LANDCARE RESEARCH AGAINST COUNTRY-WIDE

Case Number: 3062

Council Meeting: JUNE 2021

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Country-Wide

Overview

Summary

1. Landcare Research (Landcare) complains that Country-Wide magazine in an editorial and articles made erroneous statements of fact, was unfair and lacked balance. The Council determines that the opinions expressed in the editorial and articles were clearly of contestable scientific opinion. However, there were two matters of concern.

2. The editorial and article referred to poor research, stating that the authors “admit” to five hours of searching Google, which was a misrepresentation of the research that was done. The complaint is upheld on this point.

3. The magazine made criticisms of a Landcare member that were personal and questioned her professional integrity, without notice to her and without providing her with a chance to respond before publication. We find that to be unfair and the complaint is upheld on that ground.

The Articles

4. In its April 2021 edition, which was released on March 30, 2021, the magazineCountry-Wide published an editorial headed “RA Report Lacks Credibility”. In that editorial, the editor is highly critical of a white paper published by Landcare about regenerative agriculture, (RA).It states “Reputable scientists say [the white paper] is nonsense based on poor research. The paper admits to five hours of searching Google.It is full of anecdotes, opinions and incorrect facts”. Immediately after this the lead researcher, Dr Gwen Grelet is named and her expertise and objectivity are queried. The editorial goes on to more widely criticise the concept of RA, which lies at the heart of the themes of the white paper.

5. There is an article headed “Scientists Lash out at RA White paper” and various agricultural scientists are quoted as criticising the white paper on RA, saying that it is lacking in research and “reeks of chequebook politics”. Dr Grelet is again mentioned as the lead author. It is said in this article that the authors were contracted in and in some cases offered $8,000 to “contribute”. Serious questions are asked as to how the science is presented in the paper. Various misconceptions in the paper are said to be identified. There are other quotes in the article saying that the white paper uses very emotive language, and that the authors seem to be hoping to source some money by writing a political document which suited the narrative of the government.

6. There is another article headed “RA Proponents ‘Factually Incorrect’”. It was stated in this article that there were some claims of regenerative agriculture practitioners that were factually incorrect. This article is limited to attacking the science and facts used by RA proponents, rather than attacking the individual scientists. At the end of the article, there is a reference to the white paper authors hoping that they might get some research dollars.

The Complaint

7. The central complaint is that Country-Wide did not approach any of the white papers’ authors for comment regarding the concerns raised in the articles. Following the publication there was correspondence with Dr Grelet about an interview. This correspondence took place in early April before Dr Grelet was aware of the existence of the published articles. She was prepared to engage in an interview up until the point she became aware of those articles.

8. When Dr Grelet became aware of them, she declined the phone interview and offered to provideCountry-Wide with a written response. This offer was declined with the journalist responding that a further critique would be published unless Dr Grelet attended a phone interview. The editor reiterated this in an email, declining to publish a correction, saying that “written answers are not journalism”.

9. The complaint alleges “inaccurate descriptions of the content of the white paper,” and says that readers are left with an inaccurate impression about how the practices were presented in that white paper.

10. It is said that the extent of the research was misrepresented in the articles, and reference is made to the allegation of five hours of Google searching. All of the research inputs were clearly described and involved many authors and peer-reviewers.

11. Reference is made to the claims that the authors were “offered $8,000 to contribute”. It is said that in fact the paper was funded according to standard science funding practices in which research institutions, other organisations, and experts are subcontracted and funded for their time contribution to projects.

12. The complaint points out that neither Dr Grelet nor the research funders were offered a right of reply to this assertion in the article. It is said that it was unfair to publish the claim without offering an opportunity to respond. reply was indeed published two months later, but this did not offset the interim reputational damage. Complaints are made about the heading “Pseudo Science” and the subheading text “reeks of chequebook politics”.

The Response

13. In response Country-Wide says that the articles and Landcare’s complaint had been reviewed by several academics and there was no basis for the complaint or correction. The substantive assertions in the editorial and articles are defended. It is stated that it admitted that the authors were offered cash for their time, and further questions are asked about the author and the host institution. It appears that it is maintained that the editorial and articles were accurate and balanced.

14. Country-Wide does not deny that it sought no response from Dr Grelet before publication, and says that this was because of “constraints on resources and time”. It states that they did set up and interview with Dr Grelet to get her response in April, but that after initially agreeing to an interview, she sought emailed questions to answer rather than an interview.Country-Wide could not be sure if it was Dr Grelet replying herself, or if the comments had gone through a public relations/communications team.

15. It would still like to interview Dr Grelet.

The Discussion

Misleading description of the research

16. Insofar as the complaints refer to the general accuracy and credibility of the white paper on regenerative agriculture, this Council is unable to make a decision on which scientific views are correct, and is unable to uphold that aspect of the complaint. These are contestable scientific propositions on which there are clearly opinions already held, and the discussion is to be commended, The Council has repeatedly said that it is unable to determine issues of science that are controversial and a subject of debate.

17. In relation to the claim of lack of balance in the science discussed, in a general sense the complaint is not upheld, as the views in the magazine were clearly from a certain opinion perspective.

18. The editorial and articles relate to a scientific contest about the merits of regenerative agriculture, and we do not think that there is any obligation onCountry-Wide to obtain a response to the critique of the white paper. The publishers of the white paper could expect the relevant part of the scientific community to engage with it, and if it was considered that there were incorrect facts or incorrect conclusions, to take issue with those facts and conclusions. They could expect robust criticism, and while an opportunity for them to respond in advance on the scientific issues might have been courteous, we do not see that as essential in these particular circumstances. It may well be that the methodology and conclusions of the white paper deserve criticism, but we are not qualified to decide that.

