Skip to main content

Caughey and Leyland and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-009 (10 May 2018)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Tony Caughey and Bryan Leyland

Dated

10th May 2018

Number

2018-009

Programme

1 News

Channel/Station

TVNZ 1

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

Over two evenings on 6 and 7 November 2017, 1 News explored issues of climate change in the lead up to the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23), presided over by Fiji. During the 6 November 2017 broadcast, a segment titled ‘Rising Sea Levels’ focused on the relocation of Vunidogoloa in Fiji two kilometres inland. The ‘threat’ of ‘rising sea levels’ was revisited during an item on 7 November 2017, which focused on Kiribati purchasing higher ground in Fiji. The Authority did not uphold complaints from two complainants that these broadcasts were inaccurate and unbalanced on the basis there had been little or no rise in sea levels in Fiji or Kiribati. These items focused on Fiji’s position that it was particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels. These items sought to provide a ‘human face’ to those issues, providing the personal perspectives of those affected. Balancing the right to freedom of expression with the harm alleged to have been caused, and given the nature of the items and their narrow focus on personal stories, the Authority found that the statements complained about would not have affected viewers’ understanding of the items as a whole and did not amount to discussion of a controversial issue of public importance, and therefore did not trigger the requirements of the balance standard.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance  

 


Introduction

[1]  Over two evenings on 6 and 7 November 2017 on TVNZ 1, 1 News explored issues of climate change in the lead up to the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23), presided over by Fiji.

[2]  During the 6 November 2017 broadcast, a segment titled ‘Rising Sea Levels’ focused on the relocation of Vunidogoloa in Fiji two kilometres inland, with the reporter, Pacific Correspondent Barbara Dreaver, saying that ‘storm surges and high tides increasingly swept through the village…’

[3]  Presenter Wendy Petrie introduced a segment during the 7 November 2017 broadcast saying that the ‘threat’ of ‘rising sea levels’ was worse for lower lying islands such as Kiribati. Ms Dreaver reported that Kiribati had purchased higher ground in Fiji, saying Kiribati’s ‘low lying atolls are at risk from rising sea levels. The ground is coral, not soil, but what little grows here is being contaminated by salt water’.

[4]  Tony Caughey complained to the Authority that the 6 November 2017 broadcast, regarding the relocation of Vunidogoloa, was inaccurate and unbalanced. Mr Caughey also raised the programme information standard in his original formal complaint to the broadcaster. However, in his referral to us, he stated that he was primarily concerned with alleged breaches of balance and accuracy.

[5]  Bryan Leyland complained that both the 6 and 7 November 2017 broadcasts were inaccurate and unbalanced, as there had been little or no rise in sea levels at Fiji or Kiribati.

[6]  The issues raised in both of these complaints are therefore whether the broadcasts breached the accuracy and balance standards, as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Given the common issues raised, we have considered these complaints together.

[7]  The members of the Authority have viewed recordings of the broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

6 November broadcast - Relocation of Vunidogoloa

The parties’ submissions

[8]  A summary of the complainants’ submissions on this broadcast, in relation to both Standard 8 (Balance) and Standard 9 (Accuracy), is set out below:

  • Contrary to the statements made during this item, sea levels in Fiji are not rising. While there were no tide gauges at Vunidogoloa, both complainants cited the readings of the nearest two tide gauges in Lautoka and Suva, set up by the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology, as evidence for this submission.1
  • Mr Caughey submitted that the tide gauge at Lautoka showed a sea level rise of 3.8mm per year (around half of the sea level rise claimed by TVNZ in its evidence provided, below) and consistent with the global average. Mr Caughey also relied on research undertaken by Professor Nils-Axis Mörner, who claimed that sea levels in Fiji had remained stable.2
  • Mr Caughey further submitted that the reporter’s statement that ‘storm surges… increasingly’ flooded the village was inaccurate. He noted that, based on evidence presented by TVNZ, the number of tropical cyclones, which generate storm surges, passing within 400kms of Suva has decreased, consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report.3
  • Mr Leyland submitted that the item deflected attention from the real environmental problems facing Pacific islands, such as erosion, which were not caused by climate change or rising sea levels. Mr Caughey submitted that the item contained no discussion of storm surges, which were primarily cyclone-related, El Niño, or river activity, all of which could have an impact on sea levels at Vunidogoloa. 
  • Both complainants claimed encroachment from the sea was well underway at Vunidogoloa Village in the 1950s, citing an article from the Fiji Sun,4 long before it could have been caused by man-made greenhouse gases. Mr Caughey also cited a blog post from Barry Brill, about this issue, which supported his submission.
  • Mr Caughey submitted that in the publications referred to by TVNZ, jointly authored by the Fijian Met Service, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and others, actual or potential conflicts of interest were not declared in spite of there being potentially significant money available to Fiji from the Paris Accord. Disclaimer notices by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology were noted.

