BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Butler, Dunleavy and Prior and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2009-063

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainants
  • Mike Butler
  • P H Prior
  • Terry Dunleavy
Number
2009-063
Channel/Station
TV One
Standards Breached

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Sunday – item titled “The Big Warm” discussed economist Gareth Morgan’s research into global warming – allegedly unbalanced and inaccurate

Findings
Standard 4 (balance) – programme presented miscellany of views – did not attempt to debate whether global warming was caused by human activity – acknowledged the existence of other perspectives – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – inaccurate to show Takuu as “the ugly face of global warming” – one aspect upheld

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on Sunday, broadcast on TV One at 7.30pm on 3 May 2009, was introduced by the reporter as follows:

The alarmists say the world is in full meltdown, that we’re all going to fry and mankind is to blame. The sceptics say it’s an absolute nonsense. Somewhere in between are truths, half-truths, propaganda, and scaremongering. Economist Gareth Morgan was a self-confessed doubter of global warming, so he spent half a million of his own dollars and got in some leading scientists to provide the best advice money could buy. Tonight he removes the confusion, and reveals not the inconvenient truth, but the real truth about what we’re doing to our world.

[2]   Footage of an island being flooded was shown, as the repoter said, “The ugly face of global warming: seawater flooding across Takuu, a tiny West Pacific atoll off Papua New Guinea”. The two filmmakers who had obtained the footage were interviewed. The reporter went on to say:

The earth’s climate is changing. It is warming. Around Takuu, average water temperatures have increased a massive five degrees in 50 years. When water is heated, it expands. Many scientists say the global warming we’re now seeing is caused by human pollution. Some people totally disagree. They say global warming isn’t caused by human pollution, it’s the result of the earth’s natural temperature cycle and it’s likely to get cool again fairly soon. Confused? Well, one New Zealander was determined to get to the bottom of it. Gareth Morgan, an economist, not a climate scientist, he makes no bones about that, but he and wife Joanne have travelled all over. They’ve seen some very strange things, like this boat moored 200 kilometres from the lake it once floated in...

[3]   Mr Morgan was shown saying, “Every time we’d get one of these instances, Joanne would say, ‘see, there’s more proof of global warming’”. He explained that he had hired two teams of scientists, one representing global warming sceptics, and the other representing the “alarmists”. When asked what the scientists agreed on, Mr Morgan said:

One, the world has been warming, over the last, since temperature records were kept so that’s about 150 years. There’s a hell of a disagreement over why. Secondly, there’s no dispute that the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have been rising at an accelerating rate.

[4]   Professor Tim Flannery was interviewed about his views on global warming and its causes, including that “we only have control of this system in the early phases. If the change gets too great, no matter what we do, we will face catastrophe, the system takes on a life of its own.”

[5]   The reporter stated that “having done his research, Gareth Morgan now says much of the science pointing to human-caused global warming is irrefutable. But it’s still a hot debate, and not just among scientists”.

[6]   In the second part of the item, the reporter interviewed some scientists working on a carbon-capturing machine in Blenheim, a farmer who used nitrate inhibitors, and an “ecomigrant” who had left England and moved to New Zealand “because he believes it will be the country least impacted by global warming”.

Complaints

[7]   Mike Butler, Terry Dunleavy and P H Prior made formal complaints to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the programme was inaccurate and unbalanced.

Mike Butler’s complaint

[8]   With regard to balance, Mr Butler noted that 10 seconds in the first part of the story was devoted to the sceptics’ view that the climate is entering a cooling phase, while 13 minutes 51 seconds was devoted to the alarmist view that extreme steps must be taken to halt the harmful effects of human-induced climate change. Further, both scientists interviewed were in the alarmist camp, he said, as well as almost all of the other interviewees, including two filmmakers, Gareth Morgan, forester Peter Weir and ecomigrant John Zamick.

[9]   Mr Butler argued that the construction of the item contributed to the lack of balance. Promos for the story, and the emails section at the end of the programme the following week, claimed that the story was a report on Gareth Morgan’s book. The complainant maintained that nowhere in the story was the feature presented as such. He said it was not made clear whether the views of the interviewees had been presented to Mr Morgan for the book, or whether they were people scouted by TVNZ for a feature on climate change. He argued that, if they were discussing Mr Morgan’s book, it was not made clear, and if it was a general feature on climate change, TVNZ falsely presented the item as a report on the book.

[10]   Looking at accuracy, Mr Butler argued that Takuu, which was presented as “the ugly face of global warming”, is actually sinking because it lies at the intersection of two shifting tectonic plates.

