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Wrathall and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2010-076

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
  • Tapu Misa
  • Leigh Pearson

Complainant

  • Steve Wrathall of Palmerston North

Dated

14th September 2010

Number

2010-076

Programme

Tagata Pasifika

Channel/Station

TV One

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd


Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Tagata Pasifika – item about effects of climate change on Tuvalu – allegedly in breach of controversial issues standard

Findings
Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints) – not a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on Tagata Pasifika, broadcast on TV One at 7.30am on Sunday 11 April 2010, investigated the situation on Tuvalu in the Pacific and its people’s experiences with the effects of climate change, primarily rising sea levels causing flooding. Near the beginning of the item, a reporter said:

Tuvalu is one of the world’s lowest lying countries. Its highest point is four-and-a-half metres above sea level, making it one of the most vulnerable nations to be affected by climate change.

...

Tuvaluans have lived on these atolls for thousands of years, but now scientists are saying in just 30 years they might have to find somewhere new to call home.

...

Tuvaluans are already seeing the effects of climate change with crops affected by rising sea water, coastal erosion and king tides. ...in the last decade they’ve been unusually high.

[2]   The reporter spoke to a number of residents about their concerns that they might have to leave Tuvalu if the flooding continued. They talked about their crops and sea water seeping through the ground. The reporter discussed the island’s “King Tides Festival” which had been created to raise awareness of the rising sea water and to encourage sustainable energy.

[3]   A former ambassador of Tuvalu to the United Nations was shown saying that before 1996 there was no flooding on Tuvalu. The reporter said:

...during recent king tides the water has become unusually high. Tuvalu’s meteorologists have been recording sea levels for the last 16 years and they say it’s rising at five millimetres a year. Latest international reports say it’s less than that.

[4]   The reporter said that the former UN ambassador believed that “the international projections are compromised by governments and big business”. He was shown saying that the situation in Tuvalu was far worse than what was reported by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The reporter said, “The long term solution lies in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions caused by industrialised countries”. She went on to say that Tuvalu’s future looked bleak, particularly as the country was economically poor. A local woman said that families struggled financially and that “one of the main reasons that people want to leave Tuvalu is to get better life, better standard of living and better education”. The reporter spoke to a local businesswoman who said she wanted to leave because of the rising sea levels. The reporter said, “leaving the island is a choice Tuvaluans will need to make at some point because of the encroaching seas”.

[5]   A church minister on the island, from the Tuvalu Climate Action Network had made it his mission to save Tuvalu by travelling abroad “preaching the message of climate change and its effects in Tuvalu”. The reporter said, “He’s unfazed by sceptics who often challenge him on the impact of climate change”. The minister said, “Usually I tell the sceptics the only thing to prove you wrong is to come to my country”. The reporter said, “There’s even some scepticism here [on Tuvalu]. The country is deeply religious and many believe either God would not cause another flood, or will save them from the rising sea.”

[6]   The reporter concluded by discussing the Tuvaluans’ options for coping with the rising sea water, including leaving, or hoping for funding to raise the island further above sea level.

Complaint

[7]   Steve Wrathall made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item breached standards relating to the discussion of controversial issues. He considered that the item consisted of a “one-sided narrative” which made the following claims:

  • That Tuvalu is experiencing abnormal rises in sea level which are endangering its livelihood.
  • That such sea level rises may force the islands to be evacuated within decades.
  • That the greenhouse gas emissions of industrialised nations are responsible for these sea level rises.
  • That developed nations should feel guilty and restrict their economic opportunities in order to atone for this crime.

[8]   Mr Wrathall maintained that, according to Greenpeace, the estimated sea level rise on Tuvalu was indistinguishable from the long-term natural rate, “and yet the proposition that Tuvaluans are victims of human-induced climate change is repeatedly asserted as fact”. He argued that the item should have presented the viewpoint that the flooding experienced by Tuvalu could be adequately explained by natural processes. Mr Wrathall concluded by contending that “the order-of-magnitude increase in rate of sea level rise required to make Tuvalu uninhabitable within decades is manifestly not occurring.”

