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How I took on the Daily Mail over recycling errors - and won

When I saw the Daily Mail’s negative and inaccurate coverage of recycling issues, I initially just blogged about their mistakes. But a friend suggested approaching the Press Complaints Commission – which oversees press standards - as the first article of its Editors’ Code of Practice concerns accuracy, including the need to “distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”.

It was clear to me that the Mail hadn’t met this standard, so how hard could it be to show that?

My first complaint arose from a Mail story on 6 April 2013, which said 12m tonnes of household recyclables were being dumped in foreign landfill sites.

The second concerned the Mail’s coverage of then waste minister 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 this meant householders would need at least five bins, one for residual and one for each recycling stream, and that weekly residual waste collections would stop, a regular preoccupation of the newspaper.

This story first appeared on 17 August 2013 and was repeated on 16 October, when it was also picked up by the Daily Telegraph, which quickly negotiated a correction, and by the Express, which didn’t.

Resolving my complaints about the Mail has taken many months and a lot of time-consuming work, eating into evenings and weekends.

Misinterpeted

I first had to discover how the Mail arrived at its claims. In the ‘12 million tonnes’ story, it enthusiastically misinterpreted two key pieces of information.

Defra’s draft recycling Quality Action Plan quoted findings about reprocessors’ attitudes from WRAP’s MRF Output Material Quality Thresholds report, in which 60% said only ‘some’ or ‘hardly any’ MRF output met quality specifications.

The Mail assumed that recycling that didn’t meet reprocessors’ standards must end up in landfill, and that MRF outputs represented all recycling.

Its journalists then read Defra’s consultation on amendments to the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations, and realised that some recycling is sent overseas. After the Environment Agency confirmed that 12m tonnes of recyclables 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.

Withdrew

So extraordinary were the newspaper’s claims, it took me considerable work to piece together how this claim was reached, and still more to show that it was wrong.

By contrast, the ‘five bins’ mistake was pretty straightforward. The newspaper read the phrase “separate collection” in de Mauley’s speech, and understood this as ‘separate bins’.

Faced with the double bogeyman of crazed eurocrats and loony local councils, a law requiring five bins per household sounded plausible.

Again, getting the story corrected was a lengthy process, with the Mail even arguing its 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”?

After my complaint, and negotiations led by the PCC, the Mail agreed to withdraw the ‘12 million tonnes’ article and the August ‘five bins’ piece from its website, and to substantially amend the October version. It has published correction statements online and in print.

The Telegraph has amended its two ‘five bins’ articles and I’m writing again to the Express, which also published inaccurate material but has resigned from the PCC’s oversight.

Editorial shift  

The most important result that my complaints could have would be to change the way recycling is handled in the press. Perhaps I’m over-optimistic, but I detect some a slight shift in the Mail’s stance.

On 15 February, its money section included something I never thought I’d see published in the Mail: a largely positive article about recycling, in an enthusiastic profile of Veolia’s executive vice president Estelle Brachlianoff.

It called her “a petite and vivacious Frenchwoman”, but the piece was a delight to read: “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.”

The end result is gratifying: articles have been withdrawn or amended and corrections published.

All this though comes a bit late in the day. Stories will have been read thousands of times via websites and social media before being withdrawn or amended and a retraction, no matter how prominent, will not have the same impact.

The claim that recycling is dumped in landfill is one I’ve heard quoted several times by members of the public.

It’s hardly surprising that public perceptions of waste and recycling are skewed if all most people have is information as poor as that provided by initially by the Mail.

Daily Mail correction

An article (6 April 2013) said that millions of tonnes of household recycling is ‘dumped abroad’. In fact, this figure relates to household and commercial waste purchased by processors abroad, of which the proportion deemed unusable and ending up in landfill is unknown. We are happy to clarify that the claim that ‘most’ recyclable material is rejected was based on a survey of the attitudes of UK processors towards the minority of recyclable material which is collected ‘commingled’, rather than separately.

Peter Jones, Eunomia

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