Oops. The Sunday Times apologizes

Few stories about climatology generated as much attention, positive and negative as one by Jonathan Leake in London's Sunday Times back in January. "UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim" claimed that references to threats to the Amazon rainforest from global warming were "based on an unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise." As pretty much anyone without an ulterior motive who bothered to look into the matter quickly discovered, that wasn't true. Now, more than five months later, the Times has apologized for the story.

Joe at Climate Progress and Gavin at Real Climate have all the details.

The most interesting part of the apology, from my perspective as a former editor, is this:

A version of our article that had been checked with Dr [Simon] Lewis [whose Press Council complaint prompted the apology] underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

This suggests that Leake isn't the only journalist working for the Times who resists the notion that the climatology community knows what it's talking about.

The second most interesting part should be the apology trail. Tim at Deltoid offers a partial list of other online sources that used Leake's story but haven't yet apologized. The Wall Street Journal is among the more notable examples,

This is a relatively new challenge for the journalism community. Facts and falsehoods travel far and fast these days. It's not an easy matter to track them all down and get the responsible publishers to act appropriately. The same technologies that give ideas legs should make it easy to propagate a correction, but that doesn't take into the need for integrity among the human elements.

It's also a reality that many journalists who weigh in on a given subject only every now and then aren't likely to be following the subject closely enough to notice when a correction is made at the source. All the more important then, that those of us who do follow it closely do what we can to give the correction as much attention as possible.

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Misinformation that confirms already held beliefs will most likely always be very hard to dislodge.

Confirmation bias is so much more fun than rigorous fact-checking.

And I doubt that anyone is surprised that Rupert Murdock's Wall Street Journal will continue to disregard reality.


This is a great victory for Lewis but isn't there an entire chunk of explanation missing here? Like WHY the Sunday Times' story got changed in the first place?

Lewis's PCC said the initial report read to him by Leake was fine.
Lewis wrote in his PCC complaint: "I spoke to Jonathan Leake on the afternoon of Saturday 30, a few hours before the article went to press, as he wanted to check the quotes he was using by me (checking quotes was agreed between ourselves on Friday 29 January).

"The entire article was read to me, and quotes by me agreed, including a statement that the science in the IPCC report was and is correct. "The article was reasonable, and quotes were not out of context. Indeed I was happy enough that I agreed to assist in checking the facts for the graphic to accompany the article (I can supply the emails if necessary). "Yet, following this telephone call the article was entirely and completely re-written with an entirely new focus, new quotes from me included and new (incorrect) assertions of my views. "I ask the Sunday Times to disclose the version of article that was read out to me, and provide an explanation as to why the agreed correct, undistorted, un-misleading article, and specifically the quotes from me, was not published, and an entirely new version produced."

So here's the question. Leake has written an entire article, read it to Lewis and then, for no apparent reason, completely rewritten it - apparently of his own volition.

What's more he has deliberately inserted a number of errors - something any science journalist must know is risking trouble. This makes no sense. There has to be an extra element which The Sunday Times is holding back.

So perhaps the big questions are:
Whose decision was it to rewrite the article?
Who did the rewriting?
Was it Leake? If so it sounds bizarre - any journalist would know that reading an article to a researcher then publishing something different is asking for trouble.

What's notable here is that no-one has actually interviewed Leake - who actually has a long history of writing articles in support of climate change, according to Timesonline (still available if you look).

But there is a giant clue in the penultimate line of the ST apology where it says "A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points."

So could the real question be not who wrote the article so much as who edited it?

It sounds like there is a back story here that no-one is being told. Someone needs to dig a little deeper and find out what actually happened to that article in between Leake reading it to Lewis and final publication. What if Leake wrote an accurate story (as Lewis says he did) and then had it rewritten by someone more senior. Would we ever hear about it?

(Cross-posted to Deltoid and others as its a great point)

By Professor Bray… (not verified) on 21 Jun 2010 #permalink

Was Jonathan Leake hung out to dry by The Sunday Times? George Monbiot, The Guardian
"But the interesting question is how the Sunday Times messed up so badly. I spent much of yesterday trying to get some sense out of the paper, without success. But after 25 years in journalism it looks pretty obvious to me that Jonathan Leake has been wrongly blamed for this, then hung out to dry. My guess is that someone else at the paper, acting on instructions from an editor, got hold of Leake's copy after he had submitted it, and rewrote it, drawing on North's post, to produce a different â and more newsworthy â story. If this is correct, it suggests that Leake is carrying the can for an editor's decision. The Sunday Times has made no public attempt to protect him: it looks to me like corporate cowardice."

By Professor Bray… (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

Should LeakeGate be HellenGate? Independent newspaper names Nick Hellen, news editor of the Sunday Times, as real author of infamous Amazon story


"The Sunday Times ran a prominent apology last week over a story by Jonathan Leake about rewriting the UN climate panel. ..... But is Leake entirely to blame?
News editor Nick Hellen is said to have been particularly enthusiastic about rewriting the UN story. Is that what the correction meant when it said: "A version of our article...underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of Simon Lewis's views." ?

By Professor Bray… (not verified) on 26 Jun 2010 #permalink