TONY CLIMIE AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2864

Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Comment and Fact

Overview

On November 4, 2019 the New Zealand Herald published an editorial Reality much worse than film’s climate nightmare.

Tony Climie complains that the editorial breaches:

Principles 1: Accuracy fairness and balance

Principles 4: Comment and Fact

The Editorial

The editorial asks what did the 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner “get right and wrong?”

The editorial states that the Ridley Scott movie Blade Runner was set in Los Angeles, November 2019 and says“The biggest wrong turn the film took in depicting the future present is the ubiquitous rain in the outdoor scenes’’.

The editorial says that present day Los Angeles has experienced wildfires, and after a dry, windy summer,“California has been unable to recover. There’s been a lack of easing rain and the winds have made vegetation bone dry”.

It also says “An implied environmental catastrophe brought on by disasters and industrial pollution is behind the film's setting. Blade Runner 2049, the sequel released in 2017, reworked the premise to incorporate California's climate reality.”

The editorial mentions air pollution in New Delhi, India as well as California, and says“The state is under pressure on either side from two key climate threats - wildfires and rising seas”.

The editorial quotes a published Climate Central study which “estimated that far more people - 300 million - are at risk from rising sea levels around the world than previously thought”.

It concludes “The climate challenges already on show are beyond cinematic nightmares”.

The Complaint

Mr Climie says that there is no evidence that climate change is responsible for the severity of the Californian fires, or air pollution in New Delhi. He is critical of theNZ Herald’s referencing of a report that he says has questionable methodology.

Of the editorial’s conclusion, Tony Climie says “such dramatic characterisation, likely to incite alarm, presented as reality and with considerable certitude, should surely be underpinned by sound evidence that the California wildfires are indeed unprecedented in historical terms, that the air pollution in New Delhi is related to climate change, and that the estimated threat to 300 million people from rising sea levels is based on robust science. None of these criteria are met”.

Re Principles 1: Accuracy Fairness and Balance

Mr Climiesays the headline “Reality much worse than film’s climate nightmare” and the conclusion”The climate challenges already on show are beyond cinematic nightmares” have no credible scientific basis.

Re Principle 4: Comment and Fact

Mr Climie says the principle states “essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate”.

He says his view is it “cannot reasonably be claimed” that the facts upon which the editorial is based are accurate.

The Response

NZ Herald deputy Head of News Hamish Fletcher says the editorial does not make the argument that climate change is responsible for all of the environmental issues the editorial discusses. He says the editorial does infer that the Californian fires have a relationship to climate change.

Mr Fletcher says it is “safe and open” for the Herald to make this inference and says scientists have linked climate change to the Californian fires.

He refers to Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, who was quoted in the October 2019 National Geographic as saying“In a warmer world, vegetation is going to be drier, even in a place like California … you can still make it drier”.

He also quoted a July 2019 Earth Journal article which, of the California fires, stated“warming does appear to enhance the probability of large fall wildfires, such as those in 2017 and 2018, and this effect is likely to grow in the coming decades”.

Mr Fletcher said it was reasonable to refer to New Delhi air pollution, and the editorial did not blame this on climate change.

The Decision

Principle 1: Accuracy, fairness and balance

This Principle states “Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission”.

This is a Principle that primarily applies to news stories – not opinion or editorials.

Even so, the editorial clearly attributes references to California air quality to reportage.

It also clearly cites a reference to rising sea levels as being based on a Climate Central study published in Nature Communications.

There is no evidence within the complaint before the Media Council which proves that the reportage or study/studies cited are wrong, or inaccurate.

The Media Council considers it was reasonable for the NZ Herald to reference this information.

Principle 1 also states “In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report”.

Again, this portion of Principle 1 applies to news stories. In saying that, the impact of climate on the environment, and arising debate on climate change, is clearly in this “exception” category and is – and seems destined to continue to be a long running issue. As are discussions on the future and dystopian possibilities.

Principle 4: Comment and Fact

This principle states “A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate”.

The editorial Reality much worse than film’s climate nightmare is clearly identified as opinion – it is published on a page headed “Editorial” under a sub-heading “We say”.

As discussed in the analysis of Principle 1, the editorial clearly attributes references to California air quality as reportage. It also clearly cites a reference to rising sea levels as being based on a Climate Central study published in Nature Communications.

Mr Climie makes the point that this Principle states “Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate”.

The Media Council appreciates Mr Climie does not agree with the NZ Herald opinion or evidence behind the attribution/references within the story. He has provided multiple “lines of evidence” in support of his assertion that there is nothing unprecedented about the California fires, and therefore they are not linked to climate change.

It is not the Media Council’s role to rule on the existence or not of climate change, but to consider whether the editorial breaches the principles Mr Climie alleges.

The Media Council considers that it was reasonable for the Herald to make relatively brief references to California air quality and rising sea levels attributing them as they did to reputable news sources.

The Council considers that there is a clear distinction between opinion and fact in the editorial.

Decision

This complaint is not upheld.

The Media Council considers that the opinion expressed in the November 4, 2019 editorial expressed is fair and reasonable, and the views expressed are clearly defined as opinion. The author has responsibly attributed the source of the study/studies and reportage cited in the editorial.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.