UK Sunday Times Retracts Bogus ‘Amazongate’ Story, Apologizes to Simon Lewis

Ending a dispute that has dragged on for months, London newspaper The Sunday Times has finally retracted and apologized for an article filled with blatant misinformation and smears against the IPCC and climate researchers that it ran in January, creating a nontroversy which deniers tried to label “Amazongate.” more accurately dubbed the episode “Leakegate” after the Times’ reporter Jonathan Leake, who wrote the article in question.

The Times published a lengthy correction to the bogus article and disappeared the original from its website.

Since the bogus article ran in January, scientists and researchers who study the Amazon have tried to correct the misinformation it spread.  Chief among them was Dr. Simon Lewis, an expert on rain forests at the University of Leeds, who filed a 30-page complaint against The Sunday Times with the UK Press Complaints Commission in March. Lewis alleged that the paper had mangled his quotes, which ended up far from the remarks he actually made in interviews with the reporter, and that the paper had published “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” about climate change in the article.

Lewis maintains that the reporter read him a version of the piece over the phone that Lewis found agreeable, but then the Times published a vastly different article skewed to fit the Times’ anti-science, denialist editorial line, completely ignoring the scientific facts underpinning the IPCC’s statements about the Amazon.

The Sunday Times acknowledged in its correction/retraction that the IPCC’s conclusion about the Amazon was supported by peer-reviewed science, and that it erred in presenting Dr. Lewis’s comments as disputing the science behind claims about the vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

The retraction notes:
“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. We apologise for this.”

When Dr. Lewis heard the news, he wrote to several outlets, “I welcome the Sunday Times’ apology.”  

ClimateProgress published more of Lewis’s reaction:
“The public’s understanding of science relies on scientists having frank discussions with journalists, who then responsibly report what was said. If reporting is misleading then many scientists will disengage, which will mean that the public get more opinion and less careful scientific assessments. This is extremely dangerous when we face serious environmental problems, like climate change, which require widespread scientific understanding to enable wise political responses to be formulated and enacted.”

It is worth pondering what might have happened if Simon Lewis had chosen not to file his complaint.  Readers of the Sunday Times could have easily remained confused and misled on this subject, potentially losing trust in the IPCC scientific community. 

Lewis is to be commended for seeing this through, earning what amounts to a total retraction of Leake’s article and setting the record straight.  It isn’t every day that climate misinformation gets corrected in such a thorough manner.  This is a huge win for scientific integrity and accuracy in reporting.

“If reporting is misleading then many scientists will disengage, which will mean that the public get more opinion and less careful scientific assessments,” Lewis wrote in response to hearing the news about the correction.

But imagine if the article had been published in its original, unadulterated form – the version that Leake initially read to Lewis over the phone?  The misinformation and distortions would never have reached the public, the deniers would have been denied their long-winded gloating over the inaccurate version, and perhaps there would be less confusion over this entire issue. 

Just as with the so-called “Climategate” episode, there was no conspiracy here, no reason whatsoever to question the vast, global body of scientific knowledge about climate change. 

But until the media – especially biased outlets like the Sunday Times and FOX News – learn to report on climate science matters responsibly, the public is destined to remain confused about this important issue.

It should not take someone like Simon Lewis pressing the matter after the fact to correct the record.  It should be inherent in these newsrooms’ journalistic standards that nothing like this ever happen in the first place.