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Brill and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2018-028 (18 June 2018)

Members

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

Complainant

  • Barry Brill

Dated

18th June 2018

Number

2018-028

Programme

1 News

Channel/Station

TVNZ 1

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd

Summary

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

Two items on 1 News reported on extreme weather events in New Zealand, with an item on 8 January 2018 focused on the release of NIWA’s 2017 Annual Report and a 12 January 2018 item reporting on clean-up efforts on the West Coast, following torrential rain and flooding. Brief references were made during these items to the impacts of climate change in New Zealand and particularly on extreme weather events. The Authority did not uphold complaints that these items were inaccurate and unbalanced because climate change was not occurring in New Zealand and the number and intensity of extreme weather events was also not increasing. Given the focus of the items, which was not climate change but the release of the NIWA Report and flooding, the Authority found that the brief references to climate change were not material for the purposes of the accuracy standard, and as such would not have affected viewers’ understanding of the items as a whole. The items reported on newsworthy developments in the general area of New Zealand’s weather and climate and did not ‘discuss’ the issue of climate change, so they did not trigger the requirements of the balance standard. The Authority found that the harm alleged to have been caused in this case, namely a misinformed public, therefore did not outweigh the right to freedom of expression and any limitation on that right was unjustified.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance  


Introduction

[1]  Two items on 1 News, broadcast on TVNZ 1, reported on extreme weather events in New Zealand. An item on 8 January 2018 focused on the release of NIWA’s 2017 Annual Report (NIWA Report), which found record dryness, rainfall and temperatures in New Zealand over 2017. A 12 January 2018 item reported on clean-up efforts on the West Coast following torrential rain and flooding. Brief references were made during these items to the impacts of climate change on New Zealand and particularly on extreme weather events. 

[2]  Barry Brill complained that these items were inaccurate and unbalanced, as in his view climate change is not occurring in New Zealand and the number and intensity of extreme weather events was also not increasing.

[3]  The issues raised in Mr Brill’s complaints are 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 in Mr Brill’s complaints, we have addressed them together in this decision.

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

Did the broadcasts breach the accuracy standard?

[5]  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.1

The parties’ submissions

8 January 2018 broadcast – NIWA Report

[6]  Mr Brill submitted:

  • During the item, the reporter explained that while North-Easterly winds were ‘big drivers’ of deluges, ‘…climate change is increasing the number and intensity of extreme weather events’. There was no suggestion in the NIWA Report that extreme weather events (ex-tropical cyclones Debbie and Cook and La Niña) were more intense or numerous than normal, or that these events were caused by global warming.
  • The broadcaster’s contention that climate change (ie ‘dangerous anthropogenic global warming’) has happened or is happening in New Zealand was incorrect, as New Zealand has experienced no material increase in temperature trends (based on temperature records and evidence of advancing glaciers).
  • The item also omitted discussion of the significant effects of La Niña on weather extremes.
  • The item also featured interview excerpts with a NIWA Principal Scientist, who said that ‘the expectation with climate change is [for] large swings of dryness and wetness…’ This statement could not be attributed to the NIWA Report and was not based on evidence.

[7]  TVNZ submitted:

  • It was not inaccurate to state that climate change is increasing the number and intensity of extreme events.2
  • The reporter’s reference to North-Easterly winds was a reference to the effects of La Niña on the weather patterns experienced.
  • The NIWA Principal Scientist’s statement referred to ‘expectations’ about climate change and amounted to his own opinion and analysis, which was not subject to the requirements of the accuracy standard.

12 January 2018 broadcast – West Coast

[8]  Mr Brill submitted:

  • References were made during this item to ‘the new normal’, with the reporter saying: ‘There are predictions climate change could mean dramatic weather events could become the norm for the West Coast’.
  • Local weather incidents cannot be attributed to climate change and there has been no documented worldwide increase in flooding or other extreme weather events in recent years. TVNZ’s repeated statement that a ‘new normal’ might be established by a single isolated flood was therefore ‘mischievous’.
  • The item stated or implied that heavy rainfall was attributable to climate change, would increase by 29% in the future and would become the ‘new normal’ by 2099.

[9]  TVNZ submitted that the comments subject to complaint were presented as possibilities and predictions, and the source for these possible scenarios – the Ministry for the Environment (MFE) – was given during the item and accurately reported (ie, the West Coast region can expect to see rainfall increase by 8 to 29 percent by the year 2090).3

Our analysis

[10]  The starting point in our determination of broadcasting standards complaints is to acknowledge the important right to freedom of expression. We may only interfere and uphold a complaint where the limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified in a free and democratic society. This involves assessing, in each case, the right to freedom of expression on one hand, and on the other, the harm that is alleged to have been caused by the broadcast. Where there is a potential for harm we must consider whether our intervention in limiting the exercise of the right to freedom of expression is justified.

[11]  In this case, the complainant has alleged that viewers would have been misled and left misinformed about the impact of climate change on New Zealand and on recent extreme weather events.

