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Henderson and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2016-014 (27 June 2016)

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose

Complainant

  • Neil Henderson

Dated

27th June 2016

Number

2016-014

Programme

Morning Report

Channel/Station

Radio New Zealand National

Broadcaster

Radio New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

Seven items on Morning Report contained references to greenhouse gas emissions, specifically agricultural emissions and the outcomes of discussions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP 21). The Authority did not uphold a complaint alleging it was inaccurate and unbalanced to state or infer that livestock emissions amount to half of New Zealand’s total emissions. The Authority found that references to the amount of livestock emissions in several of the items were not material points of fact to which the accuracy standard applied. In relation to the other items the Authority was satisfied that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy as it drew on a range of reputable sources and scientific evidence in support of the statements made.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Controversial Issues


Introduction

[1]  Seven items on Morning Report contained references to greenhouse gas emissions, specifically agricultural emissions and the outcomes of discussions at the recently concluded United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP 21).

[2]  Neil Henderson complained that the items were inaccurate and unbalanced in either stating or inferring that almost half of New Zealand’s total emissions come from livestock.

[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the accuracy and controversial issues standards as set out in the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice.1

[4] The items were broadcast on Radio New Zealand National. Item one was broadcast on 4 December 2016, and items two through six were broadcast on 14 December 2016. The members of the Authority have listened to a recording of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Jurisdictional matter – scope of complaint

[5]  RNZ argued that, during the course of correspondence regarding his complaint, Mr Henderson appeared to broaden the scope of his complaint from the issue of livestock emissions to alternative methods of comparing methane’s relative warming effect with that of carbon dioxide. RNZ noted that Mr Henderson admitted he did not address this specific point in the body of his complaint. It maintained the Authority should not determine matters which were not complained about in the first instance.

[6]  Mr Henderson did not agree that he broadened the scope of his complaint. He argued that all he did was draw attention to a point made in his letter to the Climate Change Minister, which was attached to his original complaint. He said that all attachments were intended to be read as part of his initial complaint.

[7]  The Authority's task is to review the broadcaster's decision. Our well-established approach to the issue of the scope of complaints and their determination is that our jurisdiction is limited to matters raised in the original complaint and cannot extend to new and distinct issues added at a later stage in the complaints process.2 We agree with the broadcaster that the issue of alternative methods of comparing the relative warming effects of methane and carbon dioxide was only raised by Mr Henderson at a later stage in the complaints process. As Mr Henderson acknowledged, he did not explicitly mention this issue in his original complaint. The letter to the Climate Change Minister was not actually attached to his formal complaint, but rather was included in Mr Henderson’s correspondence with RNZ prior to making a formal complaint that he in turn attached to his complaint ‘for the sake of clarity’. We also do not consider that Mr Henderson implicitly raised this issue or that it can be considered part of his concerns about livestock emissions, which formed the substance of his original complaint. In any case, this additional issue was not the subject of any of the broadcasts complained about.

[8]  Accordingly, we have limited the scope of our determination to considering whether reporting that livestock emissions amount to half of all New Zealand’s emissions breached broadcasting standards.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[9]  The accuracy standard (Standard 5) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.3

Overview of accuracy findings

[10]  Mr Henderson complained about seven items featured on Morning Report which largely focused on commentary around the outcomes of the COP 21 agreement. Each item contained varying levels of connection to, or discussion of, the subject of livestock emissions and the extent to which they contribute to New Zealand’s total emission output. We have addressed each item in more detail below, but we first wish to make some general comments regarding each party’s arguments and our findings under the accuracy standard

[11]  Mr Henderson’s central concern appears to us to be the broadcaster’s reliance on the finding that almost half of New Zealand’s emissions come from livestock, which he alleged was inaccurate because livestock emissions do not contribute to global warming. While Mr Henderson acknowledged that this is a Ministry for the Environment finding, he maintained that this was ‘misinformation’ which has ‘become so entrenched that it has become accepted without question as fact’. In essence, Mr Henderson asserted that New Zealand’s emissions profile was wrongly calculated as it calculated the full gross emissions, not net; livestock emissions are only responsible for a very small temperature rise (as the number of livestock stays constant, and so does the level of atmospheric methane), and therefore there is no need to reduce meat and dairy consumption, he said. Mr Henderson argued that the calculation of emissions figures significantly affected listeners’ perception of the issue. He referred to calculations, scientific evidence and two research papers in support of his submission that livestock emissions do not equal half of New Zealand’s total emissions.

