In February of this year, the conservative British tabloid newspaper The Mail on Sunday ran a mistake-laden article that attacked climate scientists who published a paper refuting the idea of a global warming “pause.” Written by reporter David Rose, the article ran under a sensationalized headline -- “Exposed: How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data” -- and alleged misconduct by scientists and leaders at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Media Matters, among other outlets, swiftly debunked the story.
Now the Mail article has been more formally discredited. The Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), an independent media regulator in the U.K., ruled that “the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article ... and had then failed to correct ... significantly misleading statements.” The Mail was required to publish IPSO's reprimand, which it did a little more than a week ago.
This episode tells us a lot about how climate denial and misinformation spread through the right-wing media ecosystem, as environmental scientist and writer Dana Nuccitelli explained in a good piece in The Guardian:
The [Mail's] attack was based on an interview with former Noaa scientist John Bates.
Essentially, Bates had expressed displeasure in the way the data from a Noaa paper had been archived at the organization. Rose and the Mail blew this minor complaint into the sensationalist claim that “world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data.” It would be hard to find a better example of fake news than this one.
Rose’s story seemed to have all the climate denial components that biased conservative media outlets crave. A lone wolf scientist whistleblowing his former colleagues with accusations of data manipulation for political purposes? Despite the glaring errors in the story that were immediately called out by climate scientists and reputable science journalists, this narrative proved irresistible to the conservative media: Breitbart, Fox News, Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, The Daily Caller, The Washington Times, and more ran with Rose’s story. Meanwhile, legitimate news outlets like The Guardian, The Washington Post, Carbon Brief, E&E News, Ars Technica, Science Insider, RealClimate, and numerous other science blogs quickly debunked Rose’s falsehoods.
Climate denier Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) further amplified the right-wing media misinformation. The House science committee, which Smith chairs, put out a press release that drew from the Mail article and provided a quote of Smith praising Bates. Smith also played up the faux scandal at a committee hearing a few days later, even though the article had been debunked by then, and soon thereafter sent a letter to NOAA's acting administrator that cited the Mail article and requested documents related to the disputed study. More from the September 25 Guardian piece:
That Smith still tried to exploit the story, that it reverberated throughout the right-wing media echo chamber, and that the Mail published it in the first place tells us a lot about the narrative this group wants to push.
Usually they get away with it. This time the Mail on Sunday’s “significantly misleading statements” were so bad that they were censured, though not before they had misinformed millions of people. However, the Ipso ruling tells us which media outlets are reliable sources on the subject of climate change. Those that blindly echoed David Rose’s misinformation are not; those that debunked the Mail on Sunday’s distortions are.
It's reassuring that IPSO did its job in this case. Unfortunately, the United States doesn't have an equivalent organization, so a number of inaccurate articles published by American outlets about Bates and the NOAA study still stand uncorrected.