19. However, the editorial and articles go further than engage with the opinions such as they are in the white paper. As set out above the editorial suggests that the paper’s research is based on a cursory scan of material on Google. The article headed “Scientists lash out at RA white paper” perpetuates this by referring to the Google check as if this was being relied on as research for scientific findings.

20. In fact, the reference in the white paper to Google was to demonstrate what was found during a 5 hour period using Google Scholar, Web of Science and Google searches. The whole point was to show what was to be found on Google concerning the “current stock” of information about RA, as distinct from what could be found about mainstream farming. It was to show how little information about RA was out there in comparison to what could be found out about mainstream farming. The reference to Google in the white paper was not saying that this was research that had led to any scientific findings.

21. The white paper report itself was lengthy and detailed with 70 contributors, and covered some 45 pages of analysis and charts. It was not based on such a patently shallow research base as Google searches, and the reference to Google responses was to make a short point about information available on Google over a page of discussion in the white paper.

22. To implicitly denigrate the content of the paper in this way as bogus research work containing scientific conclusions based on Google clicks was seriously misleading to readers of the article and unfair to the white paper’s contributors.

No fair chance to respond to personal criticism

23. Also the magazine takes on a distinctly personal note. As we have set out, Dr Gwen Grelet is identified as the lead researcher behind the white paper. She is personally criticised in the editorial as being on the board of a trust that is a proponent of regenerative agriculture. The trust was said to have been in receipt of $2 million from the Ministry for Primary Industries, to undertake regenerative agriculture extension work.



24. This personalisation of the criticism of the white paper is taken further in the article headed “Scientists Lash Out at RA White Paper”. In the paragraph after listing Dr Gwen Grelet as the lead author, it is stated:

Hickford confirmed authors were contracted in, and in some cases offered $8,000 to “contribute”. According to Hickford, “chequebook politics” took place with the white paper, with the architects of the paper thinking they could buy support and thus gain more support and acceptance for their RA views.”

25. This is essentially an allegation that Dr Grelet and other authors are in the pay of an organisation supportive of regenerative agriculture and not supportive of traditional agriculture. In the article headed “Scientists Lash Out at RA White Paper”, it is effectively alleged that it is likely she has received $8,000 for a contribution supportive of regenerative agriculture. Money has been used to “buy support”.

26. This is a serious allegation. It goes to Dr Grelet’s personal integrity as a professional person. It is legitimate for a magazine to make such enquiries, but the issue is whether Dr Grelet should have been given an opportunity to comment on such allegations before her name was mentioned and before the allegations were made. In our view she should have been so contacted. That contact should have taken place in March, prior to the April publications.

27. The response of Country-Wide magazine appears to be in part that she effectively admitted the allegation in the complaint. We do not read the Landcare response that way. The response said that the funding was in accord with standard science funding practices, which by implication would not include making a payment to get a paper written from a certain scientific perspective. The exact facts of the payments to Dr Grelet are not the issue. In the end we acknowledge that we lack the expertise to comment on whether she was acting in accordance with good scientific practice. It may be that there are justified serious criticisms of the research methods, but we cannot judge that. However we have a clear view on what is fairness in publication. The issue here is that Dr Grelet or Landcare should have been given a chance to respond in advance to this serious allegation. They were not.

28. We also do not consider that the explanation of Country-Wide that constraints on resources and time was a reason for not contacting Dr Grelet before publication, as adequate. This is not an excuse. The magazine should have found the time to seek comment in this situation.

29. The fact that she was then contacted in early April after the March publication that is the subject of the complaint to make a comment, could not significantly mitigate this error.The allegations had been published and would be there unanswered for at least a month.

30. Further when Dr Grelet was contacted by the magazine in early April about being interviewed byCountry-Wide, and before she was aware of the magazine that had been published at the start of the month with its harsh criticisms of her, she had agreed to an interview. However when she became aware of the published article, she then declined to be interviewed and asked for questions in writing.


31. We do not think that Dr Grelet’s position in refusing an interview after publication of the article can be criticised. By then she was aware that she had been personally attacked without notice in the April edition. We can understand that she would prefer not to be orally interviewed by a journalist who had participated in such a hostile and un-notified attack on her professional credibility, and would prefer questions in writing. In this regard, we consider a later article in the June edition headed “RA research author fails to reply” is also unfair. Dr Grelet was prepared to respond in writing, and we do not blame her for refusing an interview byCountry-Wide journalists.

32. We accept that there may be circumstances where a reporter can reject written questions and answers as distinct from an interview as a way to obtain comment, but in these circumstances with the insistence following an excoriating and unfair article,Country-Wide was wrong to insist on an interview.

Conclusion

33. We do not engage in the merits of the debate about regenerative agriculture as against traditional agriculture and the various opinions that have been expressed in the course of this complaint and the response. We do not think thatCountry-Wide magazine was obliged to engage with Landcare before publishing scientific criticism of the white paper. Critiques of scientific publications are an entirely proper undertaking.

34. However, summaries of the criticised works must be accurate, and not significantly misrepresent the nature of the research carried out. As set out, the complained of articles did misrepresent the research, and in a damaging way, which would have misled readers, and which was unfair to the report writers.

35. We also take the view that if an attack of a named professional person is to be made where their independence and professional integrity is questioned, that they should be given a reasonable opportunity to respond to such personal allegations before they are published. This was not done.

36. For these reasons we uphold these aspects of the complaint.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin

.

Hank Schouten stood down to maintain the public member majority.

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