[11]   Secondly, the complainant maintained that the “sensational footage of a ship stranded high and dry” looked similar to a stranded ship at Aral, Kazakhstan. The sea there had shrunk not due to climate change, he said, but by rivers being diverted for irrigation. He questioned why Sunday had not identified its location.

[12]   Thirdly, Mr Butler considered the programme was inaccurate because it provided limited context, for example Mr Morgan’s reference to temperature in the last 150 years, when the world is 4.5 billion years old, and his reference to carbon dioxide concentrations rising, when CO2 levels were much higher 600 million years ago than they are now. Further he asserted that Tim Flannery, a scientist who was interviewed, said “the Earth was on track for another 5 degrees of warming which would be catastrophic and would mean rainforests growing in Greenland”. Mr Butler pointed out that Greenland was named because it was once covered with vegetation, and that 600 million years ago it was a lot warmer than it is now.

[13]   Mr Butler considered that, if his complaint was upheld, a Sunday reporter should read his suggested statement.

Terry Dunleavy’s complaint

[14]   Mr Dunleavy argued that the footage of Takuu flooding was inaccurate because the reporter stated that this was due to rising sea levels, when in fact it is well-known that the island has sunk about 2000mm due to tectonic plate movement. Global sea level rise has been at a rate of just under 3mm per year for the past 150 years, he said. He attached a recent plot of sea levels, and a quote from Wikipedia1:

The islands in the atoll are very low-lying, at most only a metre or two above the high tide mark. Their very existence is under threat in the near future for two reasons: firstly because the tectonic plate on which the atoll sits is sinking, and secondly because of the rise in sea level caused by global warming, forces combining to cause sea levels to rise at a rate estimated at 20 centimetres per year.

[15]   Second, the complainant contended that the images in the programme of the Wilkins ice shelf breaking up created the impression that this was typical of the whole of Antarctica. There was an obligation to point out that recent observations show that the total sea ice area around Antarctica is now at its largest extent since satellite observations began, he said.

[16]   Third, the programme’s images of melting sea ice and implied that the Arctic ice was retreating at a rapid rate, Mr Dunleavy argued. In fact, Arctic ice is now close to normal since satellite observations began, he said, and a recent study showed that the ice thickness was greater than expected. Therefore, there is nothing in current evidence to suggest anything abnormal occurring with the Arctic ice. The programme should have made this clear in the interests of balance and accuracy, Mr Dunleavy said. He attached some internet references in support.

[17]   Fourth, the complainant considered that the programme had presented Professor Tim Flannery as an expert in climate science, which was misleading. He said he is actually known for his knowledge on animals and extinction. Mr Dunleavy said that, when Professor Flannery claimed that the world would reach a “tipping point” if the temperature increased by a degree or two, he was doing no more than expressing his opinion, which was not supported by evidence, computer models, or reports from the IPCC. Therefore, it was misleading to present him as an expert in climate science, and his unsupported opinions should not have been included in the programme, Mr Dunleavy said. However, in the interests of balance, he considered that the programme could have interviewed a scientist who was qualified in climate science.

[18]   Fifth, Mr Dunleavy asserted that the programme strongly implied that the world is warming, when that is not the case. There has been no warming since about 2002, he said, and it is undeniable that the world has cooled since that time. Further, the current sunspot cycle is the longest in recent history, and history tells us that long sunspot cycles will be followed by very definite cooling, he said. Mr Dunleavy argued that these facts should have been pointed out in the programme in the interests of balance and accuracy.

[19]   Finally, the complainant stated that there was no mention in the programme of whether Gareth Morgan had a financial interest in promoting the alarmist view on whether or not man-made global warming was occurring. He said that viewers were entitled to know whether he, for example, had shares in subsidised renewable energy projects or in carbon trading, or whether Mr Morgan advises people to invest in those.

[20]   Mr Dunleavy concluded by stating that Sunday should do a similar programme interviewing scientists qualified to present the weaknesses in the arguments made by those “that promote the belief that the world is warming dangerously and will continue to warm”.

P H Prior’s complaint

[21]   Noting the opening footage of the floods on Takuu, Mr Prior argued that, for people who did not know that the Island had been sinking into the sea for some time, the item created the impression that the sea level had already risen some two metres or more. This had nothing to do with any increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, he said.

[22]   The complainant also maintained that the footage of ice falling off the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet was misleading because it was not due to global warming, but because of El Nino warming the sea in the tropics which was then carried down to the Antarctic by currents. He noted that the ice sheet had been shrinking and growing over millions of years, and that it had nothing to do with CO2 in the atmosphere.

