Press Council Adjudication
The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article by Elaine McKewon headed “Fairfax falls for the climate conman” on the Climate Spectator website on 14 January 2014. The heading was subsequently changed to “Fairfax misleads on self-titled climate expert”.
Ms McKewon’s article referred to an article by John McLean in the Fairfax media 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 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 climate science experts. He especially criticised the word “conman” in the article’s headline.
He also complained that the statements about his links with the ICSC and its funding 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.
The Climate Spectator replied that the headline and article intended to communicate that the newspapers and readers were effectively deceived because some of the evidence relied on by Mr McLean was incorrect, and there was no mention that some of his views conflicted with major scientific bodies from a wide range of countries. It said he had also deceived readers into thinking that the IPCC’s Assessment Reports do not take account of natural factors that influence climate.
The publication also said Mr McLean’s claims to expertise were misleading. It said that being a PhD candidate at a very preliminary stage does not necessarily amount to affiliation with a university and he had no formal qualifications in climate science. It also said two of his three papers were not in high-quality journals and the third had been criticised for serious flaws. It said the position of “Expert Reviewer” to the IPCC did not involve any independent recognition of expertise. It also said Ms McKewon’s statements about the ICSC were accurate.
The Council’s General Principles recognise the importance of free expression of opinion in published material but they also state that relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed.
The Council considers that the word “conman” in the headline could reasonably be read as implying that Mr McLean had actively deceived the newspapers and readers. As no reasonable basis for that implication has been provided to the Council, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
The publication’s subsequent change to the headline was welcome but does not eliminate the initial breach. In any event, the initial headline is likely to have been read by many people and become permanently available on the internet through re-publication by others.
Mr McLean’s claims to standing and expertise, however, 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 its funding. 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.