Nine questions for the Times about Matt Ridley

As the Times faces serious criticism over its climate change coverage, openDemocracy has some questions for the paper about the coal-baron at the centre of the scandal.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
23 April 2016

Matt Ridley by Tara Hunt and Herb, some rights reserved  

“The implications for your credibility extend beyond your energy and climate change coverage. Why should any reader who knows about energy and climate change respect your political analysis, your business coverage, even your sports reports?”

This week, it emerged that a group of prominent lords have written a letter accusing the Times of ‘distorted’ and ‘poor quality’ coverage of climate change (including the above quote). At the centre of their concern is the worry that the paper appears to repeatedly peddle the lines of a dubious campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and one of its ‘scientific’ advisers. As the peers wrote:

“It would be deeply perturbing to find that a paper as eminent as the Times could allow a small NGO, particularly one whose sources of financing are unknown, a high degree of influence”.

The adviser in question is one Matthew W Ridley.

The 5th Viscount Ridley, to give him his official title, is a Times columnist who sits on the academic advisory council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. He is also an hereditary Tory peer* a well-known science writer, a leading light in the climate change denial movement, the owner of England’s largest open-cast coal-mine, and brother-in-law of the former environment secretary Owen Paterson.

His main scientific qualification is a PhD in the mating habits of pheasants, but he “resumed his career in science”  in 2007 after a period as chairman of Northern Rock, a position his father held before him, ended in calamity.

Regular readers will know that Viscount Ridley’s name has appeared on the pages of this website before. And in this context, openDemocracy has nine questions for the paper about this columnist. We have spent many hours trying to get hold of the paper. But they would neither pick up the phone to us nor answer our emails. 

1) Why does the Times allow Ridley to repeat scientific claims which are either untrue or deeply misleading, and which have been widely debunked?

Ridley has a habit of making claims about climate science which aren't true. And he has a more frequent habit of saying things which are clearly misleading. For example, he has claimed thatthere has been less than half a degree of global warming in four decades”. In fact, the figure is, as Dana Nuccitelli points out, between 0.6 and 0.7°C.

Likewise, he has a habit of making his beliefs seem reasonable by saying that they fall within the range of outcomes predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As he has written: “My best guess would be about one degree of warming during this century, which is well within the IPCC’s range of possible outcomes.”

But this is only within the IPCC's range of possible outcomes if greenhouse gas emissions are drastically cut. So predicting one degree of warming without a vast global effort is absolutely outwith the range of the scientific consensus, and to pretend otherwise is to willfully mislead his readers.

(Nuccitelli has a full list of these).

Similarly, Bob Ward, communications director for LSE's Grantham Institute points out another list of occasions in which the Viscount seems to have misled his readers. For example, Ridley used his column to say that “forest cover is increasing in many countries”: something which, while it technically may be true, is deeply misleading: overall global forest cover has fallen significantly in recent years.

These are the sorts of untruths which would normally be picked up in basic fact checking. And as Carbon Brief demonstrated in December, when they got a group of climate scientists to go through the transcript of one of Ridley's most comprehensive interviews and point out his errors, his statements are absolutely littered with them. In any other context, a notable newspaper publishing scientific claims which are simply untrue or deeply misleading would be considered extraordinary. Does the paper fact-check Viscount Ridley’s columns? If so, why does it let him write things which are demonstrably untrue?

2) Why has the paper repeatedly failed to publish letters from the Grantham Institute's Communications Director, correcting Ridley's inaccuracies on the matter? 

In the article above, Bob Ward makes another surprising claim. He outlined two occasions on which he had written to the paper correcting Ridley's mistakes. Both times, the paper refused to publish. As Ward says: “the newspaper would not agree to publish any letters that drew attention to Ridley’s mistakes”.

I spoke to Ward for this article. After outlining his frustration on the phone, he sent me the following statement:

"The regular rants by Viscount Ridley about climate change in 'The Times' usually contain inaccurate and misleading statements, which breach the Editors' Code of Practice. The newspaper rarely publishes letters from me or other members of the climate research community which point out these errors. By censoring dissent from the research community in order to shield Viscount Ridley's daft columns from ridicule, 'The Times' is harming both its readers and the public interest."

The Times has no obligation to publish any letter. But it does have an obligation to ensure it reports facts accurately, and corrects any errors. The LSE Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment is a significant scientific institution with notable expertise on the subject. When its communications director alleges that a national newspaper is in breach of the editors’ code, it has serious questions to answer. 

3) Why is the Times failing to correct Matt Ridley’s false claims?