[23]   Mr Prior noted the statement made by Gareth Morgan in the programme that “viewers would fry in the heat” if we did not do something about the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. He argued that the current level of CO2, 385 parts per million, was one of the lowest readings in the last 4000 years, and that there had been a small rise in the last 100 years. This was a very small portion of our atmosphere, he said. Mr Prior also noted that the United States had had an unusually severe winter, with snow falling in unlikely locations, and three of the great lakes had frozen over. Further, NIWA had found that New Zealand’s glaciers had gained more ice than they had lost in the last glacier year, March 2004 to February 2005.

[24]   Mr Prior maintained that the programme stated that the recent Australian bush fires were caused by high levels of CO2. He considered that this was untrue, as it was now known that some of them were caused by human factors, for example, one man was charged in Melbourne for manslaughter for lighting one of the fires. Further, a company could be charged as one of their electric cables broke causing another fire.

[25]   The complainant also considered that the programme was inaccurate in stating that farmers were the greatest polluters in New Zealand. He said there was no evidence that our farmers’ present method of farming was causing global warming.

[26]   Finally, Mr Prior contended that Mr Morgan gave no basis for his statements about global warming and carbon dioxide levels, and was not asked for any by the reporter. Therefore, they should have been recognised as opinion, he said, and not the subject of a television programme.

Standards

[27]   TVNZ assessed the complaints under Standards 4 and 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainants

Standard 4 (balance)

[28]   Looking at balance, TVNZ argued that global climate change, or “global warming”, is not a controversial issue. Most governments in the world now acknowledge that the Earth is warming, it said, and there is no dispute that carbon dioxide levels in the air have also risen at an exponential rate. The controversy, TVNZ said, was whether these increases were caused by human pollution as opposed to a natural cycle. The broadcaster maintained that the programme addressed both sides of this debate, although it was made clear that Gareth Morgan had found that human pollution was the cause. The programme also made it clear that Mr Morgan was not a scientist but had hired two groups of scientists to do the research for him, and that he found that the group who supported the idea that human pollution had caused recent climate change was more likely to be correct.

[29]   With regard to Mr Butler’s argument that all of the interviewees in the item were from the “alarmist” camp, TVNZ stated that:

...the item makes it perfectly clear that Mr Morgan found that one group of scientists was more likely to be correct – these were the people interviewed and the focus of the item. The item was clearly framed as a discussion about Gareth Morgan’s book and his findings on the issue of global climate change.

[30]   TVNZ concluded that the material contained in the item was acceptable under Standard 4. It maintained that the item was “simply one further perspective on an ongoing wider debate about which much has been written and publicly debated”. Further, “the programme was not intended to provide a comprehensive overview on all matters of global climate change – it was a discussion about Gareth Morgan’s findings on the subject”. The broadcaster therefore declined to uphold the complaints that the item was unbalanced in breach of Standard 4.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[31]   TVNZ stated that it was satisfied that the facts presented in the programme were accurate, and that its sources were reliable. It responded to each aspect of the complainants’ concerns about accuracy.

Takuu is not being flooded due to global warming, but rather is sinking because it lies at the intersection of two tectonic plates

[32]   TVNZ argued that the programme did not imply that global sea level change had led to the flooding of Takuu, but referred to the sea temperature around the island, saying, “around Takuu average water temperatures have increased a massive five degrees in 50 years and when water is heated, it expands”.

[33]   The broadcaster contended that, while it was true that Takuu was situated at the intersection of two tectonic plates, that was not the reason that the island was “sinking”. It noted that the filmmakers featured in the item, Ms March and Ms Collie, had travelled to Takuu with John Hunter, a principal research scientist in the Marine Research Division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Mr Hunter told Sunday he could not find any evidence to support claims that the island was sinking due to tectonic movement. He said Takuu residents had told him there had been seawater flooding in the past, and he believed that the flooding would become more frequent in the future as a result of seawater rising due to global warming combined with very high tides and/or storms.

[34]   TVNZ referred to the statement relied on by Mr Dunleavy from Wikipedia (see paragraph [14]) and interpreted it as saying that the atoll was sinking due to global warming as well as tectonic plate movement. In other words, it considered that Mr Dunleavy had accepted that global warming was one cause of the sea level rise, and therefore the programme was not inaccurate.

Ship shown in the item was not stranded due to global warming

[35]   TVNZ stated that the ship was discussed as one of the reasons that Mr Morgan decided to research climate change, because his wife claimed it was a result of global warming, and he was not sure. It argued that none of the material in the item stated or implied that global warming had caused the “unusual” sights mentioned by Mr Morgan. When global warming was considered to be the cause of an event, this was explicitly mentioned, TVNZ said, such as with the flooding at Takuu, and the reduction of Arctic and Antarctic ice.