[12]  As we have noted above at paragraph [5], the accuracy standard requires broadcasters to ‘make reasonable efforts’ to ensure that news items are accurate on material points of fact, and do not mislead. The requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.4

[13]  It is therefore not the Authority’s role to make a conclusive finding on whether climate change is occurring in New Zealand, and whether this is impacting on extreme weather events, including increased rainfall on the West Coast. The question for the Authority is whether TVNZ made reasonable efforts to ensure these items were accurate, and did not mislead.

[14]  The 8 January 2018 broadcast was focused on the release of the NIWA Report, and, in our view, TVNZ reasonably relied on that Report and the Principal Scientist, as spokesperson for NIWA, to outline the key findings. TVNZ also relied on sources, such as data from MFE and Statistics New Zealand, as evidence for the proposition that climate change could result in increased extreme weather events.

[15]  We are satisfied that the Principal Scientist’s statement regarding ‘large swings of dryness and wetness’ was a statement of analysis, comment or opinion, and therefore not subject to the requirements of the standard.

[16]  The 12 January 2018 broadcast was focused on clean-up efforts in the West Coast following torrential rain and flooding. Climate change was referred to as only one of the possible causes of flooding and heavy rainfall in the West Coast, with the region’s unique geography making it vulnerable. TVNZ reasonably relied on information provided by MFE and accurately reported that information during the item.

[17]  Overall, we do not consider viewers would have been materially misled by the brief references to climate change during these items. The items did not investigate the issue of climate change in New Zealand in any depth and TVNZ relied on authoritative sources for the claims made. In these circumstances, we do not consider that any harm was caused to justify our intervention in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

[18]  We therefore do not uphold the accuracy complaint.

Did the broadcasts breach the balance standard?

[19]  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.

The parties’ submissions

8 January 2018 broadcast – NIWA Report

[20]  Mr Brill submitted:

  • The NIWA report, which stated that extreme weather events in New Zealand were due to the impacts of climate change, raised a controversial issue of public importance.
  • Significant viewpoints, contrary to the views expressed during this broadcast regarding climate change in New Zealand and its impact on weather events, were not provided during the item.

[21]  TVNZ submitted:

  • The overall discussion during this item did not raise a controversial issue – it did not agree that the idea that climate change is occurring in New Zealand was controversial or ‘not true’, for the following reasons:
    • New Zealand had experienced an annual average temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius and ‘severe effects on the environment’ due to the changing climate. 5
    • The consensus among climate change scientists is that human induced climate change is occurring.6
  • Statements about climate change formed a small part of the item as a whole – the main discussion reported on the findings of the NIWA Report.
  • Viewers are well aware that alternate views exist on climate change, as this is a much debated topic.

12 January 2018 broadcast – West Coast

[22]  Mr Brill submitted:

  • The contention that climate change was happening in New Zealand and that a 29% increase in rainfall could be predicted was a controversial issue of public importance.
  • Significant viewpoints contrary to these assertions were not provided during the item.

[23]  TVNZ submitted:

  • In addition to TVNZ’s submissions above in relation to the 8 January 2018 item, TVNZ submitted that comments complained about during this broadcast were presented as possibilities and predictions, and the source of these predictions (MFE) was identified in the item.
  • Commentary from a particular perspective is permitted, provided that perspective is acknowledged.

Our analysis

[24]  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 News items that simply report information about what may be controversial issues, for example, where there has been a newsworthy development, are not ‘discussions’ which require balancing perspectives.8

[25]  Given the nature and focus of these items, we do not consider that the issue of climate change in New Zealand was ‘discussed’ for the purpose of the standard.

[26]  These items reported on newsworthy developments in the general area of New Zealand’s weather and climate. While the connection was made between the recent extreme weather events and the potential impact of climate change, this proposition was based on the recent release of the NIWA Report, and interviews with residents and predictions by MFE respectively.

[27]  As we have noted above at paragraph [17], the broader issue of climate change, and whether global warming was responsible for such events, was mentioned only briefly and, in our view, audiences would not have expected the items to cover the type of in-depth information about climate change that the complainant has argued should have been included. In these circumstances, we are satisfied that the brief references to climate change during these items did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue which would trigger the requirements of the balance standard, and did not cause harm to audiences in the manner alleged. Any limitation on the right to freedom of expression would therefore be unreasonable and unjustified.

[28]  We therefore do not uphold the balance complaint.

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


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Peter Radich
Chair
18 June 2018

 


Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1       Barry Brill’s formal complaints – 18 January 2018
2       TVNZ’s response to the complaints – 16 February 2018
3       Mr Brill’s referral to the Authority – 11 March 2018
4       TVNZ’s response to the referral – 27 April 2018
5       Mr Brill’s final comments – 3 May 2018


1 Guideline 9d

2 See New Zealand’s Environmental Reporting Series: Our atmosphere and climate 2017 (Data to 2016), Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand, at page 29, which refers to an increase in intense rainfall events and flooding in New Zealand due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

3 http://www.mfe.govt.nz/climate-change/how-climate-change-affects-nz/how-might-climate-change-affect-my-region/west-coast

4 Guideline 9a

5 See New Zealand’s Environmental Reporting Series: Our atmosphere and climate 2017 (Data to 2016), Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand, at page 7.

6 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/#*

7 Guideline 8a

8 Right to Life New Zealand and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2017-020