False Sea Level Articles Expose Failure of UK Press Self-Regulation

Recent editions of the right-wing magazine Thave helped to clearly expose the utterly farcical failure of self-regulation of the British Press.

Recent editions of the right-wing magazine The Spectator have helped to clearly expose the utterly farcical failure of self-regulation of the British Press.

Two weeks ago, the magazine adorned the front cover of its 3 December 2011 issue with the eye-catching headline The Sea Level Scam: the rise and rise of a global scare story.

Inside, the magazine devoted two pages to the views of Nils Axel Mörner, a retired professor of geology from Stockholm University, who made a number of extraordinarily inaccurate and misleading claims about the impacts of climate change on the world's oceans.

Not only did Mörner assert that global sea level has "remained roughly flat" since 1970, but he also suggested that the tidal gauge on the low-lying Pacific island of Tuvalu "clearly shows there has been no rise" over the past 25 years.

These statements by Mörner were not new and have been debunked many times over by genuine experts on sea levels. But the editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, apparently was unaware or of, or ignored, Mörner's previous track record. Comprehensive rebuttals, pointing out the many errors in the flawed article, duly appeared on the website of the Guardian, and in the Independent.

Obviously stung by the criticism, Nelson offered George Monbiot a page in the 10 December issue of the magazine to respond to Mörner. While this could have repaired some of the damage to the magazine's reputation, Nelson nullified Monbiot's essay by publishing on the opposite page an article by Christopher Booker, the veteran columnist for The Sunday Telegraph, which repeated some of Mörner's inaccurate and misleading assertions.

These actions by Booker and Nelson have highlighted yet again how the self-regulation of newspapers and the oversight of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) have failed to promote the public interest when it comes to the science of climate change.

Booker's article in The Spectator had much in common with a column he wrote two and a half years ago for The Sunday Telegraph which publicised Mörner's opinions about sea level.

His article on 29 March 2009 contained many erroneous statements including "in Tuvalu, where local leaders have been calling for the inhabitants to be evacuated for 20 years, the sea has if anything dropped in recent decades".

I wrote a letter to the newspaper to correct the inaccurate and misleading statements in the article, but it refused to publish it or anything else that disputed Booker's column. In doing so, the newspaper had blatantly breached the PCC's Editors' Code of Practice, which states not only that "[t]he press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures", but also "[a] significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published".

So I wrote to the PCC on 14 April 2009 to complain about the violations of its Code. I pointed out that Booker's article offered no evidence to substantiate his statements about sea level around Tuvalu, and I drew attention to a paper by John Church and co-authors, published in the journal 'Global and Planetary Change' in 2006, which concluded that relative sea-level at Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, since the late 1970s has been rising at a rate of about 2 millimetres per year, based on satellite measurements and tidal gauge records.

In its response on 11 May 2009, the newspaper stated that "Dr Morner has on several occasions produced evidence as to why the tide-gauge readings since 1978 have shown sea levels remaining level". But instead of citing a report by Morner in support, it referred to a paper by Cecile Cabanes, Anny Cazenave and Christian Le Provost, published in the journal 'Science' in 2001, claiming that it "confirmed" his finding that "there has if anything been a fall in sea levels around Tuvalu".

I replied on 21 May 2009 that the paper by Cabanes and her co-authors does not mention Tuvalu at all, and concluded that tidal gauges showed global average sea level rose at a rate of about 1.6 millimetres per year between 1955 and 1996, while satellite measurements indicated an increase of about 3.2 millimetres per year between 1993 and 1998.

But the newspaper did not relent. Instead, in its letter of 12 June 2009, it suggested that the global maps presented in the paper by Cabanes and co-authors could be used to deduce that sea level around Tuvalu fell by 99 millimetres between 1993 and 1998, and by 105 millimetres between 1955 and 1996. This was a remarkably precise estimate for two reasons.

First it was no mean feat to pinpoint on the world map in the paper by Cabanes and her co-authors the location of the six atolls and three islands that make up Tuvalu, spread along a 676-kilometre chain and together covering an area of just 25 square kilometres on the outer western edge of Polynesia.

Second the only map in the paper for the period from 1955 to 1996 shows the amount of "thermosteric" sea level rise that was calculated to have taken place due to changes in temperature in the top 3000 metres of the ocean, and so did not show total increase.

Nevertheless, the PCC's secretariat wrote to me on 16 June to warn that it was likely to accept that the paper by Cabanes and co-authors "indicates sea level fell between 1955 and 1996 in the Central Pacific region where Tuvalu is located". The letter stated:

"Whilst the graph in question refers to thermosteric data, and the paper, as you have said, compares these results to satellite and tide gauge data to evaluate their relative validity, it appears to conclude that the thermosteric data is largely accurate and that it is more likely the tidal gauge data that is inaccurate [sic]. In this context, the Commission is again likely to consider that the author of a comment piece is entitled to prefer one set of data, or the opinion of one scientist, over another."

