited by individuals, such as Mr Booker, who persistently misrepresent the facts and mislead the public, placing them at risk”. I recommended that “the IPSO complaints process should be reviewed without delay to find ways in which it can be amended to require appropriate consultation with experts on scientific issues, such as climate change”. Sir Alan did not even acknowledge receipt of my letter let alone respond to it.
A year later, in January 2020, the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee launched a review of the Code and invited suggestions for amendments. My colleague at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, Katrine Petersen, and I made a submission. We highlighted the ‘Foreword’ to the 2020 edition of ‘The Editors’ Codebook’ by Neil Benson, Chairman of the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee, which stated: “… it has become even more difficult for the public to separate the truth from a murky maelstrom of fake news, propaganda, and manipulation… From websites peddling ‘news’ that is intended to mislead, to interference by an array of ‘bad actors’ using social media to further their often-opaque agendas, the public has never been confronted with such a toxic diet of disinformation.”
We warned: “It should be acknowledged that the spread of fake news, propaganda, and manipulation includes inaccurate and misleading articles on climate change that are published by IPSO members”.
Our submission included several recommendations, including that Clause 1(i) should be strengthened to state: “The press must take reasonable steps to ensure that they do not publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text. These measures should be applied equally to all material, including opinion articles.”
We suggested that ‘The Editors’ Codebook’ “should provide stronger guidance on how comment desks should check the scientific accuracy of opinion articles, including that they should consult their specialist reporters, such as science or environment correspondents, about the content before publication as part of the commitment to Clause 1 i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice”.
We also recommended that the Codebook should be amended to explicitly “include guidance on checking the accuracy of opinion articles that draw on material from unreliable sources, such as blogs, and exercising due caution about publication, particularly when they are in conflict with expert sources”.
Unfortunately, the Committee rejected all our advice, while wrongly labelling us as “climate change campaigners”. It stated that “the Code does make clear that Clause 1 (Accuracy) applies to all editorial content, whether in the news columns or opinion pieces”, and that this “may [emphasis added] lead to opinionated columnists being asked to justify the factual basis for cases they are arguing”.
- IPSO and its members must make a greater commitment to promoting the public interest by introducing stronger safeguards against inaccurate and misleading articles, even if it means more checks on journalists and authors of opinion articles. The overarching consideration should be that the information in an article should not make it less likely that a reader will make a well-informed decision.
- While IPSO should continue to uphold the right of its members to publish a range of different opinions on health and environmental risks, it must begin to act strongly against articles that seek to justify opinions through the misrepresentation of facts.
- Clause 1(i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice should be strengthened so that its states that the Press “must take reasonable steps not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text”. It should be further amended to state: “These measures should be applied equally to all material, including opinion articles”.
- IPSO members must improve fact-checking of opinion articles before publication. In the case of articles dealing with scientific issues, such as climate change and COVID-19, this could mean checking with specialists, such as science, environment or health correspondents. This guidance should be explicitly included in ‘The Editors’ Codebook’.
- IPSO must urgently recruit onto its staff and its Complaints Committee some individuals who have scientific training and who can help with the initial assessment of complaints relating to scientific issues. It should also set up an advisory group of scientific experts which can provide guidance on complaints that deal with issues such as climate change and COVID-19.
- The comments desks of IPSO members and the IPSO complaints process should take into account factors such as the credibility of sources and the balance of evidence when ensuring that the information in an article does not make it less likely that a reader will make a well-informed decision.
About Bob Ward
Bob Ward is a scientist, currently based at Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, where he directs the organisation’s policy and communications work.
Mr Ward is a fellow of the Geological Society, at the Royal Geographical Society, and of the Energy Institute.