March 18th, 2014
by Peter Jones
Today the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has published a brief report on the last of the complaints I raised about the Daily Mail’s negative coverage of recycling issues, and I thought I should give Isonomia readers an update.
When I first encountered the Mail’s recycling stories, I didn’t think of making a complaint: I just blogged about their mistakes. However, Isonomia’s reach is pretty limited compared with the front page of a national newspaper, even in these days of diminished circulations, and I was keen to do more. When a friend (thanks, Tim!) suggested approaching the PCC, it seemed like a good way forward. After all, the first article of the Editors’ Code of Practice concerns ‘accuracy’, including the need to “distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”. It seemed evident that the Mail hadn’t met this standard, so how hard could it be?
My first complaint arose from a piece I wrote last spring dismantling an article published in the Mail on 6th April 2013. I hope that its readers will have been left in no doubt that 12 million tonnes of household recycling are not being dumped in foreign landfill sites: now the Mail has conceded that only contamination is likely to be dumped, and the amount is “unknown”.
The second, which I also wrote about on Isonomia, concerned the Mail’s coverage of Lord de Mauley’s comments regarding the requirement under the Waste Framework Directive for various recycling streams to be collected separately. For some reason, the Mail decided that this meant householders would need at least five bins, one for residual and one for each recycling stream, and that weekly residual waste collections had to stop. One story appeared on 17th August 2013; and while my complaint was ongoing, they repeated the claims on 16th October. This time, the story was picked up by the Telegraph (who I complained to through the PCC, negotiating corrections quite quickly) and the Express (who have withdrawn from the PCC, and decided not to take action when I complained to them directly). Now the Mail has agreed that its interpretation of the law was wrong.
Resolving these complaints has taken many months: in the meantime, de Mauley has left the waste brief and my initial case handler left the PCC (I hope not due to the weight of my correspondence). It has required lot of time-consuming analysis and drafting, eating into evenings and weekends. The end result is gratifying: articles have been withdrawn or amended and corrections published. Meanwhile, however, inaccurate material has been widely read. The claim that recycling is dumped in landfill is one I’ve heard quoted several times by members of the public. So, has any useful purpose been served?
A load of rubbish
Well, for one thing it brought to light how the Mail came to make its extraordinary claims. There’d be little purpose in picking over all the details – I’ve made all the correspondence available below for those interested to read it – but it is worth taking a brief look at lazy journalism in action.
In the “12 million tonnes” story, the Mail enthusiastically misinterpreted two key pieces of information to reach their conclusion. First, they’d read Defra’s draft recycling Quality Action Plan, which quoted findings about reprocessor attitudes from WRAP’s MRF Output Material Quality Thresholds report: 60% said only “some” or “hardly any” output from MRFs met their quality specification. They assumed that recycling that didn’t meet reprocessors’ standards must end up in landfill, and that MRF outputs represented all recycling – hence the claim in an article in February 2013 that millions of tonnes of recycling are landfilled in the UK. I didn’t spot this one until it was too late to complain.
Then they read Defra’s consultation on amendments to the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations, and realised that some recycling is sent overseas. After a chat, the Environment Agency press office sent an innocuous e-mail confirming that 12 million tonnes of recycling is exported each year. The Mail assumed this was household recycling, when in fact the majority is commercial and industrial. Then they seem to have assumed that, if most recycling fails to meet UK reprocessors’ standards, the same will be true overseas; therefore most (well, why not say all?) exported recycling gets landfilled – hold the front page!
So extraordinary were the newspaper’s claims, it took considerable work to piece together how they were arrived at, and still more to show that they were wrong. By contrast, the “five bins” mistake was pretty straightforward. The newspaper, having looked once too often at its infamous picture of the bins and sacks available to householders in Newcastle under Lyme, was perhaps hyper-vigilant for signs of bin blight. They read the phrase “separate collection” in de Mauley’s speech, and understood “separate bins”. Faced with the double bogeyman of crazed eurocrats and loony local councils, a law requiring five bins per household sounded plausible; the only ‘expert’ input they sought was from Doretta Cocks. Again, getting the story corrected was a lengthy process, with the Mail even arguing that their articles should stand until we see how councils act when the law takes effect in 2015. How’s that for “distinguishing clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”?
