BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Watkin and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2008-075

Members
  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Diane Musgrave
  • Tapu Misa
  • Paul France
Dated
Complainant
  • Neville Watkin
Number
2008-075
Programme
One News
Channel/Station
TV One

Complaint under section 8(1)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
One News – item reported that Air New Zealand planned to be the first airline to use biofuels on commercial flights – allegedly inaccurate

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – item was ambiguous whether using biofuels would decrease carbon dioxide emissions from planes – upholding the accuracy complaint would unreasonably restrict the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   An item on One News, broadcast at 6pm on TV One on 5 June 2008, reported on the announcement by Air New Zealand that it hoped to be the first airline to use biofuels on commercial flights.

[2]   It was reported that Air New Zealand planes pumped around three-and-a-half million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. A pilot from Air New Zealand was shown commenting that “as an entity, [Air New Zealand would] be New Zealand’s largest polluter”, but, as the reporter stated, it hoped to become “cleaner and greener” by using oil extracted from Jatropha plants, which Air New Zealand considered to be “the best option yet for a sustainable biofuel for the aviation industry”. Viewers were informed that the plants grew on non-arable land and were not a food source for either animals or humans.

[3]   The reporter concluded the item by saying that, all going to plan, Jatropha oil would be blended with normal fuel, “reducing the airline’s carbon footprint and increasing its standing with passengers keen to go green”.

Complaint

[4]   Neville Watkin made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, alleging that the item breached the accuracy standard because it “left the viewer with the impression that the proposal would ‘reduce greenhouse gas emissions’”. He argued that this was untrue and misleading, because:

...biofuels, when combusted in internal combustion (IC) engines, produce just as much carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions as their mineral fuel counterparts. CO2 is the major component of the exhaust gas from an IC engine, irrespective of the source of the fuel used.

[5]   Mr Watkin contended that some of the sustainability issues mentioned in the item were also “highly questionable”. He considered that One News should broadcast another item correcting the inaccuracy, because “it is important that the public be properly informed about the effects of transport fuels on the environment”.

Standards

[6]   TVNZ assessed Mr Watkin’s complaint under Standard 5 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provides:

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 Complainant

[7]   TVNZ said that as a result of Mr Watkin’s complaint, news and current affairs staff had spoken with Air New Zealand further, and Air New Zealand had commented that “while the new biofuel shown has not been tested practically, [it stood by its] claim that switching to the sustainable biofuel will reduce their carbon footprint”.

[8]   The broadcaster stated that experts from Air New Zealand and Boeing accepted some of the reservations expressed in Mr Watkin’s complaint. TVNZ said:

While it is true that CO2 emissions from internal combustion engines will be the same regardless of the fuel used, either mineral based or a blended biofuel, the experts say it is important to look at the entire lifecycle of CO2 emissions when considering a company’s carbon footprint.

[9]   TVNZ concluded that the item did not contain any errors of fact and it declined to uphold the complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[10]   Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s response, Mr Watkin referred his complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989. He reiterated his concern that the item had contained a “significant amount of disinformation” about biofuels and that TVNZ should have independently researched the information provided by Air New Zealand.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[11]   TVNZ offered further information to clarify its point that “it is important to look at the entire lifecycle of CO2 emissions when considering a company’s carbon footprint”. It said that Air New Zealand was planning to plant 125,000 Jatropha plants on arid land for the purpose of producing biofuel. According to Air New Zealand experts, TVNZ said, those plants would reabsorb 400,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum. As Air New Zealand, as reported, currently pumped 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, the plants would achieve “a significant reduction in CO2”. The broadcaster considered that this was a reasonable claim based on new, cutting-edge technology.

[12]   TVNZ stated that One News intended to cover the first test flight using biofuel, and that Mr Watkin’s views would be kept in mind at the time of that report.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[13]   Mr Watkin maintained that TVNZ had not made journalistic efforts to verify the information provided to it by Air New Zealand, for example, that the proposed locations of the jatropha plantations would be on arid land, and that 125,000 jatropha plants can reabsorb 400,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum on a sustainable basis.

[14]   The complainant argued that TVNZ had not considered the “net carbon footprint of the jatropha plantation, rather than just the gross re-absorption data provided by Air New Zealand”, for example the carbon footprint involved in establishing the plantations, harvesting the jatropha beans and producing the biofuel.

[15]   Mr Watkin concluded that the item lacked balance because the public was not provided with answers to these questions.

Authority's Determination

[16]   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.

Preliminary Matter

[17]   Mr Watkin referred to balance in his second letter to TVNZ and in his final comments. The Authority’s task is to review the broadcaster’s decision. Mr Watkin did not raise balance either implicitly or explicitly in his original complaint, such that the broadcaster should have dealt with his complaint under Standard 4 as well as Standard 5. Accordingly, the Authority has no jurisdiction to consider Mr Watkin’s complaint under Standard 4.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[18]   Standard 5 requires news programmes to be truthful and accurate on points of fact. Mr Watkin argued that the item “left the viewer with the impression that the proposal would ‘reduce greenhouse gas emissions’”, which was misleading and inaccurate because the jatropha fuel would produce just as much carbon dioxide as conventional fuels. TVNZ accepted that Mr Watkin was right on this point, but said that carbon dioxide levels would be reduced overall, because some would be reabsorbed by the jatropha plants.

[19]   In the Authority’s view, it is possible that viewers were left with the impression that using the fuel from the jatropha plants would in fact reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide from Air New Zealand planes. This was suggested by references to Air New Zealand “[pumping] around three-and-a-half million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year”, to Air New Zealand being “New Zealand’s single largest polluter”, and to the jatropha fuel being “blended with Avgas, reducing the airline’s carbon footprint”.

[20]   However, Authority notes that the reporter never explicitly stated that the way the airline “hopes to become cleaner and greener” was by reducing carbon emissions from its aeroplanes. Further, a large part of the item focused on the environmental sustainability of the jatropha plants as a source of biofuel, rather than any impact the use of such fuel might have on carbon emissions.

[21]   While some viewers may have been left with the impression that using jatropha plants would reduce carbon emissions, the Authority considers that, at worst, the item was ambiguous as to how Air New Zealand would be reducing its carbon footprint.

[22]   In these circumstances, the Authority considers that upholding the accuracy complaint would unreasonably restrict the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression under section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Joanne Morris
Chair
25 November 2008

Appendix

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

1.           Neville Watkin’s formal complaint – 6 June 2008
2.          TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 4 July 2008
3.          Letter from Mr Watkin to TVNZ – 9 July 2008
4.          TVNZ’s response to Mr Watkin – 9 July 2008
5.          Mr Watkin’s referral to the Authority – 18 July 2008
6.          TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 9 September 2008
7.          Mr Watkin’s final comment – 1 October 2008
8.          TVNZ’s response to complainant’s final comment – 9 October 2008