BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Corin and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2007-042

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Steven Corin
Number
2007-042
Programme
Insight
Broadcaster
Radio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/Station
Radio New Zealand National

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Insight – first of a three-part series on climate change – presenter said it was an attempt to balance the avalanche of reports that dominate the media – presented viewpoints of those who challenged the “perceived wisdom” that climate change was real and caused by humans – allegedly unbalanced

Findings
Principle 4 (balance) – programme clearly approached topic from a particular perspective – did not purport to be a balanced overview of the climate change debate – substantial amount of media coverage has been devoted to climate change – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on Radio New Zealand National’s Insight programme reported that a United Nations organisation called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had released its latest report. The report, it said, confirmed for many people that the world was warming “at an alarming rate due to the impact of human activity”. The presenter stated “This is the consensus now. Or is it?”. Introducing the segment as the first of a three-part series on climate change, the reporter stated that they would be speaking to people who raised doubt on global warming. The reporter said:

In an attempt to balance the avalanche of reports that dominate the media, this programme explores some of the views put forward by opponents of the perceived wisdom – the perceived wisdom that says the world is experiencing unusual warming caused by human activity, that the rate of warming is alarming, and the solution: a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

[2]   The reporter stated that the consensus view was underpinned by reports from the IPCC, which said that warming over the last century was unequivocal. In its report for policy makers, the IPCC had put the rise in global temperatures for the 100 years to 2005 at 0.74 degrees Celsius. In the scientific community, there was “widespread agreement about this amount of warming. Agreement, but not consensus.”

[3]   In New Zealand, the reporter said, 58 “vocal opponents of the perceived wisdom” had formed a group called the Climate Science Coalition (CSC), and its aim was to “ensure balanced scientific opinion about climate change”. The item included comments from the chair of its science committee, Augie Auer, and a climatologist and advisor to the Coalition, Dr Chris de Freitas. The reporter said that Dr de Freitas was not sceptical about climate change due to natural variations, or about the impact of human greenhouse gas emissions on global warming. However, he expressed his view that the amount of warming was very small.

[4]   The item said that, overseas, a range of experts also challenged the IPCC’s views including Richard Lindzen PhD, an atmospheric physicist and Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr Lindzen spoke out against the IPCC’s position that significant global warming was caused by humans.

[5]   The report explained that global average temperatures as depicted by the IPCC were based on temperature readings taken from surface weather stations. An expert reviewer for the IPCC, Vincent Gray, said that he had “serious doubts about the accuracy of this system” and he described what he felt were three significant flaws.

[6]   The reporter said that the CSC believed that the 20th century climate changes reflected climate recovery from the little ice age, and fell within previous natural rates of temperature change. Excerpts from Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” were played and Augie Auer was asked to comment on statements made in the programme.

[7]   The item also discussed the IPCC’s view that global warming was due to increases in man-made greenhouse gas concentrations, and Dr de Freitas and Professor Tim Patterson (Professor of Geology at Carleton University, Canada) explained why they disagreed with this view.

[8]   The reporter concluded the programme by saying:

Whether you are convinced by the so-called sceptics or not, the evidence of a consensus is shaky at best.  

Complaint

[9]   Steven Corin made a formal complaint about the programme to Radio New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster. He alleged that it was unbalanced, misleading, and unfair. Looking at Principle 4 (balance), Mr Corin noted that the Insight programme had examined the controversial issue of climate change which was a subject of great public importance.

[10]   In the complainant’s view, the programme had focused on the view of so-called climate change sceptics and “the entire show was devoted to their claims”. He wrote:

Unproven accusations such as there being a “widespread controversy” and evidence that the consensus view on climate change is “shaky” were made without any supporting material. At no stage was any quantification made of the number of scientists for and against climate change. Instead the claims were made on the small basis of opinion with no opposite view presented.

[11]   Mr Corin contended that the broadcast had ignored the “clear scientific evidence” that there was a vast consensus on climate change. The “currency of science”, he said, was that of peer-reviewed publications. An analysis of these publications between 1993 and 2003 showed that there were 928 papers, none of which disagreed with the position that climate change was human-induced, he noted. Mr Corin maintained that this pointed to a “remarkable consensus” in valid and reviewed scientific opinion.

Principles

[12]   The complainant nominated Principle 4 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice as being relevant to the determination of this complaint. It provides:

Principle 4

In programmes and their presentation, broadcasters are required 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.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[13]   RNZ noted that the programme had sought to inject some contrary views into the ongoing debate about climate change and its causes, and had coincided with the release of a new United Nations report. The broadcaster noted that that there had been many media reports on the prevalent view that global warming was a fact and was progressing at a significant rate due to human activity. This programme, RNZ said, was a “rare airing of the views of warming sceptics”.

[14]   The broadcaster stated that in the two days prior to the broadcast complained about, RNZ news bulletins alone had carried 17 separate stories on issues related to global warming in the lead-up to the United Nations IPCC report. RNZ’s flagship programme, Morning Report, had featured extended coverage (eight items in all) linked to the IPCC report or reaction in a few days either side of its release. The issue had also received prominent reporting on RNZ’s afternoon programme Checkpoint.

[15]   RNZ added that the reporter had clearly stated at the start of the broadcast that this was the first of a three-part series. Part two had dealt with the goal of carbon neutrality and had assumed global warming as fact and reducing carbon dioxide emissions as important. Part three had looked at the United States policy on climate change, focusing on increasing public awareness and the demands by the American people for strong government initiatives to deal with it.

