Case Number: 3057

Council Meeting: JUNE 2021

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication

The Complaint

1. Tony Climie has submitted a general complaint which alleges recent and ongoing lack of balance in coverage of climate change by theNew Zealand Herald. He complains the Herald fails to cover views and science which support the alternative view that climate change is due to natural climate variability. He believes theHerald shows “unrelenting bias” in favour of anthropogenic global warming (AGW); and that the “Heraldfunctions in an echo chamber” of AGW proponents. He has provided the Council with lengthy and detailed supporting material and scientific arguments that climate change is caused by natural variability.

2. Mr Climie believes that the reported consensus of scientific opinion in favour of AGW, which theHerald refers to in support of its position, is a notion based on “statistical malfeasance and flawed methodology”. Mr Climie does not accept the statistics showing a broad scientific consensus that climate change is caused by AGW.

3. He is also concerned that the Herald in the last few years has joined Covering Climate Now (CCN) an “activist media organisation”. He says CCN members agree to cover solely AGW related material, and theHerald has not explained that position to its readers. Because of its lack of coverage of the view that climate change is caused by natural variability, theHerald has, he alleges, become proponent of AGW climate change. Since joining CCN in about 2019 theHerald has, he says, has continued to restrict its climate change coverage to AGW; and has ceased publishing letters from readers supporting natural variability.

The Response

5. David Rowe, Acting Editor of the New Zealand Herald, responded that the newspaper does not believe that it has breached Media Council Principles in its coverage of climate change; and does not have a fixed position on the issue. He notes that much of their coverage reflects AGW because there is a broad consensus that human activity has contributed to climate change. However, it is clear that climate change is caused by a combination of AGW and natural variability.

6. Mr Rowe quotes a number of sources including a NASA document and an environmental research journal, which show that a large consensus of scientific opinion supports human activity as a major contributor to climate change. He notes that staff at theHerald are not experts on climate change. “It is not a surprise that most of our coverage supports the view of human-caused global warming when that is the overwhelming conclusion of global research in the field.” On support for CCN Mr Rowe goes on to say: “To reassure Mr Climie, the Herald has made no commitment to abide by the guidelines proposed by Covering Climate Now as part of our participation in the initiative. Our editorial decisions are entirely our own.”

7. Mr Rowe provided examples of material published by the Herald to support its view that it has covered natural climate variability and reported on the debate on the (then) draft conclusions of the NZ Climate Commission. He notes that there are many media outlets covering the climate change issue and that readers are capable of making up their own minds from a variety of sources

The Discussion

8. The core of this complaint is alleged ongoing bias by the Herald in favouring AGW to the point of exclusion of natural variability as the cause of current climate change. There is also an allegation that theHerald, as a member of the activist pro AGW CCN, has failed to disclose this “bias” to its readers and since joining has not published letters about natural variability. TheHerald rejects these allegations and says it is reporting the views of over 90% of published scientific opinion; and says the newspaper retains its editorial independence

9. Since 2018 Mr Climie has made 4 complaints against the New Zealand Herald about the prominence given to anthropogenic climate change and its contribution to weather-related disasters when, in his view, the current changes should be attributed to natural climate variability. Again, in this complaint, Mr Climie has presented large amounts of supporting material and scientific arguments for his case for natural variability. The Media Council has repeatedly said in response that it is not qualified to make judgements on disputes between scientists.

10. It is not the Council’s role to rule on the causes of climate change, but rather to come to a judgment on whether the Media Council’s principles have been breached. In our view the complaint raised by Mr Climie mainly falls to be considered under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance:

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

11. In its coverage of climate change the Herald is reflecting the large proportion of scientific commentary which supports the view that human activity is a major contributor to climate change. The fact that Mr Climie disagrees does not in our view invalidate the Herald coverage. The climate controversy is long running, and theHerald should not be obliged to cover all aspects every time. Its coverage is dominated by AGW, but at least some evidence has been provided to show that natural variability and opposing views to AGW are referred to. The differences between theHerald and Mr Climie are in the relative contributions of AGW and natural climate change to global warming. This is a matter of scientific opinion, and it is not unreasonable of theHerald to go with the majority view. It is not fair to say that the Herald completely dismisses natural variability.

12. In addition, Mr Climie alleges bias arising from the Herald membership of the pro AGW network CCN. TheHerald simply rejects this allegation and asserts its continuing editorial independence. TheHerald says it has not signed agreements with CCN (or any other climate related organisation) which dictate how they should cover climate change. The Council accepts these assurances and notes that other reputable media organisations such as Reuters, The Guardian and CBS have joined CCN.

13. However, the Council notes that the Herald will no doubt keep a watch on the climate change debate to ensure its coverage is consistent with Media Council Principles on balance. Publishers as the eyes and ears of the public and the proponents of freedom of expression, must be wary of shutting down the expression of contrary views on the public issues of the day.

14. Climate change is a wide and hotly contested debate in which various views on the issues are expressed and covered by a wide range of print, online, broadcast media and scientific and other journals. In our view theHerald is entitled to cover the major aspects of the climate change debate, including important questions of how to combat its effects, without constantly rehearsing the views of a small minority of proponents with an alternative view of the causes of climate change. Media Council Principle 5 also provides that publication of letters to the editor is a matter for editorial judgement.

15. On balance, the Council does not believe that the New Zealand Herald’s coverage of climate change has breached the Media Council’s Principles. The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Jonathan MacKenzie and Marie Shroff.

Ben France-Hudson took no part in the consideration of this complaint.

Hank Schouten Tim Watkin and stood down to maintain the public member majority.


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