Standards

[9]   Standard 4 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice is relevant to the determination of this complaint. It provides:

Standard 4 Controversial Issues – Viewpoints

When discussing controversial issues of public importance in news, current affairs or factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[10]   TVNZ noted that the Authority had previously defined a controversial issue of public importance as something that would have a “significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public”. It said that it understood that global climate change may be controversial for some people, but considered that “human-induced global climate change is accepted as uncontroversial by most countries in the world”. The broadcaster provided a number of examples and statistics to support the claim that the sea level was rising in Tuvalu.

[11]   At any rate, TVNZ maintained that the views portrayed in the programme were clearly the perspectives of the people interviewed, which was permitted under Standard 4. It also concluded that there was no debate as to whether the sea level was rising around Tuvalu. It said, “This, coupled with the low-lying nature of the country, does put it at risk of human-induced global climate change.”

[12]   TVNZ declined to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[13]   Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, Mr Wrathall referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He maintained that “the only way that TVNZ could not be in breach of the [Code] would be if imminent, catastrophic, human-induced global warming and resultant order-of-magnitude increase in the rate of sea level rise were of such a high level of certainty that any contrary view could be ignored, or given the barest, derisory mention. This TVNZ manifestly fails to demonstrate.”

[14]   Mr Wrathall contended that the programme omitted reference to the following key points:

  • That Tuvaluans are increasingly choosing to live in the most flood-prone parts of their islands.
  • That coral atolls are dynamic landforms that constantly shift and adjust with coral growth, wave and current action.
  • That far from losing Tuvalu, natural storm events can add to coral atolls.

[15]   In summary, the complainant said, there was overwhelming evidence that:

  • Sea level globally is not rising by any more than the 2-3mm a year that it has since the 19th Century.
  • Tuvalu is not experiencing sea level rise that is alarmingly outside this global average and any apparent higher rate may be explained by tectonic subsidence, different measurement methods and numerous confounding factors.
  • That coral atolls can and do grow in response to sea level rises several times current rates.

[16]   Mr Wrathall maintained that, in contrast, “the evidence for the proposition that Tuvalu is in imminent danger of evacuation because of human-induced sea level rises ranges from threadbare to nonexistent.” He reiterated his argument that the programme should have presented the “non-alarmist” view that the phenomena described in Tuvalu could be adequately explained by natural processes.

Authority's Determination

[17]   The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

[18]   Standard 4 states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

[19]   At the outset, we do not accept TVNZ’s finding that human induced global climate change is uncontroversial. Likewise, the related issue of whether the observed sea level rise on Tuvalu is due to climate change is also disputed.

[20]   However, in our view, this item clearly focused on the experiences and perspectives of the local people, exploring their reactions to the changes in their environment, the ways in which they were adapting to those changes, and how they felt about the possibility of leaving their homeland if it became uninhabitable. It did not attempt to explore the possible causes for those changes. The Authority has previously determined that presenting personal views on, and experiences with, climate change in the Pacific, did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance (see Clancy and TVWorks1).

[21]   Because the programme did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance, we do not consider that it was necessary, in the interests of balance, for the programme to explicitly state that the rising sea levels could be explained by natural processes, as argued by Mr Wrathall.

[22]   For the sake of completeness, however, we note that the programme did allude to the fact that there were sceptics regarding climate change and the cause of the sea level rise, and also to the fact that international reports disagreed that the rise was occurring at the rate claimed by Tuvaluan scientists, for example:

  • “[The minister’s] unfazed by sceptics who often challenge him on the impact of climate change.” (reporter)

  • “There’s even some scepticism here [on Tuvalu]. The country is deeply religious and many believe either God would not cause another flood, or will save them from the rising sea.” (reporter)

  • “Tuvalu’s meteorologists have been recording sea levels for the last 16 years and they say it’s rising at five millimetres a year. Latest international reports say it’s less than that.” (reporter)

[23]   Accordingly, we find that the programme did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance to which Standard 4 applied, and we decline to uphold the complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
14 September 2010

Appendix

The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1.          Steve Wrathall’s formal complaint – 16 April 2010

2.          TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 2 June 2010

3.          Mr Wrathall’s referral to the Authority – 25 June 2010

4.          TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 16 July 2010


1Decision No. 2009-133