[12]  RNZ argued that the calculation of livestock emissions was not a material point of fact that would have altered listeners’ understanding of the particular items.

[13]  First, we note that Mr Henderson’s complaint refers to livestock emissions, while the broadcasts largely refer to agricultural emissions. In New Zealand, livestock emissions are reported to form nearly all of our total agricultural emissions – about 97%.4 Therefore we have proceeded to consider Mr Henderson’s complaint on the basis it relates to the statements made about agricultural emissions.

[14]  Second, it is not the Authority’s role to make findings on complex scientific issues, nor do we intend to respond in detail to the technical scientific arguments Mr Henderson made in his complaint. To do so would overstep our role and area of expertise. Our task is the narrower one of determining whether the broadcaster met its obligations to make reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy. Having listened to the items and having had regard to both parties’ submissions, we are satisfied that it did. While we acknowledge that some issues related to greenhouse gas emissions are still subject to debate, in this case we consider there was a sufficient basis for the statements broadcast about livestock emissions. RNZ relied on findings made by the Ministry for the Environment, international experts in the field of climate change and other reputable sources to support the statements made during the items. This, in our view, amounted to ‘reasonable efforts’ as required by the accuracy standard and we therefore have not found any breach. We expand our reasoning in relation to each item below.

Item one: interview with researcher regarding the impact of agricultural versus transport emissions

[15]  This item featured an interview with the author of a recently released research report, which suggested meat and dairy had more of an impact on climate change than transport. The item discussed consumer awareness of the effect agricultural emissions, as opposed to transport emissions, have on climate change. During the course of the discussion the interviewer stated, ‘About half of New Zealand’s emissions come from agriculture.'

[16]  Mr Henderson argued that the suggestion that meat and dairy had more of an impact on climate change than transport was based on an incorrect calculation, therefore the audience was misled.

[17]  RNZ argued that while the interviewer stated agricultural emissions amounted to ‘about half of New Zealand’s emissions’, this was not a material point of fact in the item as it would not have altered listeners’ understanding of the thrust of the interview, which was about consumer perceptions of which industry causes the most harm in terms of climate change.

[18]  Contrary to the views of the broadcaster, we do consider that the statement that agricultural emissions amount to half of New Zealand’s emissions was a material point of fact in this item, as the focus was on which industry was perceived as having the most impact on climate change. A statement about the effect the agricultural industry has on greenhouse gas emissions is directly related to this point and in our view did have the potential to influence listeners’ understanding of the discussion.

[19]  That being said, we are satisfied RNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of the statement. As noted above, it is a Ministry for the Environment finding (supported by scientific evidence) that agricultural emissions amount to half of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and RNZ was entitled to rely on the finding. Listeners would not have been misled about the key message of the discussion, which was that agricultural emissions make a significant contribution to New Zealand’s total emissions.

Item two: interview with then Climate Change Minister Tim Groser about Government funding and policy

[20]  The interview was introduced with the Minister’s statement that Government policy would not need to change in the near future to meet commitments agreed at COP 21. Mr Groser emphasised that the Government was committed to ‘finding technical solutions to our agricultural emissions’, demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s announcement of a future funding boost of $20 million by 2020 on this issue. Mr Groser also discussed the success of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Emissions initiative.

[21]  Mr Henderson considered listeners were misinformed by the interview, as the research discussed would have no effect on global temperatures and there were ‘better uses for the $20 million’ of Government funding.

[22]  RNZ considered that this interview was about Government policy and whether any further policy changes were required, therefore it was not inaccurate or misleading in relation to livestock emissions.

