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November 12, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:45am

COP26: Journalists condemn UK government spin and ‘manipulation of the facts’

By Aisha Majid

“Pure spin” and poorly timed announcements have harmed journalists’ ability to report under pressure during COP26, according to concerns heard by Press Gazette.

The UK-hosted climate summit in Glasgow, which is due to wrap up today (Friday), has brought together more than 30,000 people including world leaders, NGOs, business figures, journalists and lobbyists.

But while COP26 brought bold promises to phase out coal, end deforestation and mobilise trillions of dollars in climate finance, reporters at the conference say that some of the host government’s biggest press communications, particularly in the frenzied first week, involved too much spin.

“Our main problem has been just the level of pure spin on the announcements that have come out,” said one UK-based reporter covering the summit who asked not to be named.

“Last week especially they were putting out one story a day but often just misrepresenting a lot of the time what was actually going on.”

Another reporter from a news agency, who also asked to remain anonymous, told Press Gazette that while “there is always a certain degree of the host nation seeking to get ahead of the narrative and burnish its own credentials for national and sometimes international audiences”, they had “never been to a COP where what is coming out of the host is so at odds with the reality of what the host is experiencing”.

They added: “I really think it’s impacted our capacity and our ability to provide public service journalism on the ground for what’s going on in COP.”

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‘Journalists are feeling pretty annoyed’

Another source, who has been assisting NGOs with media at COP26, said: “Everything has been over-spun.”

They told Press Gazette that they have spoken to journalists representing more than a dozen top-tier outlets who share the same concern. 

“There’s a reason for doing it, which is the government trying to show that there’s momentum,” they added. “But the flip side is they’ve gone too far in some cases and it’s that journalists are feeling pretty annoyed.”

A government spokesperson said in response to the concerns: “We have seen real momentum for climate action at COP26, including major new commitments on ending our reliance on coal, increasing climate finance, tackling deforestation and plans to cut emissions. We have announced each of these as soon as practically possible.”

The agency journalist, a seasoned COP reporter, said one of the challenges was navigating the two different UK press channels.

The Glasgow-based operation representing the UK and COP26 president Alok Sharma has a service available for journalists reporting on the conference, including a 24-hour phone line, email and staff in the media centre.

However, there are also efforts from Whitehall, which promotes the UK’s domestic announcements, including last week’s high-profile declarations on coal and deforestation. Follow-up queries on policy found within announcements go to the relevant government department.

‘Deliberate tactic to generate headlines’

Navigating this “parallel information stream” set up by Number 10 separate to the official COP operation has proved a challenge under pressure, the journalist said.

“Any announcement that takes place under the aegis of Alok Sharma as president is normally pretty clearly communicated to us with enough information to allow us to properly analyse what has been put out. That’s not the case with a string of releases from Whitehall,” they said. 

“These announcements are typically embargoed for 10.30pm local time – obviously to get into the next day’s papers – but they don’t contain any detail. That detail is only released the next day, if at all. This doesn’t engender trust in the process.

“It is, in my view, a clear, deliberate tactic to generate headlines without actually having to put the work in behind the scenes to back them up.”

While seasoned climate reporters and UK-based journalists familiar with the government’s communications may be better able to scrutinise confusing or partial information, this has been more challenging for foreign and non-specialist reporters who make up the bulk of journalists at the summit, added the source.

“Most of my DMs are taken up with messages from other journalists saying, ‘Do you have five minutes to explain to me what the hell’s going on and what this means?’

“‘How much of this is new’ is a really important and often repeated question. You know that these pledges are being repurposed and recycled and repackaged as new and British initiatives and they’re just not,” he said. 

“It seems to me to be a deliberate tactic of wilful manipulation of the facts in an attempt to generate the appearance of action and decision whereas the reality is hard to get at, takes up bandwidth and doesn’t correspond to that in my view.”

‘Unprecedented in scale’

The journalist said what is going on is “not unprecedented” for government communications “but it’s unprecedented in its scale”.

“Among the British press with this administration it kind of comes with the territory,” they said. “The foreign press – bewildered, frankly.”

The other journalist who spoke to Press Gazette, who has not previously covered a COP summit, agreed there were multiple announcements “where we just didn’t really understand what they were announcing”.

They also had issues with the lack of time to examine announcements before a late-night embargo lifts: “In terms of time, does that give us enough time? Yes. Maybe it gives us enough time to actually get away and think about the stories.

“But most reporters who are at COP are under pressure to file several stories that same day so ultimately, we’ve got a turnaround time nowhere near what you need to properly figure out what is being said.”

“And because the stories are under embargo that limits who knows about the figures and who you can ask about whether or not these figures actually stack up.”

Guardian environment correspondent Fiona Harvey wrote earlier this week about the difficulty of scrutinising announcements during COP26.

“The UK’s announcements on coal came very late in the day for newspaper deadlines, so there was little time for fact-checking,” she wrote. “That meant some media reported on them, only to have to backtrack later – leading to suggestions that the deals were flawed or contained loopholes.

“Some queries submitted by the Guardian, asking for the full list of countries involved and what exactly they were signing up to, were only answered at 7pm, which is close to our first print deadlines. Further queries were answered at 10pm, just before the embargoed story could go live online, and at 5am the next day there were still more clarifications.

“Some of this mess is inevitable because at a live and busy conference some countries will only ever sign up at the last minute, and the UK cannot be faulted for trying to get as many on board as possible. But it also means that if anything is unclear in the announcement, accusations of flaws and backtracking will inevitably follow.”

One reporter also told Press Gazette that fewer NGOs –  key sources for the press who are not allowed in negotiation rooms  – have been privy to discussions in Glasgow. This year, NGOs were provided with just a fraction of the usually more than 100 observer passes they receive at COP summits, although it was unclear if this was a UK or UN decision.

Some journalists and NGOs would like to see joint action to push for clearer reporting rules and more transparency from host governments at future summits.

The NGO-assisting source said that while most journalists would say that editors are unlikely to collectively refuse to cover stories where the government does not provide enough time or information to scrutinise the details, there is a public interest in doing this.

“There is a question for journalists about the greater interest of the public and also journalism, which is that they should feel like they are more powerful than I think sometimes they do at the moment.”

Picture: PA Wire/Alastair Grant

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