GEORGE PREDDEY AGAINST THE DOMINION POST
This case challenged the tendency of newspapers to treat anthropogenic climate change as a subject of debate and asked the Press Council to declare contrary opinion to be a factual error.
Dr George Preddey, a retired upper atmospheric physicist, complained about an opinion piece published in The Dominion Post, headed ‘Hypothetical global warming: scepticism needed’. It was co-written by Professor Bob Carter, identified as an expert in geology and palaeoclimatology, and Bryan Leyland, an engineer specialising in renewable energy.
The complaint was not upheld with one member of the Press Council dissenting from this decision.
Dr Preddey complained that the item breached the Council’s principles of accuracy, fairness and balance and did not offer an opinion that was based on factual accuracy. He also objected to the use of “hypothetical’ in the headline and alleged breaches of the principles concerning subterfuge and conflicts of interest.
He accused the newspaper of subterfuge by misrepresenting the authors’ credentials. It ought to have noted they were longstanding critics of the science of anthropogenic (human caused) climate change. They had a conflict of interest, in Dr Preddey’s view, because Professor Carter was said to have received money from an American think-tank, the Heartland Institute, in a 2012 programme to “counter the alarmist message”, and Mr Leyland was associated with the New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust that had brought an unsuccessful court action against Niwa at a cost of $80,000 to the New Zealand taxpayer.
As “propagandists” they were trying to promote doubt in the public mind so that large fossil energy interests could avoid carbon emission charges. Reputable, professional climate scientists had identified many errors and misrepresentations in The Dominion Post article. These were not reasonable constructions an independent commentator might make of the evidence, they were arguments deliberately selected to present a distorted picture and confuse the public on a future threat to human civilisation.
Five days after the article The Dominion Post had published a response co-written by David Wratt, an emeritus climate scientist for Niwa, Andy Reisinger of the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre and James Renwick, professor of physical geography at Victoria University of Wellington.
“While the newspaper might consider it was providing “balance”, said Dr Preddey, “its piece-for-piece exchange strategy continues to treat the scientific reality of anthropogenic climate change as a topic of debate when clearly it isn’t any longer — just as a flat earth is no longer debated.”
In giving prominence and credence to Leyland’s and Carter’s views, The Dominion Post was in effect discouraging urgent action to counter anthropogenic global warming and providing comfort to the New Zealand National Government whose policies ranked worst of 62 countries on a reputable international climate change protection index.
The Editor’s Response
The Editor in Chief, Bernadette Courtney, pointed out the article was published on a page clearly reserved for contributions of opinion and was intended to give readers an alternative view to the prevailing orthodoxy on climate change. The Dominion Post regarded its opinion pages as a marketplace of ideas and it was in no-one’s long-term interests to decide some views simply should not be heard.
The complainant had made a number of allegations about Mr Leyland and Dr Carter including alleged payments and links to what Dr Preddey calls “far right organisations”. The allegations seemed to rely on hearsay and in any event did not matter. Many people who contributed opinion pieces to The Dominion Post were activists and some were paid by their organisations. Readers of the piece would have understood Dr Carter and Mr Leyland were critics of theories of global warming.
In response to Dr Preddey’s specific grounds of complaint, the editor noted the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance allowed for differing views on climate change and the piece was followed by one taking an opposite view. The Carter-Leyland article was clearly distinguished as opinion, the headline accurately and fairly reflected the content, there was no subterfuge involved in obtaining the piece and no conflict of interest since The Dominion Post received no fee for the article and was under no obligation to publish it.
The Complainant’s Response
Dr Preddey considered it unreasonable to treat the subject as one of debate when 97 percent of climate scientists now accepted anthropogenic climate change unequivocally. Despite the editor’s assertion, he said, there were subjects on which there was a general acceptance that some views simply should not heard. Holocaust denial was one. It was a denial of an historical fact. Climate change denial was a denial of scientific fact, putting countless millions of lives at risk.
He did not wish to stifle debate. The Dominion Post could usefully carry debate on the response to climate change but not on unequivocal climate science.
He retracted allegations the editor had called hearsay. They were based on Wikipedia references that had not been denied. However, he repeated the conflict of interest complaint, clarifying that he was referring to a writer of the article, not The Dominion Post.
Editors are in an invidious position when scientists, or sciences, disagree on what constitutes fact. The best that non-scientists can do is to look for precision in matters that are claimed to be fact.