[9]  TVNZ submitted that:

  • In relation to balance, the issue of sea level rise in Fiji and at Vunidogoloa was not a controversial issue of public importance in New Zealand, given the uncontroversial nature of the information cited by TVNZ below.
  • TVNZ provided the following evidence in response to the accuracy complaints:
    • Satellite data indicated sea level has risen in Fiji by about 6mm per year since 1993 and sea levels were expected to continue to rise.5
    • The average rate of sea level rise over the past 20 years had been 3.2mm per year (National Geographic).6
    • From 1870 to 1950, the sea level rose 125mm and it rose another 60mm in the period between 1950 and 2000 (NASA).7
    • TVNZ also relied on sources from the UN and World Bank.8
  • The consensus among climate change scientists was that human-induced climate change is occurring, with impacts such as global sea level rise. 9
  • The authorities referred to by Mr Caughey in his submissions (Barry Brill and Professor Nils-Axis Mörner) could not be relied on. Barry Brill was a member of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, an advocacy group for climate change denial, and Mr Mörner’s findings on sea level rise have been robustly disputed.10

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[10]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) requires broadcasters to ‘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 source of the material (including whether the programme relies on an authoritative expert) will be a relevant consideration when assessing whether the broadcaster’s efforts to ensure accuracy were reasonable.11

[11]  It is therefore not the Authority’s role to make a conclusive finding on whether sea levels are rising in Fiji, or whether the cause of any sea level rise is due to the impacts of climate change. The Authority’s role is to assess whether TVNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure the information provided during this item was accurate and that it would not materially mislead viewers.

[12]  When we consider a complaint about broadcasting standards, our starting point is to acknowledge the important right to freedom of expression, including the right of the broadcaster to impart ideas information, and the public’s right to receive that information. Ultimately, our task is to strike the appropriate balance between the right to freedom of expression on one hand, and on the other, the actual or potential harm that might be caused either to individuals, or to society generally, through the alleged breach of broadcasting standards.

[13]  We consider that the broadcasts subject to these complaints had value, in keeping New Zealanders informed about the upcoming COP23 and the likely issues to be discussed, including Fiji’s perspective on the impacts of climate change. The complainants in this case have argued that harm was caused by these broadcasts, due to the inaccurate and unbalanced information which was provided to viewers about rising sea levels, which overstated the impact of climate change in Pacific nations.

[14]  In relation to this item in particular, and for the reasons we expand on below, we do not consider viewers would have been misled as a result of the statements subject to complaint.

[15]  These items were broadcast in the context of the upcoming COP23 and the issues likely to be discussed at that conference. Fiji’s position, as the presiding nation and as a small-island developing state, was that it was particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels. This particular segment was framed as giving a ‘human face’ to the impacts described by Fiji in the lead-up to COP23.

[16]  Given the focus of this item and the nature of this particular segment as a human interest piece, focused on personal perspectives, the key question for the Authority is whether Ms Dreaver’s statements about sea level rise were material, in the context of the item as a whole.

[17]  In our view, given the human interest nature and tone of the item, we are satisfied that Ms Dreaver’s statements would not have significantly affected viewers’ understanding of the item as a whole, and were therefore not material for the purposes of the standard.

[18]  In any event, the broadcaster has relied on reputable sources in support of the statements made in the item. Even if there are inconsistencies in the data provided to us by the broadcaster and the complainants, we consider it was reasonable for TVNZ to rely on the sources cited as evidence for the reporter’s statements about sea level rise and the relocation of Vunidogoloa. With respect to scientific accuracy, we reiterate what we have said in previous decisions, that it is not the role of this Authority to decide scientific issues impacting climate change; rather our role is to assess whether the item as a whole would have misled viewers. We note that the issues relating to different theories impacting climate change are subject to wide debate and discussion in a range of media.

[19]  In these circumstances, and having weighed the value of the item and the importance of the expression against the level of actual or potential harm that may have been caused, we do not consider audiences would have been materially misled in such a manner as to justify restricting the right to freedom of expression.