[16]   The broadcaster contended that, on any reasonable assessment of the broadcast complained about and the many aspects of the global warming issue broadcast on RNZ and other media, the requirement for a balance of viewpoints had been “comprehensively met”.

[17]   On the issue of fairness, RNZ believed that global warming sceptics were permitted a reasonable opportunity to express opinions challenging the overwhelming majority. It noted that Mr Corin’s complaint had not pointed to any instance of unfair treatment of participants or parties referred to.

[18]   The broadcaster maintained that the accuracy of the many statements made within the programme was not a matter for RNZ to decide or arbitrate on. Previous decisions of the Authority confirmed this stance, it wrote.

[19]   Accordingly, RNZ stated that it was satisfied that the programme did not breach any principles of the Radio Code. It declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[20]   Dissatisfied with RNZ’s response, Mr Corin referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He noted RNZ’s argument that there had been a sufficient number of programmes aired in the period of current interest which argued that climate change was a fact. In Mr Corin’s view, none of these programmes had given extensive time (such as the 25 minutes of this broadcast) to the evidence that supported the claim that climate change was happening.

[21]   The complainant stated that the public would not have been able to compare the strength of the arguments put up by both sides, and this had led to a lack of balance in reporting the issue. Mr Corin was concerned that this would lead the public to believe that the supporting evidence for climate change was “still hotly debated by the wider scientific community”.

[22]   Another reason why the Insight programme was unbalanced, Mr Corin wrote, was the conclusion reached by the reporter who stated that the consensus on climate change was “shaky”. He said:

"How such a conclusion can be reached without analysing the number of (qualified) scientists for and against climate change astounds me. If one were to use the scientific evidence (i.e. peer reviewed publications) as a proxy for this they would find that the scientific evidence is overwhelming and unequivocal in the fact that climate change is occurring.

[23]   Mr Corin maintained that the reporter’s statement should be retracted as it was “clearly false” and lacked supporting evidence.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[24]   RNZ noted firstly that the complainant had referred only those matters raised under Principle 4 to the Authority. It reiterated its view that Principle 4 had not been breached, and noted that the Authority had previously held that where a broadcast approaches a topic from a particular perspective then there was a lesser requirement for balance. It wrote:

Given the weight of reporting on the climate change issue leading up to the release of the [IPCC’s] report coinciding with this broadcast, a listener would have had to have been isolated from all media coverage in the preceding weeks and months and years. Such a position is not sustainable.

[25]   The introduction to the programme had made it clear, in RNZ’s view, that the programme was one of a trilogy on the topic, and also that it was being approached from the perspective of those who held views which differed from the “consensus”. It had been acknowledged on more than one occasion in the broadcast that other views existed on the topic, RNZ wrote. It maintained that the requirements of Principle 4 had been met.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[26]   In short, Mr Corin said, his complaint related to a lack of significant points of view and an unbalanced conclusion to the programme. He repeated the points made in his earlier correspondence.

Authority's Determination

[27]   The members of the Authority have listened to 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.

[28]   Principle 4 requires that balance be provided when controversial issues of public importance are discussed. On this occasion, the programme discussed the issue of whether global warming was a reality and, if so, whether it was caused by human activity. The Authority finds that this is a controversial issue of public importance to which the balance standard applies.

[29]   Mr Corin was concerned about the “extensive time” given to this view, as he was not aware of any programmes of a similar length that were devoted to the alternative viewpoint. In response to this, the Authority reiterates its previously expressed view that balance is not achieved by the “stopwatch”, meaning that the time given to each competing party does not have to be mathematically balanced.

[30]   In the Authority’s view, this programme did not purport to provide a comprehensive overview on the climate change debate. It notes that guideline 4(b)(i) states that, in considering the question of balance, the nature of a programme’s introduction is relevant. In the present case, the Authority considers that the introduction clearly set the scene, explaining that the programme was “an attempt to balance the avalanche of reports that dominate the media”. The topic was explicitly approached from the perspective of those who challenged the “perceived wisdom” about climate change.

[31]   Furthermore, the Authority observes that this item did acknowledge the alternative perspective that climate change was a reality, and that it was caused by human activity. Several times during the programme the presenter referred to certain arguments behind the “perceived wisdom”, and then the opposing viewpoint was put forward.

[32]   The Authority also takes into account the fact that the programme complained about was the first of a three-part series on climate change. RNZ has advised that the other two programmes accepted climate change and global warming as a fact. In addition, there has been a substantial amount of other media coverage devoted to climate change and global warming. In that context, the views expressed in this item were a legitimate contribution to the ongoing discussion about an important issue.

[33]   In the Authority’s view, this item did not purport to be a comprehensive overview of the debate, or the final word on the issue.  Viewers were left in no doubt that the views of the “so-called skeptics” were not the only perspectives on the issue. Further, the Authority considers that the period of current interest for this issue remains open for further discussion and debate. Accordingly, it finds that Principle 4 was not breached.

[34]   With respect to Mr Corin’s argument about the presenter’s concluding remark that the evidence of a consensus was “shaky at best”, the Authority notes that this concern does not raise an issue of balance, but would more appropriately be dealt with under the accuracy standard. As Mr Corin did not refer an accuracy complaint to the Authority, and this part of the complaint does not raise an issue under Standard 4, the Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
14 August 2007

Appendix

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

1             Steven Corin’s formal complaint – 8 April 2007
2            RNZ’s decision on the formal complaint – 4 May 2007
3            Mr Corin’s referral to the Authority – 12 May 2007
4            RNZ’s response to the Authority – 28 June 2007
5            Mr Corin’s final comment – 4 July 2007