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Christensen and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-007 (8 May 2018)

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose
  • Wendy Palmer

Complainant

  • Russell Christensen

Dated

8th May 2018

Number

2018-007

Programme

1 News

Channel/Station

TVNZ 1

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

A 1 News segment on 14 November 2017 discussed the effect of an expanding Chinese economy on global carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. In a pre-recorded item from the BBC, with reference to the release of CO2, a BBC Correspondent said that ‘the gas traps heat in the atmosphere’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the item was inaccurate or unbalanced. The Authority found that the broadcaster was entitled to rely on internationally reputable sources to support the BBC Correspondent’s statement on the issues addressed in the segment. The Authority also found that the broadcaster’s reliance on this leading scientific theory to the exclusion of others in the broadcast was unlikely to leave viewers significantly misinformed. It noted that climate change is an ongoing and constantly discussed controversial issue of public importance and therefore audiences no longer have to be presented with all significant viewpoints in one broadcast.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance, Law and Order  


Introduction

[1]  A 1 News segment on 14 November discussed the effect of an expanding Chinese economy on global carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. In a pre-recorded item from the BBC, the BBC Correspondent said:

[T]his new research finds that more and more carbon dioxide is being released from power stations, factories and different forms of transport and this matters because the gas traps heat in the atmosphere [emphasis added].

[2]  The BBC Correspondent then discussed the increased coal use in China as the cause of the CO2 rise, the potential effects of increased emissions and the future of the coal industry internationally.

[3]  Russell Christensen complained that the BBC Correspondent’s statement that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere was inaccurate. Mr Christensen also complained that the broadcast was unbalanced and that viewers were deprived of alternative climate change theories, specifically the ‘Gravitational Basin Sickness Theory’.

[4]  The issues raised in Mr Christensen’s complaint are whether the broadcast breached the balance, accuracy and law and order standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[5]  The item was broadcast on 14 November 2017 on TVNZ 1. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Freedom of expression

[6]  Our starting point in the determination of a complaint is to consider the right to freedom of expression. This right includes both the broadcaster’s right to impart ideas and information, and the public’s right to receive that information. Our task is to weigh the value of the programme and the importance of freedom of expression, against the level of actual or potential harm that may be caused by the broadcast. We may only interfere and uphold complaints where the resulting limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified.1

[7]  The focus of the segment in this instance was China’s increase in CO2 emissions and the potential effects that growing levels of CO2 could have globally. Examining the possible causes and effects of climate change and exploring what society can do in response is a matter of significant public interest in New Zealand and internationally. Our role is not to make a definitive finding on the complex and controversial issues raised with respect to climate change, which is beyond the Authority’s jurisdiction and expertise. Rather our role is to consider whether the broadcast resulted in any actual or potential harm to viewers and if so, whether that harm was significant enough to outweigh TVNZ’s right to freedom of expression. In this case we need to assess whether, in the context of a short news item, the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy and balance so as not to leave the audience misinformed.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[8]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) 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 being significantly misinformed.

The parties’ submissions

[9]  Mr Christensen submitted:

  • The presenter’s statement that CO2, as a greenhouse gas, traps heat in the atmosphere was inaccurate.
  • Greenhouse gases do not trap heat in the atmosphere. They absorb thermal radiation and this creates patchy sensible heat that is converted into the energy of wind and other forms of latent energy.
  • He is not arguing that climate change is not real, nor is he challenging the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases. But it does not automatically follow that CO2 is a polluter causing increased atmosphere temperatures and that therefore we should be cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • In the BBC Correspondent’s statement and TVNZ’s response to the original complaint, the broadcaster relies on the theory of ‘back radiation’ and the idea that increased levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases result in global warming increases. The greenhouse effect concept should be challenged rather than accepted, as the evidence at hand regarding the earth’s temperature does not fit the theory and there is also a significant amount of other evidence not being taken into account.
  • Viewers should also be given an account of the ‘Gravitational Basin Sickness Theory’ (evidence pertaining to the ‘strong geographical skewing of the earth’s surface warming’), to properly inform them of what is happening to the climate.

