The Press Council has considered a complaint about a number of items published in The Australian in September 2013, a week before the release of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The first article, "We got it wrong on warming, says IPCC", published on pages 1 and 6 on 16 September, began:
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest assessment reportedly admits its computer drastically overestimated rising temperatures, and over the past 60 years the world has in fact been warming at half the rate claimed in the previous IPCC report in 2007. More importantly, according to reports in British and US media, the draft report appears to suggest global temperatures were less sensitive to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide than was previously thought. The 2007 assessment report said the planet was warming at a rate of 0.2C every decade, but according to Britain’s The Daily Mail the draft update report says the true figure since 1951 has been 0.12C.”
An editorial headed "The warm hard facts – Climate change should always be about the science" was published the following day. Amongst other things, it said: “Exaggerated, imprecise and even oxymoronic language pollutes the climate change debate”, and emphasised the need to have regard to the facts of climate science, not simply “beliefs”. It accused specific people and organisations of inaccurate and unbalanced contributions which had generated undue alarm about climate change. It reiterated the key assertion in the previous article, saying: “Later this month, the next iteration of the IPCC’s climate assessment will revise downwards (by close to 50 per cent) warming trends.”
The same issue included a letter to the editor from David Karoly, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Melbourne and a contributor to the IPCC report, which pointed out:
“The observed rate of global average warming of surface air temperature over the past 60 years of 0.12C per decade is almost identical to the value reported in the IPCC report in 2007 of 0.13C per decade for the period 1956-2005.”
The letter was placed fifth amongst six letters published on that day under the general heading "Climate sceptics sense a modicum of vindication". The writers of the first four letters were highly critical of the IPCC, clearly having assumed the newspaper’s original article was correct.
Four days after the original article appeared, the online headline was changed to read "Doubts over IPCC’s global warming rates". A brief “Clarification” was added, noting the article’s reference to a rate of 0.2C and stating: “In fact, the new rate of 0.12C every decade is almost the same as the IPCC’s 2007 figure of 0.13C every decade over the 50 years to 2005.” It also said: “The report was based on a British media article that has since been corrected.” It also acknowledged the original article erred in saying the IPCC conducted its own computer modelling, explaining: “That error was made in the production process.”
Five days after the original article, a single paragraph headed “Correction” was published in the lower half of page 2 of the print version of The Weekend Australian. It provided the same information as the online “Clarification”.
Cameron Byers and others complained to the Council about the inaccuracy to which Professor Karoly had referred. They also said the original article was unfair and unbalanced because it included little comment from the IPCC and implied error and concealment by the IPCC, for example: “the IPCC was forced to deny it was locked in crisis talks.”
Mr Byers said Professor Karoly’s letter should have been given more prominence and should have alerted the publication to the need to check carefully whether the claim in its original report was accurate before publishing an editorial which repeated the claim. He also said the online “Clarification” should have been headed “Correction”, both it and the print correction should have been published much earlier, and the print correction should have been more prominent.
The publication subsequently acknowledged to the Press Council that the headline and first sentence of the original article were incorrect, but it said that in all other respects the article was fair and balanced. It said the IPCC had been asked to comment but had declined to respond as the assertions were based on the alleged contents of a draft report which had not been completed or published.
The publication said there was no reason for it to have suspected errors in the articles in The Mail on Sunday and noted that The Wall Street Journal had also published an article containing the same error. It also noted that on the day after the original article it reported that Australian climate scientists believed the alleged IPCC revision was consistent with its 2007 report.
The publication acknowledged to the Council that Professor Karoly’s letter should have prompted it to investigate the matter and then publish the correction in the newspaper more promptly. It also acknowledged that the online “Clarification” should perhaps have been called a “Correction”, but it said the print correction on page 2 was adequate because that is where it traditionally places corrections.
The Council has considered the complaint by reference to the following parts of its General Principles: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; “relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed”; and “Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence.”
The Council has concluded that the erroneous claim about the revised warming rate was very serious, given the importance of the issue and of the need for accuracy (both of which were emphasised in the editorial that repeated the claim without qualification). Although based on another publication’s report, the claim was unequivocally asserted in The Australian headline, "We got it wrong on warming, says IPCC", which also implied the IPCC had acknowledged the alleged error. The impression that the claim was correct was reinforced by The Australian saying the IPCC had been “forced to deny” that it was in crisis talks.
The Council considers rigorous steps should have been taken before giving such forceful and prominent credence to The Mail on Sunday’s claim. Accordingly, the complaint on that ground is upheld.
Given Professor Karoly’s expertise and the importance of the issue, his letter should have triggered a prompt and thorough investigation by the publication. Instead, the error was repeated in an editorial on the page opposite his letter. Moreover, his letter was published below other letters which assumed the original article was true and under a collective heading which reflected their views, rather than his correction.
The Council considers the gravity of the erroneous claim, and its repetition without qualification in the editorial, required a correction which was more substantial, and much more prominent than a single paragraph in the lower half of page 2. The heading should also have given a brief indication of the subject matter in order to help attract the attention of readers of the original article (and editorial), and thereby meet the Council’s long-standing requirement that a correction “has the effect, as far as possible, of neutralising any damage arising from” the original article.
Accordingly, the complaints about the correction are upheld.
The Council welcomes the acknowledgements of error and expressions of regret which the publication eventually made to it. But they should have been made very much earlier, and made directly to the publication’s readers in a frank and specific manner. It is a matter of considerable concern that this approach was not adopted.
The Council emphasises that, of course, this adjudication neither endorses nor rejects any particular theories or predictions about global warming and related issues.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; part of General Principle 6: “Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the by-lined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article...”; and General Principle 2: “Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence.”
It also applies Note 2 to the General Principles relating to “Due prominence”: “The Council interprets "due prominence" as requiring the publication to ensure the retraction, clarification, correction, explanation or apology has the effect, as far as possible, of neutralising any damage arising from the original publication, and that any published adjudication is likely to be seen by those who saw the material on which the complaint was based.”