Upon receiving Dr Preddey’s complaint the Press Council invited him to specify the factual inaccuracies he found in the Carter-Leyland article. He cited 10 issues identified by Wratt, Reisinger and Renwick in their Dominion Post article, and 24 points in a critique of Leyland-Cater on a website, Hot Topic.
The Press Council has examined each conflicting statement carefully. In most instances the differences appeared to lie in interpretations of facts and those chosen for emphasis rather than stark factual errors. For example, Carter and Leyland said the world has not experienced any significant warming for the past 18 years even though atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by 20 percent in that time. The accuracy of that statement depended on what degree of warming they considered “significant”, and whether 18 years was a significant length of time. Wratt, Reisinger and Renwick’s answer to that point was, “The long term warming trend shows intermittent ups and downs”, and “short-term wiggles don’t change the long term picture”. Hot Topic conceded “there has been some slowdown in the upwards trend of surface temperatures, the so called ‘hiatus’, but no reduction in the amount of heat accumulating in the system, mainly in the oceans”.
Carter and Leyland claimed that contrary to computer predictions global sea ice was well above the 1970-2013 average. Wratt, Reisinger and Renwick said arctic sea ice showed a long-term trend of retreat while Antarctic sea ice had behaved differently, some areas have decreased, others increased. Total sea ice, they “estimated to have decreased by around 1.5 percent per decade since 1979.”
Carter and Leyland said glaciers were retreating in some areas and advancing in others. Wratt, Reisinger and Renwick relied that “year to year fluctuations and local deviations from the decreasing trend exist but they don’t change the global picture”. Hot Topic called Carter and Leyland’s statement, “trivially true but hugely misleading”. The number of retreating glaciers, they said, far outweighs the few that are advancing.
Those examples were typical of the dispute. On most of the points at issue, Carter and Leyland cited anomalies and contradictions in the data while orthodox climate science focused on what it saw to be long-term global trends.
The Council cannot adjudicate on the scientific issues. It can rule only on whether the newspaper was entitled to publish the article as an item of opinion. It does seem to the Council that the article is highly selective and tendentious in its use of data but it is difficult to say on the counter-arguments provided, that the facts as worded are wrong. The complaint of inaccuracy was not upheld (Principle 1).
In accordance with Principle 5 there was no requirement for balance in an opinion piece such as this.
The Council found the article to be clearly presented as opinion on an issue of ongoing debate. It follows that there was no breach of the principle of distinguishing comment and fact (Principle 4).
The headline’s reference to “hypothetical” climate change was a fair reflection of the article (Principle 6) and the credentials of both writers were properly given (Principle 10). They were both well -known critics of climate change and the Council saw no “subterfuge” in the fact that this was not pointed out to readers. It did not need to be (Principle 9). On the question of conflict of interest, the complainant was unable to provide sufficient evidence that one of the writers receive grants from foundations opposed to climate change and withdrew this element of the complaint (Principle 10)
The NZ Bill of Rights Act (1990) accords to Messrs Carter and Leyland the right to hold and express these views; no Press Council Principles were breached in the editor’s publication of them.
The complaint is not upheld.
While it declined to uphold any grounds of the complaint, the Council observed that the subject of anthropogenic climate change is a declining topic of debate in newspapers, if only because their editors judge, probably rightly, that readers are weary of the issue and have generally come to accept the scientific consensus.
Dissent by Tim Beaglehole
The article complained of appeared on the opinion page of the newspaper and was followed five days later by a critical response written by three New Zealand scientists. One would normally see this expression of diverse views as something to be supported in the interests of free speech, the principle to which the Council gives “primary consideration”. But while the Council, in considering opinion pieces, has been prepared to offer a little license in the application of its principles, such as accuracy, fairness and balance, this should not mean that they can be left out altogether. It is a matter of degree. The complainants [in my judgment] made a convincing case that the article showed a lack of accuracy and balance that meant that even for an opinion piece it did not meet the standards implied by the Council’s principles.
There is, in this case, a further consideration. Freedom of expression is linked as the Council’s primary consideration with “the public interest”. Anthropogenic climate change presents probably the greatest threat to our future well-being; possibly to humanity’s very survival. It is questionable at best whether the public interest is better served by further debate on the overwhelming consensus of qualified scientists, or whether the public interest would not be better served by discussion of how best to counter the effects of global warming and what is already being done in other parts of the world.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small and Mark Stevens.