Ice falling off the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is not due to global warming

[36]   With regard to the brief discussion in the programme about the ice shelf breaking, TVNZ noted the following passage from Reuters UK (19 January 2009):

...it was widely reported that the Wilkins ice shelf and nine others have receded or collapsed around the Antarctic peninsula in the past 50 years, often abruptly like the Larsen A in 1995 or the Larsen B in 2002. The trend is widely blamed on climate change caused by heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels...

Images of melting sea ice in the Arctic

[37]   TVNZ noted that NASA reported that Arctic sea ice is decreasing 11.7% per decade, and Greenland is losing 36-60 cubic miles per year (NASA Earth, http:climate.jpl.nasa.gov/keyIndicators).

Limited historical context regarding warming and carbon dioxide levels resulted in inaccuracy;

Global temperatures and CO2 levels in the atmosphere are lower than they have been historically;

Statement that the planet is warming when in fact the temperature has not increased since 2002

[38]   The broadcaster argued that, when considering issues of global climate change, the change in climate is what is important, rather than the temperature of one particular year, and scientists are reporting on a trend. Overall temperatures are consistently hotter than they were previously, and 1998 is considered by some to be the hottest year for some time because the Earth was going through la Nina, the warm phase of the El Nino cycle, which added to the effects of global warming, TVNZ said. Following that phase, temperatures were cooler but still warmer than they should have been, therefore the trend is showing a warming in the Earth’s temperature. TVNZ quoted the following statement:

The six warmest years in the GISS (Godard Institute for Space Studies) record have all occurred since 1998, and the 15 warmest years in the record have all occurred since 1988 (from NASA figures).

[39]   TVNZ maintained that it is now generally accepted that the world is warming and that there are rising levels of carbon dioxide. It acknowledged that warm temperatures and high CO2 levels may have been a feature of the atmosphere in prehistoric times, but the problem now was that massive environmental changes over a relatively short period of time may cause terrible suffering. “Alarmists”, TVNZ said, were concerned that human interference in the global temperature cycle will, or has started to cause the changes to become more rapid and therefore more calamitous. The broadcaster argued that the debate was over whether the changes were part of a natural cycle or had been exacerbated by human pollution. TVNZ concluded that the omission of information about how the world may have been in prehistoric times did not result in the item being misleading.

Professor Tim Flannery

[40]   The broadcaster stated that Professor Flannery was an expert on climate change, and also biology, mammalogy, the environment, and palaeontology. It noted that he chairs the Copenhagen Climate Change Council and is the Australasian representative of the National Geographic Society. He has written a number of influential books about global climate change, TVNZ said, and therefore it was appropriate that he was asked to comment for an item about global climate change.

Tim Flannery’s statement that warming would result in rainforests growing in Greenland was inaccurate due to insufficient context

[41]   TVNZ reiterated that dramatic changes in the environment would be “catastrophic” in terms of human suffering caused, especially if they occurred over a condensed period of time.

Statement in the programme that recent Australia bush fires were caused by high levels of CO2

[42]   TVNZ noted that the statement made by Tim Flannery in the item was, “we’re seeing symptoms of a shift in climate almost everywhere we look. We’ve had those bush fires in Victoria, a 47-degree Celsius day in Melbourne...” It argued that what Professor Flannery meant by this statement was not that the fires were unusual, but that the severity of the fires was unusual and this was due to climate change.

Statement in the item that farmers are the greatest polluters in New Zealand

[43]   The broadcaster stated that “unfortunately farming does play a significant part in New Zealand’s CO2 contribution mainly due to the gases that cows release as part of their digestion”. It quoted excerpts from the Dominion Post in support (6 June 2009).

Gareth Morgan’s financial interests

[44]   TVNZ stated that Mr Morgan had commissioned two sets of scientists to look at climate change, “deniers” and “alarmists”. In the end, Mr Morgan concluded that the “alarmists” were correct, it said. TVNZ said it believed that Mr Morgan would have written a book no matter which side of the argument he agreed with, so there was no financial gain in promoting the alarmist view over the deniers’ view.

[45]   TVNZ concluded that nothing in the item was inaccurate and declined to uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

Referrals to the Authority

[46]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Butler, Mr Dunleavy and Mr Prior referred their complaints to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Mr Butler’s referral

[47]   With regard to balance, the complainant considered that TVNZ’s arguments that the only controversy in the climate change debate was whether it was human-induced, and that the programme simply reported Gareth Morgan’s findings, were disingenuous.

