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Leyland and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2014-157

Members

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

Complainant

  • Bryan Leyland

Dated

7th May 2015

Number

2014-157

Programme

Mediawatch

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

*Te Raumawhitu Kupenga declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the determination of this complaint.

 


Summary 

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

A segment of Mediawatch canvassed TVNZ’s (as well as several other media outlets’) coverage of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, in particular Breakfast’s interview with Bryan Leyland, an engineer who speaks and writes publicly on his scepticism about global warming. The Authority did not uphold a complaint from Mr Leyland that the broadcast discussed his interview in a ‘biased and derogatory’ way and amounted to a personal attack. In the context of a programme comprising robust media commentary and critique, the references to Mr Leyland were not unfair and related to his professional capacity rather than criticising him personally. It was not required in the interests of fairness to inform him of the programme beforehand or invite his comment.
 
Not Upheld: Fairness 
 


Introduction 

[1]  A segment of Mediawatch canvassed TVNZ’s (as well as several other media outlets’) coverage of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. In particular, the presenter commented on the approach taken by Breakfast and its interview with Bryan Leyland, an engineer who speaks and writes publicly on his scepticism about global warming. 
 
[2]  Bryan Leyland complained that the broadcast discussed his appearance on Breakfast in a ‘biased and derogatory way’ and amounted to a personal attack, and that he should have been notified that he was going to be criticised on the programme. 
 
[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the fairness standard as set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice. 
 
[4]  The item was broadcast on 9 November 2014 on Radio New Zealand National. The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 

Nature of the programme and freedom of expression

[5]  Mediawatch is described on the broadcaster’s website as a programme that ‘looks critically at the New Zealand media… It looks into the impact the media has on the nation, highlighting good practice as well as bad’ and examines ‘how certain significant stories and issues are being covered’.1  
 
[6]  This particular Mediawatch segment discussed TVNZ’s Breakfast coverage of the latest IPCC report, including its interview with Mr Leyland. The segment played clips from the Breakfast interview, in which Mr Leyland was introduced as a ‘renewable energy consultant’ and discussed his views on the IPCC report. Mr Leyland criticised the computer modelling used by the IPCC as unreliable and was quoted as saying, ‘The ugly fact is that they predicted warming and it didn’t happen’.
 
[7]  The Mediawatch presenter then detailed the numerous complaints to TVNZ following this interview, a ‘key objection’ being that ‘Mr Leyland is not a climate scientist, and the vast majority of those who are strongly disagree with him’. He explained that on Breakfast Mr Leyland had displayed a graph to show essentially how the IPCC’s report was inaccurate, but did not disclose that this graph came from a ‘highly controversial’ opinion piece written for The Wall Street Journal by so-called climate change sceptics. The blog Hot Topic was cited by the presenter as revealing the contentious background of the graph. Another clip from the Breakfast interview was then played, in which Mr Leyland argued that in fact increased carbon dioxide emissions are doing ‘a lot of good’. 
 
[8]  The Mediawatch presenter went on to discuss TVNZ’s response to the many complaints they received about the interview with Mr Leyland, which included removing web links to the interview. The presenter acknowledged that Mr Leyland is ‘not the only person who doesn’t believe in catastrophic consequences if the world doesn’t reduce its carbon emissions’ and that he was ‘of course entitled’ to that opinion. However, he asserted that Mr Leyland is ‘mainly an expert on energy, and not climate science’ and said that given the nature of Mr Leyland’s criticisms, it should have been pointed out to viewers that Mr Leyland is a founding member of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition (NZCSC).
 
[9]  The presenter talked briefly about the NZCSC, and how it took the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) to court over its historic temperature records. He explained that the case had been dismissed and that the judge had commented that two members of the NZCSC did not have applicable qualifications or credentials. The presenter quoted the NZCSC website, which mentions the case against NIWA but reportedly does not mention that the case was ultimately dismissed, or why. The presenter concluded by saying that this illustrated that, ‘For comment on the accuracy of climate change forecasting… TVNZ really should have gone elsewhere’. 
 
[10]  The Mediawatch item carried a high level of public interest, as it gave a critical analysis of a mainstream broadcaster’s editorial choices and angle on climate change, an important issue. The high public interest, the significance of the issues and the broadcaster’s freedom of expression must be weighed against the level of harm alleged to have been caused to the complainant by the broadcast.
 

Was any individual or organisation taking part or referred to in the broadcast treated unfairly?