It concluded:

"In general, the Commission is likely to support the newspaper's right to report and to comment on the opinion of Dr Morner, where it does not directly conflict with established fact. The difficulty that arises when the Commission considers matters such as this is that it cannot take a position on the science itself, but only on whether the newspaper has demonstrably breached the Code. So long as respected scientists such as Dr Morner continue to express contrarian opinions on matters such as sea level rises, it is not possible to say that the mainstream position has been established as a matter of irrefutable fact."

So I again responded on 7 July 2009 to highlight the fact that Cecile Cabanes and Anny Cazenave had published a paper with other co-authors in 2006 acknowledging errors in their earlier 2001 paper. They concluded that the earlier paper "was based on an ocean temperature database which overestimated temperatures during the 1990s and contained anomalous high temperatures in the Gulf Stream region, leading to incorrect results". The authors re-calculated the results and found that thermal expansion only explained 25 per cent of the observed sea level rise in the 50 year period between 1955 and 1996. Furthermore, the paper contained an updated map of sea level changes recorded by satellites between 1993 and 2003, showing rises in the western Pacific where Tuvalu is located.

But 'The Sunday Telegraph' persisted with its attempts to justify Booker's false assertions with an inaccurate and out-of-date paper that had been corrected by the same authors in their later work.

On 26 July 2009, the newspaper published another column by Booker in which he repeated his error, stating: "The tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu, we are yet again told, is pleading for international aid, as it sinks below the rising ocean - even though an expert study in 2001 showed that sea levels around Tuvalu have in fact been falling for 50 years". The newspaper again refused to publish a letter from me pointing out the inaccuracy.

On 4 September 2009, the newspaper sent an e-mail to the PCC secretariat declaring "we do not feel that there is any merit in continuing to debate the issue with Mr Ward, given that the crux of the complaint seems to be rooted in differences of scientific opinion". But it did suggest it "would be happy to offer Mr Ward a letter for publication (in line with standard lengths and subject to the Editor's final approval), setting out his views on this matter".

Given that the newspaper had not conceded that it was wrong about any of the errors about which I had complained, I rejected the offer and asked the PCC to reach its own verdict. In my e-mail of 19 September, I also stated:

"I have noted earlier suggestions that the Commission might have difficulty in assessing this complaint because its members may be unfamiliar with the scientific facts about sea level rise. If this is the case, I would appeal to the Commission to seek independent authoritative scientific advice on this issue, for instance from the Royal Society, to inform its deliberations."

On 5 October 2009, the PCC secretariat sent an e-mail indicating that the newspaper had made a further offer: if I agreed to write a letter, the original article would be marked accordingly in its cuttings. The PCC secretariat urged me: "it would be a shame to pass up another rare opportunity to publish a rare letter in support of the consensus scientific position on this matter in this particular newspaper".

On 20 October 2009, I indicated that I would be willing to accept the offer of writing a letter or opinion piece as long as it could be of similar length to Booker's column, and was accompanied with "a genuine undertaking by the newspaper not to repeat the inaccurate and misleading statements that were contained in the original article".

'The Sunday Telegraph' refused, and made a garbled attempt again to justify its position by pointing out that the 2006 paper I had highlighted "fails to mention Tuvalu", while neglecting to acknowledge that the 2001 paper on which it was relying so heavily also failed to mention Tuvalu! The newspaper even tried in an e-mail on 29 October 2009 to persuade the PCC not to consider my complaint formally, stating: "We do not believe there was a breach of code and moreover we are not convinced that this is even a matter for the commission as the 'facts' being discussed are under debate within the scientific community itself".

The PCC eventually considered my complaint on 16 December. On 23 December, the PCC e-mailed its verdict and posted a summary on its website.

Predictably, the PCC ruled in favour of 'The Sunday Telegraph', concluding:

"On this occasion, it was clear from the way in which the article was presented that it was a comment piece primarily concerned with highlighting Dr Mörner's views. The newspaper was entitled to do this under the Code, and its responsibility was for publishing his views accurately rather than for the accuracy of his views."

In short, the PCC decided that the newspaper was free to ignore the Editor's Code of Practice and publish inaccurate and misleading statements as long as they were somebody's opinion!

So Booker's inaccurate and misleading article remains uncorrected on the newspaper's website, and the abdication by the PCC of its responsibility to enforce its own Code has encouraged a perpetuation by 'The Sunday Telegraph' and 'The Spectator' of the myth that sea level around Tuvalu is falling, not rising.

This then is the unscientific self-regulated world of UK newspapers where the laws of physics are treated as just a 'point of view', and ideology can trump facts and evidence. Meanwhile, back in the real world, a paper by French and US researchers, published in the journal 'Global and Planetary Change' in September 2011, concluded that sea level around the Tuvuluan capital of Funafuti has risen by about 30 centimetres over the past 60 years.

Perhaps the Leveson Inquiry into the culture of the British Press should turn its attention to the harm caused to the public interest by newspapers and magazines which systematically misrepresent the scientific evidence about climate change?

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.


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