Now the Mail has agreed to withdraw the “12 million tonnes” article and the August “five bins” piece from their website, and to substantially amend the October one. It is publishing correction statements online and in print. The Telegraph has amended its two “five bins” articles, and I’m writing again to the Express. So, another positive result of the complaints is that misleading information has been withdrawn or corrected.
That comes a bit late in the day, though. The Mail’s “12 million tonnes” story has been shared thousands of times via social media and attracted nearly 600 comments. It has been repeated on countless websites, giving it a huge readership. A retraction, no matter how prominent, will not have the same impact, and will at best get picked up in the waste trade press – ‘Daily Mail makes an error’ is not big news…
In this context it was interesting to read reports a few months ago of a survey for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London, which the Independent rather wonderfully summarised under the headline “British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows”. Two striking examples were:
- “the public think that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed. Official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent – so the public conception is out by a factor of 34.”
- “some 58 per cent of people do not believe crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19 per cent lower in 2012 than in 2006/07 and 53 per cent lower than in 1995.”
Sadly the survey did not examine attitudes to recycling, but one fears that articles like the Mail’s will have had a negative impact on accuracy.
With information so poor as that provided by the Mail to go on, it is hardly surprising if public perceptions are skewed. The most important result my complaints could have is to change the way recycling issues are handled in the press. Perhaps I’m being over-optimistic, but I detect a slight shift in the Mail’s stance.
It may have gleefully reported on “flatlining” recycling rates in November, but it didn’t take the opportunity to repeat its strident claims from the articles I complained about. “A string of separate recycling bins for every home” was mentioned, but only as a method “under consideration” to tackle the slow-down. The paper remains in favour of weekly collection, but has distanced itself from Eric Pickles.
On 15th February, the Mail’s money section included something I never thought I’d see published: a largely positive article about recycling, in the form of an enthusiastic profile of Veolia’s Estelle Brachlianoff. Maybe it helps that Brachlianoff is, in their words, “a petite and vivacious Frenchwoman”. They couldn’t resist interpreting her as saying “you can take recycling too far” because she thinks that households don’t need “ten recycling bins”. But after my complaints against the Rothermeres’ organ, to read the following in its pages was a delight:
‘I can testify, though, that contrary to a very commonly held view, everything that you put in a recycling bin is actually recycled. I was surprised by how many people, my own neighbours included, think it isn’t.
‘But it has a value, we turn it into useful things. So it’s good for the planet and good for your wallet. We have not explained that as much as we should.’
Maybe Lord Rothermere’s byzantine and tax-efficient business interests include shares in Veolia! But it’s possible that the Mail will remember Estelle Brachlianoff’s words, along with my complaints; perhaps next time it feels moved to write about recycling, it will help rather than hinder the task of explaining why it is valuable.
The complaints process has been a bit of a test of patience. For anyone geeky enough to be interested, I thought I’d provide the full correspondence I had with the newspapers – it’s quite amusing if you enjoy a good complain. I’ve omitted chasing e-mails, and at the PCC’s request have redacted the names of specific individuals I corresponded with…. Aside from that, it’s all here for your entertainment.
|Daily Mail: “12 Million Tonnes” Correspondence|
|01. Mail Complaint 13 Apr 2013||01. Mail Reply 25 April 2013|
|Daily Mail: “5 Bins” Correspondence|
|1. De Mauley complaint||1. Mail Reply 19 Sep 2013|
|2. Mail Complaint 23 Sep 2013||2. Mail Reply 11 Oct 2013|
|3. Mail Complaint 16 Oct 2013||3. Mail Reply 11 Nov 2013|
|4. Mail Complaint 18 Nov 2013||4. Mail Reply 3 Dec 2013|
|Daily Telegraph: “5 Bins” Correspondence|
|1. Telegraph Complaint 18 Oct 2013||1. Telegraph Reply 29 October 2013|