[48]   Turning to accuracy, Mr Butler argued that an accurate representation of why Takuu was sinking would present conflicting theories. He noted that in its response TVNZ had only referred to the belief of one scientist without any supporting data.

[49]   The complainant disagreed with TVNZ that the footage of the stranded ship in a report about Mr Morgan’s book which “agrees with the view that human activity is having a harmful effect on the climate” did not imply that global warming was the cause of the unusual sight.

[50]   Mr Butler noted that, in response to his argument that warmth and high levels of carbon dioxide were present 600 million years ago, TVNZ had ignored the point that there were no vehicles or industrial activity at that time.

Mr Dunleavy’s referral

[51]   Mr Dunleavy said that, if the focus of the programme was Gareth Morgan’s book, it should have paid more attention to the contents of the book rather than Professor Flannery’s or Mr Morgan’s opinions. He considered that the opening sequence featuring Takuu was an example of propaganda promoting the case of man-made global warming. Mr Dunleavy questioned why TVNZ chose to give such prominence to Mr Morgan’s book while ignoring another published shortly beforehand, Ian Wishart’s “Air Con”, which also surveyed both sides of the climate debate and came down in agreement with the sceptics’ position.

[52]   The complainant argued that Gareth Morgan had reportedly said he believed he was “just used to furnish part of a piece of very low-quality (worse than third-rate) alarmism”. He objected to the statement that Mr Morgan was revealing “the real truth”, after TVNZ had acknowledged that there were other perspectives on the issue of climate change.

[53]   Mr Dunleavy reiterated his argument that the programme was inaccurate in stating that the Earth was warming, because it had been cooling for the last few years. He attached information and graphs in support. He also considered there was no evidence that “around Takuu average water temperatures have increased a massive five degrees in 50 years”, and reiterated that research showed the island was in fact sinking, and nearby the sea level was normal. Mr Dunleavy attached a figure showing sea level trends in the Pacific through to March 2009. He also quoted passages from a report co-authored by Dr John Hunter who was referred to in TVNZ’s response.

[54]   Regarding the ice shelf, the complainant reiterated that the programme should have pointed out that the total sea ice area around Antarctica is at its largest since satellite observations began. He also attached information which he believed demonstrated that the Arctic sea ice was also increasing.

[55]   Mr Dunleavy accepted that Tim Flannery was entitled to his opinion, but noted that he was well-known for being a global warming alarmist, and considered that TVNZ had failed to balance his views.

[56]   Mr Dunleavy argued that TVNZ was incorrect in saying that 1998 was a La Nina year, which it said was the warm phase of the El Nino cycle, because in fact 1998 was an El Nino year.

[57]   Regarding the issue of whether Gareth Morgan had any undisclosed financial interest, the complainant argued that TVNZ should have taken steps to verify the credentials of the two groups of scientists. Further, he noted that Mr Morgan’s book had been widely promoted since the programme.

[58]   The complainant strongly disagreed with TVNZ that the programme did not discuss a controversial issue. He accepted that CO2 levels were rising, but maintained that Earth temperatures had been decreasing since 2002. He considered that TVNZ’s arguments under balance were contradictory, arguing both that the programme did not discuss a controversial issue, and that the programme was part of the ongoing wider debate.

[59]   In conclusion, Mr Dunleavy suggested that Sunday should acknowledge the errors in the programme and apologise to viewers who were misled, and should also broadcast a balancing programme based on Ian Wishart’s book, including an appropriately qualified sceptic scientist.

Mr Prior’s referral

[60]   Mr Prior reiterated his argument that the programme was unbalanced and that some of the images used would have created “undue concern where there was none”. Further, the programme contained inaccurate information, he said. Mr Prior repeated the arguments he made in his original complaint.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[61]   TVNZ noted that it had received an email from Mr Dunleavy stating that Gareth Morgan had made, or was going to make a formal complaint about the Sunday item. It maintained that Mr Morgan had not made a complaint.

[62]   The broadcaster responded to one point made in Mr Dunleavy’s referral, acknowledging that Mr Dunleavy was correct in stating that La Nina was the cool phase of El Nino, not the warm phase. However, it considered that its error did not affect the quality of the research referred to in its initial response. TVNZ attached material to prove that what was said in its decision on the complaint was correct.

Authority's Determination

[63]   The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 4 (balance)

[64]   Standard 4 requires broadcasters to maintain standards consistent with the principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

[65]   In Kodikara and Smith and SKY2,the Authority found that Standard 4 applied to a documentary which discussed whether global warming was caused by human activity. However, it considers that this programme was distinguishable for the following reasons.