[20]  We therefore do not uphold the accuracy complaints in relation to the 6 November 2017 broadcast.

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

[21]  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 viewpoints about significant issues are presented to enable the audience to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.

[22]  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’.12

[23]  A controversial issue will be one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate. Human interest or personal stories will not be considered controversial issues of public importance.13

[24]  While the issue of human induced global climate change has previously been found by the Authority to be controversial,14 we do not consider that the narrow topic of the relocation of Vunidogoloa in Fiji amounted to a controversial issue of public importance in New Zealand. We accept that, generally, issues arising in the Pacific are of concern and importance to New Zealand, particularly when those issues might relate to the level of support that New Zealand may provide. However, we do not consider that the specific topic addressed in this segment was a ‘controversial issue’ for the purposes of the balance standard.

[25]  During the segment subject to complaint, Ms Dreaver spoke to villagers at Vunidogoloa about the relocation and their experiences, focusing on personal stories and perspectives rather than the specific issue of whether tide levels or human-induced global warming was the key driver for the relocation. The segment was also clear about Fiji’s role at Bonn, and the $1 billion promised to small-island developing states, with the reporter describing Fiji’s ‘pressure to perform’.

[26]  Given the nature of this segment, which provided a ‘human face’ to the issues discussed by the presenter in the item’s introduction (a reflection of the topics for discussion at COP23), we do not consider that this segment discussed a controversial issue of public importance. As such, viewers would not have expected to be provided with the type of wider, contextual information that the complainants have argued should have been included.

[27]  We therefore do not consider that the requirements of the balance standard were triggered in this case.

[28]  In any event, and as we have noted above, this item was introduced by the presenter as focusing on the experiences of Pacific nations, given Fiji’s role at COP23. It was therefore clear to viewers from the item’s introduction that the focus would be the impact of climate change on Pacific nations, one of the critical issues to be discussed at UN climate talks.

[29]  As we have noted above in our discussion of freedom of expression, this item had value in providing viewers with information, as well as personal perspectives, on the significant issues for discussion at COP23. We therefore do not consider that the value of the item, and the broadcaster’s right to impart information to viewers in this way, has been outweighed by the harm alleged to have been caused, through the alleged omission of balancing views on the issue of rising sea levels.

[30]  We therefore do not find a breach of the balance standard in relation to this broadcast.

7 November broadcast – Kiribati

The parties’ submissions

[31]  Mr Leyland submitted:

  • An accurate sea level gauge installed on Kiribati by the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology showed no significant rise in sea level. The rate of rise since 1992 was 3.6mm per year, lower if discounting the effects of El Niño. Since 2015, the sea level had dropped slightly. 15

[32]  TVNZ submitted:

  • No definitive claim was made during the item about the rate of sea level rise, just that sea level rise was a threat to low-lying islands. Satellite data indicated, however, that sea levels had risen across Kiribati by 1 4mm per year since 1993 and were expected to continue to rise.16
  • In relation to balance, the issue of Kiribati buying land in Fiji was not a controversial issue of public importance in New Zealand. In any event, significant viewpoints (from the village of Naviavia, Fijian residents, a Fijian Chief and the Kiribati government) were provided.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[33]  In our assessment of the 6 November 2017 broadcast, we found that the focus of the item was the various climate changes issues to be discussed at the upcoming COP23, over which Fiji was presiding. We consider this reasoning also applies to the 7 November segment complained about by Mr Leyland.

[34]  This segment provided various perspectives on the issue of Kiribati buying land in Fiji, as identified by the broadcaster in its submissions above. Given the nature of this segment, we have found that Ms Petrie’s and Ms Dreaver’s statements about sea level rise at Kiribati were not material to the focus of the item, which focused on personal or human interest stories. In these circumstances, we do not consider that viewers would have been materially misled as to the nature of the item as a whole.

[35]  In any event, the data provided to us by both TVNZ and the complainant shows a rise in sea level at Kiribati of 1-4mm and 3.6mm respectively, and both the broadcaster and the complainant appear to rely on reputable sources. We therefore consider it was reasonable for TVNZ to rely on the information provided as the basis for its report that low-lying atolls such as Kiribati were at risk from the impacts of climate change.

[36]  As we have found above in relation to the 6 November 2017 broadcast, this item had value in providing viewers with information about COP23 and issues of climate change, from the perspective of Fiji, as the presiding nation at COP23, and Kiribati, and through the individual perspectives of those affected. Given the item’s focus, we do not consider viewers would have been materially misled about the topics discussed. We therefore have not identified any harm arising from this broadcast that would outweigh the right to freedom of expression in this case.