[23]  This item did not refer to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions which are caused by agriculture (or livestock), therefore it was not inaccurate in relation to this point. We also do not consider that the item generally was inaccurate or misleading. It was a straightforward interview with the Minster who gave his explanation of current and future Government policy that would be affected by the agreements reached at COP 21. Listeners may or may not agree with Government policy, but this is not an issue which can be resolved under the accuracy standard.

Item three: interview with Prime Minister John Key on cost of COP 21 outcomes to New Zealand consumers

[24]  The Prime Minister discussed his forecast that New Zealand consumers could expect to pay an additional $100 per year as a result of the commitment made by the New Zealand Government at COP 21 to meet certain emission targets. The Prime Minister commented briefly on possible scientific solutions to agricultural emissions before discussing power and fuel related issues.

[25]  Mr Henderson said his arguments relating to item two also applied to this item.

[26]  RNZ noted that the reference to agricultural emissions was only in passing, and the discussion focused on power and fuel related issues.

[27]  We agree with the broadcaster that this interview did not concentrate on the topic of agricultural emissions and furthermore did not refer to what portion of New Zealand’s total emission output these accounted for, so it could not be inaccurate in this regard. This interview with the Prime Minister emphasised that the New Zealand Government was prioritising reduction in agricultural (including livestock) emissions. It demonstrated recognition on behalf of the New Zealand Government that livestock emissions have been substantiated as an issue that is worth addressing, and overall was not inaccurate or misleading.

Item four: interview with Chief Executive of Climate Analytics about the COP 21 agreement

[28]  This item featured a short interview with the Chief Executive of Climate Analytics, a non-profit climate science and policy institute. He discussed the nature of the COP 21 agreement as an international agreement which would require the political will of the participating countries to achieve the targets identified. The Chief Executive referred to both agricultural and transport emissions, noting that agricultural emissions are difficult to reduce but industrial emissions could be addressed in a more meaningful way.

[29]  Mr Henderson considered the scientist’s comments about the need to reduce livestock emissions were misleading, as if ‘the truth of the real effects’ of livestock emissions was known, then it would not be necessary to reduce emissions.

[30]  This interview centred on the nature of the COP 21 agreement. There was a brief mention of emissions caused by specific sectors at the end of the item, and both the agriculture and transport sectors were mentioned as contributing to overall greenhouse gas emissions. While we do not consider the statements about agricultural emissions were material to the item overall, the interviewee’s qualifications and standing as a recognised expert in the field of climate change meant he was well-placed to comment on this subject and it was reasonable for RNZ to rely on his expertise. As the interviewee noted, it is largely accepted that agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. While Mr Henderson may disagree with this viewpoint, we do not find the statements in question to be material points of fact that were inaccurate or misleading.

Item five: interview with Federated Farmers representative about the COP 21 agreement

[31]  This interview discussed the COP 21 agreement commitment to maintaining food security as well as mitigating climate change. The interviewer began the interview by saying:

Agriculture produces almost half of all New Zealand greenhouse gas emissions. Despite that, it’s been repeatedly excused from being made to pay for those emissions as other sectors are under the Emissions Trading Scheme. The Government’s reasoning is that agriculture is vital to the economy and other countries don’t send a greenhouse gas bill to their farmers either. [Federated Farmers representative] says the latest agreement in Paris stresses the importance of sustaining agriculture as well as fighting climate change.

[32]  Mr Henderson argued that the statement that livestock emissions equal half of our total emissions was incorrect, and livestock emissions are actually irrelevant to global warming.

[33]  RNZ noted that the statement was made in the context of discussing how farmers were excused from paying under the existing emissions trading scheme.

[34] Our findings in relation to item one largely apply to this item as well, and we do not consider it was inaccurate or misleading. There are multiple sources which support the statement that agricultural emissions form half of all New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, which we think broadcasters can reasonably draw on.5 The Federated Farmers representative interviewed accepted that agricultural emissions have a significant impact on New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, while giving his view that the answer to the issue of agricultural emissions was ‘improving productivity, having a lower carbon footprint per unit of product’.

