The Press Council has handed down an adverse ruling against The Australian for a front-page article published in September last year that relied on a rapidly debunked Daily Mail story claiming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had revised down the rate of global warming since 1951.

In highly unusual language for the Press Council, it says it is a matter of “considerable concern” that The Australian delayed in acknowledging its errors. Asked to explain the strong language, Press Council executive director John Pender told Crikey “the initial error was very serious and prominent, was repeated unequivocally in a later editorial, and was not corrected with sufficient speed, clarity and prominence”.

In a September 16 article, since changed online but archived here on the Media Watch website, The Australian environment editor Graham Lloyd rehashed a British story published a week before the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC was released that claimed the report update would say the true figure of warming since 1951 had been 0.12 degrees Celsius per decade, and not the 0.2 degrees Celsius claimed in previous reports.

The Oz’s piece continued:

“Last week, the IPCC was forced to deny it was locked in crisis talks as reports intensified that scientists were preparing to revise down the speed at which climate change is happening and its likely impact.

“It is believed the IPCC draft report will still conclude there is now greater confidence that climate change is real, humans are having a major impact and that the world will continue to warm catastrophically unless drastic action is taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The impacts would include big rises in the sea level, floods, droughts and the disappearance of the Arctic icecap.

“But claimed contradictions in the report have led to calls for the IPCC report process to be scrapped.”

These reports were wrong. The Daily Mail got its numbers wrong, and The Australian repeated the error, as Media Watch and The Guardian pointed out last year. The long-term trend in the IPCC report is 0.13 degrees of global warming a decade, and has been for some time — there was no retreat from higher figures.

The piece prompted a fierce and rapid reaction from Australia’s scientific community, including from University of Melbourne climate change expert Professor David Karoly, who through the Australian Science Media Centre released a statement the next day slamming the report. He also sent a letter to The Australian, which was published, next to an editorial slamming the IPCC for not being scientific enough.

Four days after the original article was published, the heading online was softened to “Doubts over IPCC’s global warming rates”. A clarification was also added: “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.” The next weekend, a correction was issued in The Weekend Australian, providing the same information.

Cameron Byers complained to the Press Council that this was not enough, saying the original article was unbalanced and that Karoly’s letter should have been given more prominence. The Press Council has agreed on both counts. The adjudication reads:

“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.”

“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.”

Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt has slammed the verdict on his blog, saying it demonstrates how the Press Council is being unwittingly used to distort the global warming debate.

“What the Press Council does not do, to my knowledge, is correct equally mistaken reports which falsely claim unprecedented warming – false reports which haven’t been corrected as fully, either, as The Australian corrected its own.

He gives the example of the aforementioned Karoly, who had a paper withdrawn from publication after errors were found in its data.

Crikey asked Karoly whether he had any comment about today’s adjudication. He got back to us after deadline to say he was pleased about it. “It demonstrates the risks of basing an editorial the following day in The Australian on this erroneous article when they had already been alerted to these errors by my letter,” he said.

However, he added, “it is disappointing that it took more than 10 months for the Press Council to adjudicate on this matter. It appears to be straightforward.”

The Australian’s editors declined to comment.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the rate of warming in question was 0.12 degrees Celsius per year. In fact, as both the Oz and the IPCC claim, the number in contention is “per decade”. Crikey also misstated the long-term trend in the IPCC report — it’s 0.13 degrees per decade and not 1.3 degrees per decade. Crikey apologises for the errors, and is glad the earth is not warming as fast as feared.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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