[66]   To begin with, the programme did not attempt to debate whether global warming was caused by human activity.  While the Authority accepts that any mention of global warming is likely to excite a degree of controversy, it considers that the Sunday programme did not venture into the same territory as the SKY documentary.  It did not purport to be a study of, or debate about, climate change and its causes. It merely alluded to the controversy by way of background to a human interest piece which featured well-known economist Gareth Morgan's search for the global warming "truth", and his conclusions. The item then went on to present a miscellany of stories about other people who had reached the same conclusion as Mr Morgan – that is, that global warming was almost certainly man-made and potentially calamitous – as well as giving examples of their responses to that conclusion.

[67]   While it was clear that those featured accepted that human activity caused global warming (for example, the presenter's statement, "Gareth Morgan now says much of the science pointing to human-caused global warming is irrefutable"), the Authority does not consider that the programme required the views of those who do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, nor even that it is a reality. Nor does it consider that the programme required the level of contextual detail about climate change that the complainants appear to have expected. 

[68]   The Authority is of the view that in the context of an 18-minute item, and given the limited and superficial extent that the programme touched on the controversial aspects of climate change – that is, whether or not it is caused by human activity – the programme provided sufficient context and acknowledgement of the alternative viewpoint to satisfy the balance standard. Sunday clearly acknowledged that the causes of global warming were the subject of an ongoing "hot debate", and acknowledged the existence of other perspectives within that debate – for example, the reporter and Mr Morgan briefly summarised and contrasted the main views of the "alarmists" and the sceptics early in the item.

[69]   Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold the complaint that the programme breached Standard 4 (balance).

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[70]   Standard 5 requires that news, current affairs and other factual programmes are truthful and accurate on points of fact, and impartial and objective at all times. The Authority considers each of the complainants’ concerns in turn. In doing so, it bears in mind the nature of the programme as discussed in paragraphs [66] and [67] above.

Takuu is not being flooded due to global warming, but rather is sinking because it lies at the intersection of two tectonic plates

[71]   In the Authority’s view, the flooding of Takuu was presented unequivocally as “the ugly face of global warming”, and viewers would have been left with the impression that Takuu was being flooded solely due to the effects of global warming. All three complainants argued that Takuu was sinking as a result of tectonic plate movement, and provided information in support. The broadcaster has not provided any evidence that global warming is the sole cause of the flooding around Takuu. In fact, TVNZ accepted in its response to Mr Dunleavy that tectonic plate movement was one cause of the rising sea level around Takuu (see paragraph [34]). The excerpt provided by Mr Dunleavy stated:

The islands in the atoll are very low-lying, at most only a metre or two above the high tide mark. Their very existence is under threat in the near future for two reasons: firstly because the tectonic plate on which the atoll sits is sinking, and secondly because of the rise in sea level caused by global warming, forces combining to cause sea levels to rise at a rate estimated at 20 centimetres per year.

[72]   Accordingly, the Authority finds that this part of the programme was inaccurate because it implied unequivocally that the situation in Takuu was caused solely by global warming. It considers that the use of the footage was sensational, particularly as it was used as the opening and closing images for the item, and the impression that was created as a result demonstrated a lack of care and rigour in dealing with such a complex issue as global warming.

[73]   Having reached this conclusion, the Authority must consider whether to uphold this part of the complaints as a breach of Standard 5 (accuracy).

[74]   The Authority acknowledges that upholding the Standard 5 complaint would place a limit on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. In RNZ and Pryde,3 the Authority determined that upholding a complaint under Standard 5 would be prescribed by law and a justified limitation on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression as required by section 5 of the Bill of Rights Act.

[75]   The Authority considers that it would be a reasonable and proportionate limit on TVNZ’s freedom of expression to uphold a breach of the accuracy standard on this occasion. Upholding this part of the complaint clearly promotes the objective of Standard 5, which is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled. In Pryde the Authority noted that audiences of news, current affairs and factual programmes have the right to receive information that is truthful and accurate. In these circumstances, the Authority upholds this aspect of the accuracy complaints.

Ship shown in the item was not stranded due to global warming

[76]   Mr Butler argued that the “ship stranded high and dry” was not due to climate change but caused by rivers being diverted for irrigation.

[77]   The Authority notes that the footage of the ship accompanied Mr Morgan’s explanation for his decision to research global warming, linked to his wife’s opinion that the strange things they had seen while travelling were due to global warming. The relevant part of the story said:

Reporter:     ...They’ve seen some very strange things, like this boat moored 200 kilometres
                   from the lake it once floated in...

Morgan:       Every time we’d get one of these instances, Joanne would say, “see, there’s
                  more proof of global warming”, and I was so bloody sick of this global warming
                  thing being rammed down my throat, I thought well I better start reading about
                  it then.

