Way back in February Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute complained to the Great British Independent Press Standards Organisation about a Matt Ridley article in the no longer Great or British Times newspaper. According to Mr. Ward:
In a characteristically error-filled article (‘Politics and science are a toxic combination’, 6 February 2017), Viscount Ridley made a number of inaccurate and misleading statements.
He claimed that a blog by Dr John Bates “alleges that scientists themselves have been indulging in alternative facts, fake news and policy-based evidence”. This is hyperbolic nonsense. In fact, the blog does not contain such allegations. Instead, it primarily accuses a former colleague, Dr Thomas Karl, at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of failing to archive his data for a research paper (PDF) in accordance with strict new rules governing ‘operational data’.
IPSO have now published the findings of their investigation into the matter:
Findings of the Committee
22. The newspaper was entitled to report on the views of Dr Bates, a leading former climate scientist at the NOAA, about the ‘Pausebuster’ paper and the circumstances surrounding its publication. While acknowledging the newspaper’s position that Dr Bates had reviewed the article before publication, the primary question for the Committee was whether Dr Bates’ concerns had been presented in a significantly inaccurate or misleading way.
23. The columnist’s characterisation of the substance of Dr Bates’ claims was very strong: he had asserted that Dr Bates has alleged that scientists were indulging in “alternative facts, fake news and policy-based evidence”. The Committee noted that this appeared on its face to conflict with Dr Bates’ subsequent public statement that there had been “no data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious”. However, Dr Bates had claimed in the blog that a “thumb on the scale” pushed for decisions that would create a desired outcome, and described the process as a “flagrant manipulation of scientific integrity guidelines”. “Fake news” and “alternative facts” are currently ill-defined terms, and the Committee concluded on balance that the nature of these allegations was such that the columnist was entitled to characterise them in this way. There was no breach of the Code on that point.
24. Dr Bates had made clear in his blog that he considered that the paper had been rushed, and deliberately timed to influence the Paris Climate Conference; he had said that the NOAA had breached its own rules on scientific integrity; he had said that the data had been faulty, because he believed that both datasets had been flawed. These concerns were clearly distinguished as Dr Bates’ claims based on his professional experience, which was explained, and had been accurately reported in the column, as claims. The columnist also acknowledged, albeit critically, that defenders of the paper had responded that other data sets had come to similar conclusions. While the Committee noted the grounds for the complainant’s disagreement with the columnist (and with Dr Bates) in relation to these matters, the columnist had not failed to take care over the accuracy of these claims, and it did not establish any significant inaccuracies in the column’s discussion of these issues.
25. The columnist had been further entitled to express his opinion on the significance of these claims; to draw comparisons between previous “scandals” within the scientific community; and to comment on the wider implications of Dr Bates’ concerns in that community, as well as on policy decisions on climate change. These were statements of the columnist’s opinion. His views, however controversial, did not raise a breach of Clause 1. There was no breach of the Code in relation to his discussion of these issues.
37. The complaint was not upheld.
According to Bob Ward’s analysis of IPSO’s verdict:
It decided not to uphold my complaint on the grounds that its Complaints Committee considered Viscount Ridley’s column to be wholly opinion.
This is consistent with IPSO’s previous rulings about the systematic misreporting of climate change issues by some newspapers, in which it confines itself to assessing whether opinions are accurately represented, rather than whether the opinions are based on facts or falsehoods.