[11]  The fairness standard (Standard 6) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. One of the purposes of the fairness standard is to protect individuals and organisations from broadcasts which provide an unfairly negative representation of their character or conduct. Programme participants and people referred to in broadcasts have the right to expect that broadcasters will deal with them justly and fairly, so that unwarranted harm is not caused to their reputation and dignity.2 
 
[12]  Mr Leyland’s main concerns about the broadcast were as follows:
 
  • The item suggested he was not qualified to speak on global warming, when in fact he has studied climate science for over 10 years, is an accredited IPCC reviewer, holds a Masters degree in power system analysis and as an engineer has considerable expertise in computer modelling.
  • He should have been informed that he was going to be criticised on the programme.
  • The general thrust of the item was that he had no right to express his opinion and ‘was seriously misleading the public’.
  • RNZ should not have relied on the global warming blog Hot Topic as it was not a credible source.
  • The item implied that during the NIWA court case (discussed above at paragraph [9]) a judge had found him to be an unreliable witness, when in fact this was untrue and he had only minor involvement in the case.
  • The broadcast’s reference to the NZCSC implied he was ‘guilty by association’. 
  • The broadcast had seriously damaged his credibility and reputation and was a ‘personal attack’. 
 
[13]  RNZ argued that the main purpose of the item was to examine TVNZ’s coverage of the release of the latest IPCC report; it was not a review of, or a programme about, climate change. It said that the point Mediawatch was making about TVNZ’s coverage of the topic was that choosing a strong critic to speak on the latest IPCC report may not have served its audience in the best way possible. RNZ argued it merely reported the objections of others and that in the full context of the broadcast, the audience would not have assumed the quote from the judge about an ‘unreliable witness’ referred to Mr Leyland.
 
Overall fairness
[14]  Guideline 6a to the fairness standard states that a consideration of what is fair will depend upon the genre of the programme. Mediawatch provides robust commentary on, and analysis of, the New Zealand media. We consider that Mediawatch is comparable to the television programme Media 7 (which is no longer broadcast), which we described as a ‘serious media analysis and review programme focused on commentary and discussion, including critique of media matters in New Zealand and beyond.’3  In a previous decision about Media 7, Charley and Television New Zealand Ltd, we noted that ‘A free and independent media is considered to be at the core of a healthy democracy. It naturally follows that analysis of media is of equal importance.’4  
 
[15]  The Media 7 broadcast subject to complaint in Charley contained an interview with an investigative journalist and foreign correspondent in Afghanistan. During the interview, the investigative journalist commented on, and critiqued, a reporter and her story on a current affairs programme about civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The Authority did not uphold the complaint that Media 7 was unfair to the reporter because she ‘should reasonably expect some professional criticism’ and because Media 7 ‘had a right to challenge [her] approach’.5
 
[16]  Applying these considerations to the present complaint, overall we find that Mediawatch was entitled to be critical of TVNZ’s editorial decision to interview Mr Leyland on the topic of the IPCC and that this did not result in Mr Leyland being treated unfairly. The critique centred on Mr Leyland’s professional qualifications and publicly expressed views; it did not comment on him personally or amount to a ‘personal attack’ as alleged. Additionally, many of the comments were clearly couched as the presenter’s opinion, for example that ‘TVNZ should have gone elsewhere’ for comment. Viewers would have understood this, based on the well-known format of the programme, as providing commentary and critique directed at the editorial decisions made by TVNZ. The references to Mr Leyland were a fair summary of his involvement in the Breakfast item. We do not think that overall viewers would have been left with an unfairly negative impression of the complainant, but rather were left to form their own opinion and were pointed to a number of other sources besides Mediawatch if they wanted to know more about the issues, including the NZCSC website and Hot Topic.
 
[17]  Accordingly, we are satisfied that overall Mr Leyland was not treated unfairly. For the sake of completeness we address each of Mr Leyland’s concerns below.
 
It was suggested that Mr Leyland was not qualified to speak on global warming. 
[18]  The comments made by the presenter in the Mediawatch item about Mr Leyland’s credentials were that he is ‘mainly an expert on energy, and not climate science’ and that a ‘key objection’ to his being featured on Breakfast was that he is ‘not a climate scientist’. The Mediawatch segment played a clip of the Breakfast interview in which Mr Leyland was described as a ‘renewable energy consultant’ and he describes himself in correspondence as a ‘consulting engineer’, not a climate scientist. The programme was not unfair to Mr Leyland in the way it represented his qualifications, and it is not our role to determine whether or not Mr Leyland is a ‘climate scientist’. The presenter was entitled to express his opinion, and that of those who complained to TVNZ, that Mr Leyland is not a climate scientist.
 