[78]   In the Authority’s view, the programme did not state as a fact that the ship had been stranded as a result of global warming. It simply reported that the ship was one of the sights Gareth Morgan's wife had attributed to global warming during their travels, and this illustrated why Mr Morgan had begun his investigation. Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of Mr Butler’s complaint.

Melting sea ice in the Arctic

[79]   Mr Prior considered the use of footage of melting ice was misleading because the melting ice was due to El Nino, not global warming. The following statements were made while the footage was shown:

Reporter:      The sceptics say CO2 does cause temperature rise, absolutely, but it’s only a
                    little bit.

Morgan:        Whereas the alarmists would say, no, no, no, no, there’s all these feedbacks.

Reporter:      Feedbacks like the Arctic sea ice melt. With less ice to reflect the sun’s heat,
                   temperatures are rising at an accelerating rate...

Reporter:     ...global warming averaging one degree over the past century has already
                   caused huge areas of Arctic sea ice to melt.

[80]   In the Authority’s view, the reporter unequivocally stated that global warming has caused the Arctic sea ice to melt. Whether or not this is true forms part of the major debate between the believers and sceptics of global warming. The Authority does not have sufficient evidence, nor is it the appropriate body, to determine whether global warming is responsible for melting sea ice in the Arctic. In these circumstances, the Authority declines to determine this part of the complaint under section 11(b) of the Broadcasting Act.

Statement that ten ice shelves have broken off the Antarctic Peninsula

[81]   Mr Dunleavy argued that the use of footage of melting ice was misleading because the programme did not inform viewers that the Antarctic ice sheet was currently growing not shrinking. The reporter stated:

...global warming averaging one degree over the past century has already caused huge areas of Arctic sea ice to melt. And on the Antarctic peninsula, ten massive ice shelves – some as big as Texas – have broken off.

[82]   The Authority notes that Mr Dunleavy has not disputed that ice shelves have broken off the Antarctic, but simply wanted additional information about the current expanse of the ice sheet. In the Authority’s view, the omission of that information did not lead to the programme being inaccurate. It therefore declines to uphold this part of the accuracy complaint.

Limited historical context regarding warming and carbon dioxide levels resulted in inaccuracy;

Global temperatures and CO2 levels in the atmosphere are lower than they have been historically;

Statement that the planet is warming when in fact the temperature has not increased since 2002.

[83]   Mr Butler and Mr Prior argued that the programme was inaccurate because it did not provide contextual information about historical temperatures and CO2 levels. Mr Dunleavy accepted that CO2 levels were rising, but maintained that Earth temperatures had been decreasing since 2002. TVNZ responded that scientists were reporting on a trend and it was now generally accepted that temperatures and CO2 levels are increasing.

[84]   When asked by the reporter what the scientists agree on, Gareth Morgan stated:

One, the world has been warming, over the last – since temperature records were kept so that’s about 150 years. There’s a hell of a disagreement over why. Secondly, there’s no dispute that the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have been rising at an accelerating rate.

[85]   The Authority notes that Mr Butler and Mr Prior did not dispute that temperatures and CO2 levels were rising, but considered that the programme was misleading because it did not include other historical statistics about temperature and CO2 levels thousands of years ago. In the Authority’s view, the omission of such information did not result in the item being misleading or inaccurate. It considers it unrealistic to expect such a detailed historical background to be provided in a programme of the kind complained about (see paragraphs [66] to [68]). However, it notes that Professor Flannery referred to “50 million years ago where there [were] rainforests growing in Greenland and where the tropics were utterly uninhabitable”.

[86]   With regard to Mr Dunleavy’s argument that it was inaccurate to state that the planet was warming, the Authority notes that, apart from the statement above in [84], the only other reference to warming was by the reporter, who said, “The Earth’s climate is changing. It is warming.”

[87]   In the Authority’s view, the reporter’s statement was reasonable shorthand for what is now generally accepted in mainstream science. As TVNZ said, the statements were made in the context of a trend – over the last 150 years, as mentioned by Mr Morgan – and the Authority finds that it was not necessary under Standard 5 to provide temperature statistics for the years since 2002.

[88]   The Authority therefore finds that these aspects of the programme did not breach Standard 5, and it declines to uphold this part of the complaints.

Professor Tim Flannery’s expertise;

Professor Flannery’s statement that warming would result in rainforests growing in Greenland;

Statement in the programme that recent Australia bush fires were caused by high levels of CO2.

