TED MASON AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND LISTENERThe New Zealand Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Ted Mason against the New Zealand Listener that a series of articles about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in its issue of November 28-December 4, 2009, provided no opposing view that AGW was false and based on faulty science.
Mr Mason complained that without such a viewpoint, the articles were unbalanced and unfair. But in the Press Council’s view there was no need to provide such a balance because of the context of the articles and the background.
Under the cover headings Global warming: The science & solutions: Last chance to save humanity, the Listener published a series of articles giving various views about global warming a few weeks ahead of the climate change conference called by the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Against a background of the impending conference, the articles reported on the history of warnings about and evidence supporting the belief that global warming was occurring; various political viewpoints and scientific information; what might happen if climate change was not taken seriously and the earth continued to warm; and comments from various parties speculating on the conference, its outcomes and what might happen in the future.
In all, the magazine published four articles over 10 pages, along with photographs and informative graphics supporting the text.
Mr Mason complained to the editor saying, among other things, that no consideration had been given to the possibility that AGW might be a myth based on incomplete and faulty research and computer modelling which, by its very nature, relied on unfounded assumptions.
This approach was unjustified because it ignored several credible and persuasive recent attempts to publicise the case against AGW, including books and a documentary.
Mr Mason said that if responsible governments believed AGW was occurring, they would have taken “real and concerted” action already. The lack of action suggested responsible governments were not convinced of the scientific case in favour of AGW.
Mr Mason updated his emailed letter later that day to say more than 31,000 scientists in the United States opposed on scientific grounds the idea of AGW.
Mr Mason then made a formal complaint about unbalanced journalism, and repeated a request made in his initial email that the Listener publish “a critique of AGW from a well-known and credible critic” such as Ian Wishart, Ian Plimmer, Lord Monckton or Professor Richard Lindsen. Alternatively, Mr Mason offered to develop themes in his letter into a publishable article.
Correspondence Between the Magazine and Complainant
The editor of the Listener, Pamela Stirling, responded that the magazine had previously printed articles containing the viewpoints of critics of AGW, and had printed a letter referring to petitions, including one signed by scientists who did not accept AGW. The magazine had declined to print Mr Mason’s letter because it covered the same points as those earlier publications.
Mr Mason then again asked that the magazine publish an article critical of AGW.
The editor said it was a well-established principle of the Press Council that balance on an issue might be achieved over time. She believed sufficient space had been given in the Listener to critics of AGW and the magazine did not plan to publish further articles in the near future unless new data emerged.
The Magazine’s Response
In her response to the Council, Ms Stirling said while the Listener had published two letters by Mr Mason on topics where his experience as a clinical psychologist had direct relevance, he had no such expertise in the area of global warming and his letter of November 29 was weighed against others in the same vein.
He covered the same salient points as a letter from Dr D C Edmeades, agricultural spokesman for the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, who had criticised the magazine for printing “propaganda on behalf of those who believe in the theory of human-induced global warming.” The magazine had also published another letter critical of the Listener for lack of balance.
Therefore, the magazine had exercised its right not to print his letter either as a letter or article. Space and publication deadlines in December and over the Christmas period when the magazine was still published meant there were pressures but the Listener had not sought to suppress debate.
The Copenhagen conference and global warming were highly topical late last year, and it is not surprising that the Listener devoted considerable space to it. The essence of Mr Mason’s complaint was that the viewpoints of sceptics about anthropogenic global warming should have been included.
In its principles, the Council says publications “should be guided at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission, or omission.”
Balance is often demonstrably required – for example, where the absence of an alternative or opposing view on a subject could lead to distortion or even inaccuracy and therefore mislead readers. But journalists should not be required to seek balance when an alternative view on some aspect of a topic is not directly related to the general thrust or essence of an article planned.
Seeking comment from those who believe that AGW is a myth would fall into that category in this instance.
The Listener articles directly discussed AGW and the upcoming Copenhagen conference, a conference called to discuss what the world should do about AGW. While comments from those who disagree with AGW might have been interesting, they were certainly not necessary in the context of the articles published, nor were they directly relevant to discussion about the conference itself.
The Listener’s publication of letters critical of November coverage plus other sceptical pieces is evidence that the magazine was not trying to shut down debate which, of course, is continuing.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.