[10]  TVNZ submitted:

  • The BBC Correspondent’s brief description was sufficiently accurate in the context of the item and did not mislead viewers about the process that was being discussed.
  • TVNZ cited an article from NASA which supports the idea that greenhouse gas remains in the atmosphere and has an effect on the earth’s temperature:

It is significant that so much carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere because CO2 is the most important gas for controlling Earth’s temperature. Carbon dioxide, methane, and halocarbons are greenhouse gases that absorb a wide range of energy – including infrared energy (heat) emitted by the Earth – and then re-emit it. The re-emitted energy travels out in all directions, but some returns to Earth, where it heats the surface. Without greenhouse gases, Earth would be a frozen -18 degrees Celsius (0 degrees Fahrenheit). With too many greenhouse gases, Earth would be like Venus, where the greenhouse atmosphere keeps temperatures around 400 degrees Celsius (750 Fahrenheit).2

  • TVNZ also cited a letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science which states:

Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science.3

  • Between 90% and 100% of climate scientists publishing in peer-reviewed journals agree that human activity has been a cause of recent climate change.4

Our analysis

[11]  As stated above, our role in this case is not to make a definitive finding on the scientific issues. Rather our role is to determine whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy in the broadcast.5

[12]  While the submissions, particularly the broadcaster’s, discuss broader aspects of the causes and effects of climate change, Mr Christensen’s submissions centre around the accuracy of the presenter’s statement that ‘the gas [CO2] traps heat in the atmosphere’, causing the earth’s temperature to increase, resulting in climate change. Due to the definitive and matter-of-fact nature of this statement, we consider it amounts to a material statement of fact to which this standard is applicable.6

[13]  We agree with the complainant that the BBC Correspondent’s statement rests on the assumption that increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has an effect of increased global warming. However, we consider the broadcaster has made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy by relying on internationally reputable sources regarding the scientific consensus regarding the link between increased greenhouse gases and the increase in the earth’s temperature.

[14]  Based on the sources supplied by TVNZ, the idea that gas traps heat in the atmosphere and is the biggest cause of climate change appears to be widely accepted within the climate scientific community. The Ministry for the Environment also states that ‘[t]he increased levels of greenhouse gases change the climate by trapping energy in the atmosphere.’7 In addition, TVNZ has relied on the BBC-supplied item, which is generally considered to be a reputable news outlet.

[15]  In these circumstances, while there may be alternative theories for the increase in the earth’s temperature, it is evident that the predominant theory in the climate scientific community in New Zealand and overseas is the theory presented in the broadcast. Therefore we find it was reasonable for TVNZ to rely on the information broadcast, and the correspondent’s statement that ‘gas traps heat in the atmosphere’ was not materially inaccurate for the purposes of the accuracy standard.

[16]  Further, as we discuss below, we do not consider that the omission of any reference to the ‘Gravitational Basin Sickness Theory’, which the complainant wished to be included, resulted in a breach of the accuracy standard. The BBC Correspondent attempted to explain one, significant theory in simple terms for viewers, in a way that could be easily understood, rather than exploring all possible theories. In this context we do not find this omission resulted in the item as a whole being inaccurate or misleading to an extent which justifies limiting the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression.

[17]  Therefore we do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.

Was the item sufficiently balanced?

[18]  The balance standard (Standard 8) 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.

The parties’ submissions

[19]  Mr Christensen submitted:

  • By making the statement ‘the gas traps heat in the atmosphere’ in the broadcast, TVNZ completely ignored the ‘Gravitational Basin Sickness Theory’, an alternative hypothesis that states it would be impossible for an agent evenly distributed in the atmosphere to cause rises in the earth’s temperature.
  • TVNZ has treated one source as truth while completely ignoring a plausible alternative hypothesis.
  • It is not balanced journalism for TVNZ to list and accept the word of a number of scientists who would have us believe that greenhouse gases are to blame for increases in the earth’s atmospheric temperature.