Late last year, Matt Ridley falsely claimed that a campaign group's paper was peer-reviewed. Writing about a Global Warming Policy Foundation report which claimed CO2 emissions are good for agriculture, Ridley called the report “thoroughly peer reviewed”. It later transpired that the ‘peer review’ process consisted of the Foundation emailing the paper round their advisory board.

openDemocracy asked the leading scientific journal Nature if Matt Ridley could reasonably claim that the Global Warming Policy Foundation paper he wrote about was peer-reviewed. Their answer was clear:

No. The review process received by this paper is not what would generally be described as peer–review. I have not encountered other instances of similar publications being cited as peer–reviewed in either academia, or science journalism.”

In this context, why won’t the paper issue a correction?

4) Did Ridley put pressure on the editor to wrongly correct a news story saying this Global Warming Policy Foundation report wasn’t peer reviewed?

As well as Ridley’s comment piece, the Times also published a news story about the Global Warming Policy Foundation report. Ridley is an advisor to the group, and helped edit the paper.

As I explained here, the initial version of the news story said that the report wasn’t peer-reviewed. This was then corrected with a form of words implying that it was peer-reviewed, though not published in a peer-reviewed journal.

openDemocracy has spoken to sources close to the events who say that Ridley discussed the story with the editor of the paper before this incorrect ‘correction’ was issued. Did Ridley pressure the editor to wrongly correct his own reporter?

5) How much money does Matt Ridley make from coal?

The biggest open cast coal mine in England is on Matt Ridley’s land. He says on his website that: “I receive no financial benefit other than a wayleave fee in exchange for providing access to the land. The details are commercially confidential and involve several parties, but the wayleave is very small indeed in relation to the value of the coal mined from my family’s land.”

He has consistently refused to divulge how small ‘very small indeed’ is, but DesmogUK have done some digging, and estimate that he'll receive £35.8m from the mines on his estate, over their lifetime. Is this figure accurate? And, if so, is Ridley misleading his readers when he implies that his income from coal is ‘very small indeed’?

6) Should Matt Ridley always declare his interest when he writes about climate change?

Matt Ridley writes regularly about climate change. Whilst he often refers to his coal mining interests when he does so, he certainly doesn't always. Is the Times confident that its readers are clear that they are reading the opinions of someone with a financial interest in the subject about which he is writing?

7) Should Matt Ridley declare his relationship with Owen Paterson?

Matt Ridley is the brother in law of the former environment secretary Owen Paterson. He also writes approvingly about the politician fairly regularly. For example, in February, he wrote:

“The leaders of the Leave campaign are mostly people who get this. Boris included, they are radicals who want to see change, who think the world is a vale of tears compared with what we could make it: people such as Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, who want to create digital politics, to Frank Field, who thought the unthinkable about welfare reform, to Sir James Dyson who repeatedly causes creative destruction in established industries. Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove are Tory radicals, the two ministers who achieved most reform during the coalition years (and therefore incurred the most fury from the vested interests). The same would have been true of Owen Paterson if the vested interests had not managed to get him fired.”

Ridley has also been shown to have written speeches for Paterson. And he has also used his Times column to write positively about at least one of Owen Patterson’s speeches. In November 2014, Ridley wrote:

“In today’s speech on the European Union, previewed in this morning’s Times, Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary, will make a surprising and telling point.

“It is that many of the rules handed down to British businesses and consumers by Brussels have often (and increasingly) been in turn handed down to it by higher powers. This means, he argues, that we would have more influence outside the EU than within it. We could rejoin some top tables.” 

Can the Times clarify whether Viscount Ridley was involved in the writing of the speech he then wrote approvingly about? Do they think he ought to declare his family relationship with a politician about whom he often writes approvingly?

8) Should Ridley declare his involvement in the ‘think tank’ he often writes about?

Matt Ridley has written a number of times about the reports produced by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (such as here, on 4 April). The GWPF is a campaign group set up by Nigel Lawson to undermine climate science, whose dodgy 'peer-review' practices were exposed in a Greenpeace 'scientists for hire' sting late last year. If Ridley is going to use his Times column to lend credence to a generally discredited organisation, should he not declare his interest as one of their official advisors?

9) Who funds the Global Warming Policy Foundation?

The Times has, on a number of occasions, allowed Matt Ridley to write about ‘evidence’ produced by the now deeply discredited ‘think tank’ the Global Warming Policy Foundation, who have been shown to have strong links with the coal industry. Does the paper know who funds this group? Is it any more than a misnamed firm doing public relations for big polluters? And if so, doesn’t its readers have a right to know?


*Ridley was ‘elected’ to the House of Lords in 2013 by his now fellow hereditary Tory peers after his disastrous career at Northern Rock ended. The candidate he narrowly beat, by 14 votes to 11, was Douglas Hogg, famous for ‘falling on his sword’ after he was caught claiming parliamentary expenses for the cleaning of his moat.

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