Mr Leyland was not informed that he was going to be criticised by RNZ.
[19]  Guideline 6c to the fairness standard says that contributors and participants should be dealt with fairly and should, except as required in the public interest, be informed of the nature of their participation. We do not consider it was necessary, in the interests of fairness, for RNZ to inform Mr Leyland that he was going to be referred to in the programme. Mr Leyland had contributed to and participated in the Breakfast item, and Mediawatch discussed Mr Leyland in reference to that appearance. As someone who publicly offered his views on an ongoing, controversial topic of debate, Mr Leyland should reasonably have expected to attract some commentary and criticism in relation to those views. Additionally, Mediawatch also played excerpts of Mr Leyland’s interview that totalled about 30 seconds, so the essence of his position was put forward. 
 
It was implied that Mr Leyland had no right to express his views and was misleading the public. 
[20]  Guideline 6d to the fairness standard says that broadcasters should respect the rights of individuals to express their own opinions. We would not characterise the Mediawatch broadcast as suggesting what Mr Leyland has contended. The presenter made it clear that Mr Leyland was entitled to express his opinion – for example saying he was ‘of course entitled’ to his opinion – and was rather discussing TVNZ’s editorial decision to interview him. He did not suggest that Mr Leyland wanted to mislead the public, but suggested he held views that were not in accordance with many other scientists. We do not think Mr Leyland was treated unfairly in this respect. 
 
RNZ should not have cited the blog Hot Topic
[21]  The Hot Topic blog was mentioned only once in the broadcast, and only briefly. The presenter cited Hot Topic as a source of information that the graph Mr Leyland used to support his criticisms of the IPCC had been surrounded by controversy. This was peripheral to the point of mentioning the graph, which was that the Breakfast presenter made no mention of the contentious background to the graph. In any case, the brief reference to Hot Topic was a matter of editorial discretion, rather than raising any issues of broadcasting standards. Mediawatch identified the author of the blog as a climate change campaigner, making it clear the blogger and Mr Leyland were positioned on opposite sides of the debate around global warming. Additionally, within the context of a programme that provides critical analysis of New Zealand media, it was legitimate for the broadcaster to refer to other media sources which had weighed in on the issue. This was not unfair to Mr Leyland.
 
The programme suggested that Mr Leyland was the ‘unreliable witness’ referred to in relation to the NIWA case when this was not true. 
[22]  The presenter did not at any time use the term ‘unreliable witness’. Rather, the presenter mentioned that the judge in the NIWA case found two individuals from the NZCSC to be unqualified to speak on climate change. He did not name either of the individuals or suggest that Mr Leyland was one of them (and if he was, we would expect the presenter would have been explicit about that in the context of a programme referring to Mr Leyland’s views and qualifications). It was open to the presenter to give his views on the case and we do not consider this aspect of the broadcast resulted in Mr Leyland being treated unfairly. 
 
The reference to the NZCSC suggested that Mr Leyland should be ‘guilty by association’. 
[23]  As Mr Leyland was a ‘foundation member’ of the NZCSC,6  it was not unreasonable or unfair for RNZ to associate him with that organisation. 
 
The broadcast seriously damaged Mr Leyland’s credibility and reputation and was a ‘personal attack’. 
[24]  The presenter’s comments on Mr Leyland were based on his assessment, and that expressed by the numerous persons who complained to TVNZ about the programme, of Mr Leyland’s professional background and qualifications. They did not stray into criticism of him personally or amount to a personal attack. The presenter’s comments were entirely consistent with the premise of the programme, which was a critique of the editorial decisions made about the Breakfast programme. Regular listeners would be aware of the established format of the programme and that it provides robust commentary on, and analysis of, the New Zealand media. As we have stated above at paragraph [19], Mr Leyland should reasonably have expected to attract some commentary and criticism in relation to his publicly expressed views.
 
Conclusion on fairness
[25]  Overall, the discussion was not overly critical of Mr Leyland, and most of the critical analysis was directed at the way the media dealt with the subject matter, rather than Mr Leyland or his views. Much of it was also clearly the opinion of the presenter, which was legitimate for him to express. In this context, we do not consider that listeners would have been left with an unfairly negative impression of Mr Leyland, and we therefore decline to uphold his fairness complaint.
 
For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
 
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
 
 
 
 
Peter Radich
Chair
7 May 2015 
 
 

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
 
1      Bryan Leyland’s formal complaint – 10 November 2014
2      RNZ’s response to the complaint – 8 December 2014
3      Mr Leyland’s referral to the Authority – 19 December 2014
4      RNZ’s response to the Authority – 21 January 2015
5      Mr Leyland’s final comments – 8 February 2015
6      RNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 13 March 2015
 
 
2 Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014
3 Charley and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2012-073
4 Ibid
5 Ibid