[20]  TVNZ submitted:

  • The increase of measured CO2 levels is not controversial for the purposes of this standard.
  • Considering the sources referred to above, the consensus amongst climate change scientists (who are most qualified to make such determinations) is that human-induced climate change is occurring.

Our analysis

[21]  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’.8

[22]  The Authority has typically defined an 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’.9 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.10

[23]  Considering its importance to the wider debate of climate change and the significant potential effects of increased CO2 emissions as mentioned in the broadcast, we consider the rise in CO2 levels globally to be a controversial issue of public importance for the purposes of this standard.

[24]  The Authority has previously found that the broader issue of global warming is a ‘long-running, ongoing, spirited and very public issue’.11 It has also noted that there is now a proliferation of broadcast media on climate change, leading to a more discerning and informed viewing public. Therefore audiences no longer have to be presented with all significant viewpoints in one broadcast. In regards to balance and issues around climate change and global warming, the Authority has said:12

We do not think that there will be many people in New Zealand who are unaware of the swirl of arguments around global warming… we think there is a level of sophistication and awareness in New Zealand around the issue of, and ongoing debate about, climate change…

[25]  In our view, the Authority’s reasoning in that decision also applies here. Climate change and related issues are ongoing and regularly discussed in the media. There is a wealth of information on this topic that is readily available to audiences, and alternative perspectives are presented from time to time throughout various media.13 We do not consider that viewers would have been left uninformed by the absence of discussion of alternative climate change theories in the context of this short two-and-a-half-minute news segment. We also note that while alternative theories on the causes of climate change are prevalent, the Authority is unable to find any easily accessible information regarding the ‘Gravitational Basin Sickness Theory’ that the complainant submits should have been discussed.

[26]  Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.

Did the broadcast encourage viewers to break the law, or otherwise promote, condone or glamorise criminal activity?

[27]  The intent behind the law and order standard (Standard 5) is to prevent broadcasts that encourage viewers to break the law, or otherwise promote, glamorise or condone criminal activity. The standard exists to ensure that broadcasters refrain from broadcasting material which does not respect the laws which sustain our society.

[28]  Mr Christensen did not make any specific submissions under this standard.

[29]  We did not identify anything in this broadcast which could have encouraged viewers to break the law or otherwise promoted, condoned or glamorised criminal activity.

[30]  Therefore we do not uphold the complaint under the law and order standard.

 

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


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
8 May 2018 

 


Appendix

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

1     Russell Christensen’s formal complaint – 15 November 2017
2     TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 13 December 2017
3     Mr Christensen’s referral to the Authority – 21 December 2017
4     TVNZ’s further comments – 13 March 2018
5     Mr Christensen’s final comments – 22 March 2018
6     TVNZ confirmation of no further comment – 4 April 2018


See sections 5 and 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, and Introduction: Freedom of Expression, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 6

‘The Carbon Cycle’, https://www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/ (Earth Observatory, 16 June 2011)

Letter from the AAAS, https://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/1021climate_letter1.pdf, (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 21 October 2009)

See: ‘Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming’, http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002 (Multiple authors, 13 April 2016); ‘Scientific consensus: Earth’s climate is warming’, https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/ (Global Climate Change, NASA)

See also: Grieve and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2016-019, at [20], and Henderson and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2016-014, at [14]

Guideline 9a

‘About measuring greenhouse gas emissions’, http://www.mfe.govt.nz/climate-change/tracking-greenhouse-gas-emissions/about-tracking-greenhouse-gas-emissions (Ministry for the Environment, 18 October 2017)

Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18

As above

10 As above

11 See for example: Grieve and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2016-019

12 McMillan and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2013-025 at [30]

13 For example, see: ‘US environment chief doubts CO2’s role in global warming’, http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/environment/326274/us-environment-chief-doubts-co2's-role-in-global-warming (RNZ, March 2017); and ‘Trump overturns Obama climate change policies’, http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/world/327689/trump-overturns-obama-climate-change-policies (RNZ, March 2017)