TONY CLIMIE AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2896

Council Meeting: MAY 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Editorial Discretion
Misleading

Overview

1. On 7 January 2020 and 14 January 2020, there were two editorials published in theNew Zealand Herald.The first was headed NZ Concern Goes Beyond Hazy Skies, and the second was headedClimate Threat Australia’s Burning Issue.Both articles placed the bushfires in the context of climate change, and unmistakably attribute the Australian bushfires, at least in part, to climate change.

2. In doing so, the climate change reference is unmistakably to what is known as “anthropogenic global warming” [AGW], the theory that explains the increases and changes to temperature and other climatic conditions on earth to human industry and agriculture.The editorials both express the view that the Australian government should be making more efforts to meet climate change. The first article emphasises Australia’s suffering from climate change, and the second does the same, emphasising the warnings Australia has had about a “looming catastrophe” and Australia’s large exports of coal and liquid natural gas.

3. The tenor of the two editorials is captured in the last sentence of the editorial of 14 January 2020, “Australia needs to do all it can to make the summer’s horror a one-off rather than the new norm”.

The Complaint

4. Tony Climie has made other complaints to this Council about articles concerning AGW, from the perspective that articles published in New Zealand newspapers are unbalanced and express views that are contrary to the correct science.He lodged a recent complaint about a Herald editorial concerning the California wildfires, and the contribution of AGW.

5. Mr Climie has provided a thorough explanation, discussion and analysis of particular aspects of his complaint.He makes particular reference to a subsequentNew Zealand Herald article of 24 January 2020, which cited expert sources, and related the Australian bushfires to a combination of abnormally strong natural atmospheric and oceanic events, not climate change.He states that this contradicts the premise of the editorials. He cites instances of larger areas burning in Australia over the last 150 years.He also says there have been earlier events where smoke and ash from Australian bushfires have drifted onto New Zealand.

6. Mr Climie complained that the editorials were inaccurate and misleading, breaching Principle 1, accuracy, fairness and balance.He relied on other principles, stating that there was no foundation of fact for the editorials, and a lack of credible evidence or citations.He emphasised a lack of balance to the editorials.He asserts that theHerald had avoided reporting on natural variability factors as climate drivers, and has discarded the “immense body of incontrovertible evidence of [those factors] as climate drivers through hundreds of millions of years.”Climate variations, both cooler and warmer, have been a common occurrence throughout the interglacial period we have been in for 14,000 years.

The Response

7. The New Zealand Herald asserts that numerous scientists have linked the severity of the 2019/20 bushfire season to climate change.While historical variability can be a driver of the bushfires, climate change would still make them worse.Scientists have supported this.

8. Mr Climie’s argument that there have been worse bushfires was contested.It was pointed out that the Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, Mr Fitzsimmons, has claimed that the bushfires were the state’s worst on record.However, because it was arguable that some of the fires in living memory were more severe because of the total hectares burned, theHerald would amend a line in the online version of its editorial to say, “recent memory”.TheHerald was also prepared to amend the wording of one of the quotes.

The Decision

9. The Media Council considered the matter of the amendments to the editorial. It was wise of theHerald to make these changes.It was wrong to say that the fires were “worse than any they remember”, as there had been more severe fires in hectares burned.The mis-quote, “Fire seasons will start earlier, end later and be more intense”, was surprising, as the original was considerably more moderate, reading “Recent projections of fire weather suggest that fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense”.Quotes should never be adjusted to give more support to a particular opinion.

10. The Media Council generally receives ongoing and constant complaints about media publications concerning global warming issues.While the majority of complaints are about articles that allege AGW, we also receive complaints from supporters of AGW about articles that take the opposite point of view.The debate about global warming is massive and ongoing.

11. Editorials are quintessential opinion pieces.When an editor addresses an issue in an editorial as big as, and as debated as, global warming, it can be assumed that the totally different positions on the cause of climate change are in general terms understood.

12. The editor in each editorial was setting out a position, knowingly controversial, and could have expected that other readers would take a different position.Such editorials as strong opinion pieces are particularly suited to an issue such as global warming, where debates have been extensive and in the public eye for a long time.

13. Where there are strong views and different expert views held on an issue, the Media Council is cautious before finding that a statement of opinion is without a foundation of fact.As the Council has repeatedly said, it is unable to rule on issues of disputed scientific fact.

14. At the time when the editorials were published, there was a body of scientific and local Australian opinion, which blamed the bushfires on AGW.The fact that on 24 January 2020, approximately two weeks later, an article was published which set out a different view, does not assist the complainant.To the contrary, it shows balance on the part of theHerald that it would publish an article putting forward an opposite perspective.It must also be observed that the later article does not necessarily have any greater monopoly on rightness than the earlier editorials.What that later publication does show, is balance on the part of the New Zealand Herald.

15. This Council has repeatedly refused to uphold complaints about articles taking a strong view one way or another on climate change and its causes, where they are expressions of opinion.The Council is not qualified, nor is it its role, to reach a view on the correctness of the various points of view.The considerations that have influenced our numerous rejections of complaints in this area in the past apply equally to these editorials.They are expressions of opinion on a widely debated and hotly contested issue, and their publication did not breach any of the Media Council principles.

16. The complaint is not upheld.

Decision

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