The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article by Elaine McKewon headed “Big Oil-backed climate denier who hoodwinked Fairfax” on the Crikey website on 13 January 2014.
Ms McKewon’s article referred to an article by John McLean in the Fairfaxmedia publications The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which had criticised journalists for being insufficiently sceptical about climate change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Mr Mclean was described at the end of his article as “the author of three peer-reviewed papers on climate”, “an expert reviewer for the latest IPCC report”, “a climate data analyst” and a “member of the International Climate Science Coalition” (ICSC).
Ms McKewon’s article described Mr Mclean as being “misinformed”, “falsely presented as an expert on climate science”, “not affiliated with any university”, and having “no verifiable qualifications in the field of climate science” or “standing or expertise in climate science”. It also said his articles advanced the ICSC’s aims of “discrediting authoritative science on climate change”, and the ICSC was funded by the Heartland Institute which was historically funded by the oil company Exxon. It said The Sydney Morning Herald had previously announced it “would not publish letters from climate change deniers that misrepresented the facts”.
Mr McLean complained that the claims about his lack of standing and expertise were inaccurate and unfair. He said that his papers had been peer-reviewed, cited in several books and referred to in the US Senate, and he had also been an “Expert Reviewer” for the latest IPCC report. He said he was enrolled at James Cook University as a PhD candidate and his topic, when chosen, would relate to climate science. He denied deceiving the newspapers about his expertise and said that, in any event, they were under no obligation to publish only the opinions of experts in climate science. He was especially critical of the word “hoodwinked” in the headline.
He also complained that the headline and statements about his links with the ICSC and “big oil” were inaccurate and unfair. He said that he was a member of ICSC, but had received no money from it and, in fact, had made a small donation to it. He also said that ICSC does not disclose its donors but he understood that Exxon’s support for it was not substantial.
Crikey replied that reasonable readers would not interpret Ms McKewon’s article as implying Mr McLean literally deceived the newspapers. It said, however, that his claimed work and qualifications did not refute her claim about his lack of scientific standing or expertise in the field. It said the position of “Expert Reviewer” to the IPCC was basically self-appointed and did not provide any independent recognition of expertise. It said the reference to university affiliation had now been removed from her article. It said she did not claim Mr McLean had any financial relationship with ICSC but had correctly claimed he was a member of ICSC which Exxon had funded indirectly.
The Council’s General Principles recognise the importance of free expression of opinion in published material but also state that relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed.
The Council considers that the words “hoodwinked Fairfax” in the headline could reasonably be read as implying Mr McLean had actively deceived the newspapers into publishing his opinion piece. As no reasonable basis for that implication has been provided to the Council, that aspect of the complaint is upheld.
Mr McLean’s claims to standing and expertise were not of sufficiently compelling force to establish misrepresentation or suppression by Ms McKewon in that respect. The same applies to his criticisms of her references to the ICSC and his links with the oil industry. Accordingly, these aspects of the complaint are not upheld.
It must be emphasised, however, that this conclusion does not amount to a finding that her claims were necessarily correct. It also does not involve an endorsement or rejection of any particular theories or predictions about climate change warming and related issues.
Note (not required for publication by the website)
Mr McLean also complained that his response to Ms McKewon’s article was published by Crikey behind a log-in requirement. It replied, however, that the response was at the bottom of the original article which had been published in the same way, and was also published in its comments and corrections section which was accessible without logging in. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication by the website):
This adjudication applies part of Council’s General Principle 6: "Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the by-lined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognize what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed…”. It also applies General Principle 3: “Where individuals or groups are a major focus of a news report or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication.”