[37]  For these reasons, we do not uphold the accuracy complaint in relation to this broadcast.

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

[38]  In relation to balance, we consider our findings above from paragraph [24] also apply here. Issues relating to Pacific nations generally will often be of significance and importance to New Zealand, and we accept that the broader topic of climate change and human induced global warming may be a controversial issue.

[39]  However, in this case, and applying the strict criteria of the balance standard, we do not consider that the narrow topic of land purchased by Kiribati reported on during this item amounted to a controversial issue of public importance in New Zealand, particularly given the context of the item, which was focused on personal stories.

[40]  The segment subject to complaint focused on the ‘mixed feelings’ and perspectives of the community at Naviavia, regarding the Kiribati government’s move to purchase land there for ‘climate change refugees’. The reporter acknowledged that there was a level of ‘strategising’ taking place by Fiji, given its spotlight on the world stage and its efforts to be seen as a Pacific leader in global climate change policy.

[41]  This segment therefore did not purport to provide viewers with an in-depth analysis of the climate change impacts experienced by Kiribati, as it instead focused on giving a human face to these effects and the action being taken to address them.

[42]  In these circumstances, we do not believe viewers would have been left uninformed on the issue of rising sea levels in the Pacific, and we have not identified any harm arising from the broadcast justifying a limit on the right to freedom of expression.

[43]  We therefore do not uphold this aspect of Mr Leyland’s complaint.

 

 

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


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Peter Radich
Chair
10 May 2018

 

 


Appendix

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

Tony Caughey’s complaint

1     Tony Caughey’s formal complaint and supporting documents – 7 and 14 November 2017
2     TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 5 December 2017
3     Mr Caughey’s referral to the Authority – 16 January 2018
4     TVNZ’s response to the referral – 9 March 2018
5     Mr Caughey’s final comments – 26 March 2018 and 6 April 2018

Bryan Leyland’s complaint

6     Mr Leyland’s formal complaints – 7, 8 and 9 November 2017
7     TVNZ’s response to the complaints – 5, 6 and 7 December 2017
8     Mr Leyland’s referrals to the Authority – 14 and 15 January 2018
9     TVNZ’s comments on the 7 November 2017 referral – 2 March 2018
10   TVNZ’s comments on the 6 November 2017 referrals – 23 March 2018
11   Mr Leyland’s final comments – 27 March 2018


Monthly sea level at Lautoka, Fiji: http://www.bom.gov.au/ntc/IDO70054/IDO70054SLI.pdf; and at Suva, Fiji: http://www.bom.gov.au/ntc/IDO70063/IDO70063SLI.pdf

Citing https://wattsupwiththat.com/2017/11/13/fiji-flooding-is-fake-news-from-cop23/ (Watts Up With That?)

Available here: https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full_wcover.pdf 

See: http://fijisun.com.fj/2014/08/20/vunidogoloa-relocation-mooted-in-the-50s/

Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning Program: Current and future climate of the Fiji Islands (Fiji Meteorological Service, Australia Bureau of Meteorology, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), pages 6 and 9; and How Fiji is affected by climate change (COP23 Fiji, UN Climate Change Conference, Bonn 2017-18)

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/sea-level-rise/

https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/sea-level/ and https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/

8  See: How Fiji is affected by climate change (COP23 Fiji, UN Climate Change Conference, Bonn 2017-18) and How Fiji is impacted by climate change (UNFCCC Newsroom) and Climate Vulnerability Assessment: Making Fiji Climate Resilient (World Bank and Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, see 3.2.1, page 82)  and accompanying press release: New report projects $4.5 billion cost to reduce Fiji’s vulnerability to climate change (The World Bank press release, 10 November 2017) 

See: https://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/migrate/uploads/1021climate_letter1.pdf; http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002; and https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/#*

10 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/dec/02/spectator-sea-level-claims

11 Guideline 9d

12  Guideline 8a

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

14 Wrathall and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-076

15 Citing: Monthly sea level at Betio, Kiribati: http://www.bom.gov.au/ntc/IDO70060/IDO70060SLI.pdf and Monthly Data Report – September 2017, Pacific Sea Level Monitoring Project, Climate and Oceans Support Program in the Pacific and Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

16  Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaptation Planning Program: Current and future climate of Kiribati (Kiribati Meteorological Service, Australia Bureau of Meteorology, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), pages 4 and 7