[89]   The Authority considers that Professor Flannery was presented as an expert on climate change. However, it finds that this would not have misled viewers, particularly as it was stated that he had been awarded Australian of the Year for a book he had written about global warming.

[90]   With regard to Professor Flannery’s statements, the Authority notes that the comments he made in the programme were:

We’ll be back in a world that we saw 50 million years ago where there [were] rainforests growing in Greenland and where the tropics were utterly uninhabitable.

We’re seeing symptoms of a shifting climate almost everywhere we look. We’ve had those bushfires in Victoria. A 47 degree Celsius day in Melbourne was just unthinkable before.

[91]   The Authority is of the view that these statements were clearly presented as Professor Flannery’s opinion. It was not necessary to provide historical context for his view that Greenland would one day be green again, and he did not state as fact that the Victoria fires were caused by global warming or increased CO2 levels.

[92]   Accordingly, the Authority declines to uphold the complaints that these aspects of the programme were inaccurate in breach of Standard 5.

Statement in the item that farmers are the greatest polluters in New Zealand

[93]   Mr Prior argued that the item was inaccurate because there was no evidence that farmers were the greatest polluters in New Zealand.

[94]   This complaint relates to the following segment in the programme:

Reporter: Forester [name] says carbon buyers are now coming back, and from this week they’ll even be able to bid for carbon credits on TradeMe. But trading is slow... That’s because the really big polluters in New Zealand aren’t yet having to pay for their emissions...

Reporter: There’s a lot more New Zealanders could be doing to reduce pollution and make money, especially down on the farm...

Reporter: For example, farmers can now restrict one greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, by spraying pasture with a nitrate inhibitor.

[95]   When the reporter referred to “the really big polluters”, footage of cattle was shown. In combination with the next reference to “especially down on the farm”, the Authority considers that the programme would have created the impression that New Zealand’s farmers were “the really big polluters”.

[96]   The Authority notes that a report4 released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) states:

Methane and nitrous oxide play an important role in the radiative balance of the atmosphere, and are particularly significant because their global warming potentials (GWP) are greater than that of carbon dioxide...

New Zealand is not a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, but its emissions are significant for the following reasons:

  • Methane and nitrous oxide are dominant in the national emissions profile, i.e. 59.5% of total emissions on a carbon dioxide equivalent basis (National Inventory).

  • The principal sources of methane and nitrous oxide are from pastoral agricultural lands and the animals that graze on them (55% of total emissions in 2000).

  • The gross levels of New Zealand's emissions (ignoring sinks) are steadily increasing and will exceed the 1990 levels by 50-75,000,000 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent in the first commitment period on a ‘business-as-usual’ basis (Ministry for the Environment).

[97]   On that basis, the Authority finds that it was not inaccurate to imply that farmers were “the really big polluters”, because MAF’s statistics show that agricultural land and animals are responsible for a significant proportion of national emissions. It declines to uphold this part of Mr Prior’s complaint.

Gareth Morgan’s financial interests

[98]   In the Authority’s view, it would have been obvious to viewers that Mr Morgan was promoting his book. No evidence has been advanced to suggest that Mr Morgan has any other financial interest which might have been relevant to the focus of the programme. The Authority therefore declines to uphold this aspect of Mr Dunleavy’s complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of an item on Sunday on 3 May 2009 breached Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[99]   Having upheld one aspect of the complaints, the Authority may impose orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. The Authority considers that the aspect upheld, although careless, is not sufficient to warrant an order on this occasion. However, it hopes that this decision will serve as a reminder that global warming is a particularly complex subject that requires careful treatment by broadcasters.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
17 September 2009

Appendix

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

Mike Butler

1.            Mike Butler’s formal complaint – 13 May 2009
2.           TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 2 June 2009
3.           Mr Butler’s referral to the Authority – 8 June 2009
4.           TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 29 June 2009

Terry Dunleavy

1.           Terry Dunleavy’s formal complaint – 8 May 2009
2.           TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 8 June 2009
3.           Mr Dunleavy’s referral to the Authority – 29 June 2009
4.           TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 13 July 2009
5.           Further comments from TVNZ – 16 July 2009

P H Prior

1.            P H Prior’s formal complaint – 8 May 2009
2.           TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 11 June 2009
3.           Mr Prior’s referral to the Authority – 24 June 2009
4.           TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 13 July 2009


1http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takuu

2Decision No. 2008-077

3Decision No. 2008-040

4Peter O’Hara, John Freney and Marc Ulyatt, Chapter 1, “Abatement of Agricultural Non-Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Study of Research Requirements”, prepared for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on behalf of the Convenor, Ministerial Group on Climate Change, the Minister of Agriculture and the Primary Industries Council, May 2003.