Item six: interview with Green Party co-leader James Shaw about the COP 21 agreement

[35]  This interview focused on the ‘review and revise’ mechanism in the COP 21 agreement. It contained a brief discussion of agricultural emissions, during which the interviewer mentioned, ‘and of course, half of our greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture’. Mr Shaw responded that an emphasis on productivity and profits could bring down emissions in this sector.

[36]  Mr Henderson again argued that livestock emissions caused no warming and it was therefore irrelevant whether emissions were lowered.

[37]  The comment that agricultural emissions form half of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions was only a passing reference in the context of the item, which focused on Mr Shaw’s reaction to the COP 21 agreement. Therefore we do not consider the statements about agricultural emissions amounted to material points of fact or that they would have misled listeners. However, as we have found in relation to other items, there was a sufficient basis for the statement that agricultural emissions form half of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Item seven: interview with economist on the economic implications of the COP 21 agreement

[38]  This interview with a prominent New Zealand economist focused on the economic implications arising from COP 21, including New Zealand’s intention to buy carbon credits on the international market. Discussion was had around whether farmers or taxpayers would bear the burden of increased costs given current agricultural exemptions.

[39]  Mr Henderson argued that this item also misinformed listeners, as he asserted that if they knew livestock emissions had no effect on climate change then they as taxpayers would urge the Government to get rid of this ‘nonsense cost’.

[40]  This interview focused on the economic implications of the COP 21 agreement. Any mention of agricultural emissions was not material to this focus and therefore did not breach standards of accuracy.

Did the item discuss a controversial issue of public importance which required the presentation of alternative viewpoints?

[41]  The balance standard (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. The standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.6

[42]  Mr Henderson considered that the issue of livestock emissions was ‘a very serious issue’ for New Zealand, because of the country’s high dependence on livestock production for its economic wellbeing and because he thought farmers were being mistakenly labelled as major contributors to climate change. Mr Henderson argued that such a controversial issue should be afforded balance, and his views on livestock emissions deserved to be broadcast so the public was not misinformed.

[43]  RNZ argued that none of the items complained about were a discussion or debate on the narrow topic of the calculation of livestock emissions figures, therefore the standard did not apply.

[44]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’, and it must be ‘discussed’.7

[45]  While the extent of the contribution of agricultural emissions to New Zealand’s total emission output may be a controversial issue of public importance, we do not consider that any of the seven items subject to complaint amounted to a ‘discussion’ of this issue as required by this standard. Items two through seven largely focused on issues arising from COP 21, and any mention of agricultural (or livestock) emissions formed a passing reference only. Item one contained the most discussion of agricultural emissions, but this item similarly did not discuss or debate whether agricultural emissions did actually constitute half of all of New Zealand’s emissions. Rather, the focus of the item was on consumer perceptions of which industry has the most impact on climate change.

[46]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under Standard 4.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority.

 

Peter Radich
Chair
27 June 2016

 

 

Appendix

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

1      Neil Henderson’s formal complaint – 23 December 2015
2      RNZ’s response to the complaint – 5 February 2016
3      Mr Henderson’s referral to the Authority – 25 February 2016
4      RNZ’s response to the Authority – 30 March 2016
5      Mr Henderson’s final comment – 18 May 2016

 

 


1 This complaint was determined under the previous Radio Code, which applied up until 31 March 2016. The new Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook took effect on 1 April 2016 and applies to any programmes broadcast on or after that date: http://bsa.govt.nz/standards/overview

2 For example, see White and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2015-042 at [27]

3 Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036

4 ‘Reducing New Zealand’s Agricultural Greenhouse Gases: How We Measure Emissions’ (New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, April 2015) at 3: http://www.nzagrc.org.nz/fact-sheets,listing,176,reducing-new-zealands-agricultural-emissions-how-we-measure-emissions.html

5 For example see the Ministry for the Environment’s website: http://www.mfe.govt.nz/climate-change/reporting-greenhouse-gas-emissions/nzs-greenhouse-gas-inventory

6 Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

7 For further discussion of these concepts see Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Television (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2010) and Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Radio (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2009)