NEIL HENDERSON AGAINST THE GISBORNE HERALD

Case Number: 2470

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Gisborne Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Editorial Discretion
Letters to the Editor, Closure, Non-Publication
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Neil Henderson has complained under Principle 1 (accuracy fairness and balance) and Principle 4 (comment and fact) about the publication of an article on August 21, 2015 inThe Gisborne Herald, which covered an official US report that July 2015 was the hottest month on record due to climate change and El Niño, after the newspaper's refused to print his letter that took issue with the temperature data referred to in the article.

The complaint is not upheld

Background

The Gisborne Herald published an article on August 21, 2015 sourced from the BBC under a Washington dateline headed "July was Earth's hottest month on record: NOAA". It explained how scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a report said July was the hottest month since records began by a margin it described as significant in weather records. The record was put down to climate change and the impacts of the El Niño weather pattern.

Mr Henderson wrote a letter to the editor taking issue with what he called "the latest propaganda" from the NOAA and citing satellite data which he said told a different story. Publication of attempted redraft by Mr Henderson, following an offer from the editor to run part of the letter, was refused after an exchange of emails.

The editor had, in November 2013, adopted a policy of "rejecting more climate change denial letters"... after what he believed was a long time airing the various views including rebuttals. But he said the paper would not close off avenues to questioning elements of climate change entirely, especially the latest scientific findings, political responses and the actions needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The Complaint

Mr Henderson conceded that the article accurately and fairly represents the NOAA findings, but argued it did not report an "alternative more or less equally valid" satellite temperature series so did not accurately portray global temperatures in July. The satellite data showed, he said, that July was in fact cooler than July 2014, not as the report claimed from its data the hottest on record. He also argued that because the interpretation of such data is in part subjective the article should not have represented them as fact - hence his contention it breached Principle 4 (comment and fact).

He later conceded he should not have called the NOAA announcement propaganda, but said the publication of the article would be more correctly labelled in that way. He also raised in comparison the regular publication of contributions by Bob Hughes, a writer supporting man-made climate change. He contended in his letter he was not debating the science, but the differing sets of global temperature data, and was not trying to mislead anyone. "People need to be aware that alternative view points exist"

The Response

The editor Jeremy Muir replied that the NOAA claim was widely reported and he had no reason to doubt it "unlike your correspondence over the years" which he also described as "exhaustive". He said Mr Henderson's statements and claims "seemed designed to mislead and confuse the public" on the issue. He also said he did not want to restart the process of going to scientists James Renwick or Jim Salinger and taking up their time on a response to Mr Henderson's letter (although he did seek Mr Renwick's view). He said it was up to the editor whether someone's opinions were published or not. Mr Hughes views would be considered extreme by many, but he did base them on scientific findings.

He also noted - and Mr Henderson referred to this too - that the paper had run much debate on the topic including the views of Mr Henderson prior to 2013.

In summary he said it was not a question of reflecting different view points, but of "science versus attempts to rubbish the science" and what he saw as an attempt to purposely mislead the public. '"It's not healthy debate, it is corrosive."

Mr Muir said the issue was not one of balance and fairness but about "inaccuracy and unbalance" from climate change sceptics.

There was scope, though, to question policy responses, including from the stand point of those who believed the climate was not changing dangerously or that humans were the main cause.

He opined it would be useful for the Press Council to label complaints like this "vexatious" and even consider adopting a policy along the lines of many news organisations "to discourage the often obsessive human-induced climate change denialists".

The Decision

The Council accepts Mr Muir's argument that it is the right of editors to decide which opinion pieces, including letters, to run. Moreover, his policy set in November 2013 is in line with the stance taken by several major overseas newspapers such as theGuardian, the Los Angeles Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. An online search also shows that as well as the BBC other major outlets, including CNN, also ran the NOAA conclusion without comment from anyone taking issue with it. The same search also shows a raft of views expressed, especially in the US, from what could broadly be called climate change sceptics making much the same point as Mr Henderson and also pointing to what they saw as contradictory data in satellite records.

First Mr Henderson argues that the article breaches Principle 1 on fairness accuracy and balance because while he concedes the article accurately reflects the NOAA's findings it does not report the alternative "more or less equally valid" temperature series he says is affirmed by the IPCC which portrays a different view.

However, the article does accurately and fairly covers the detail of that report. It does not have to weigh all the possibly available data and provide the definitive global temperature for July in order to provide an accurate article.

The Council has previously discussed (in a complaint by Bryan Leyland against theNZ Herald, case number 2308) the right of newspapers to consider the science "settled" on climate change and not cover every dissenting opinion on such a broad subject to achieve balance.

The Council's principles also allow an exception from the requirement for balance for long running issues where the various views have been well canvassed. Climate change has now become such an issue.

Mr Henderson argues, somewhat disingenuously given his views expressed elsewhere in the exchanges with the newspaper, that he is not debating the science of climate change in his letter, but pointing out the validity of the other data. We do not accept that takes the matter outside the general exemption.

The complaint on Principle 1 grounds is not upheld.

Secondly, Mr Henderson argued that because the temperature data analysis involves a measure of subjectivity it breaches the Council’s principle on Comment and Fact (Principle 4).

The principle states that a clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and opinion or commentary and that articles that are clearly opinion or comment are clearly presented as such.

In the Council's opinion it would be drawing too long a bow to say that the principle would be breached by articles which accurately report the analysis and conclusions of experts or groups just because other conclusions could be drawn.

The complaint on Principle 4 is not upheld.

However Mr Henderson's complaint does raise issues on which the view of the Council may be helpful. So too do Mr Muir's call for such complaints to be declared "vexatious" and the newspaper's 2013 decision to severely limit the publication of the views of climate change sceptics. The Council would be reluctant to label any complaint as "vexatious" and has a policy of treating all complaints with respect and due consideration. However, it would be fair to say that unless the scientific consensus on climate change shifts markedly, or important new information comes to light, it is unlikely complaints alleging lack of balance, because the climate change sceptic viewpoint is not included, will be successful.

An editor can both decide which letters and opinion pieces to publish as well as when to close the curtain or close a discussion topic within his or her publication.

The Gisborne Herald's 2013 policy on climate change scepticism goes further, by curtailing one aspect of one side of the debate.

As noted above, it is in line with the views taken by other outlets; that the debate has been long, free speech has been allowed its voice and now, with the science well established, the arguments on one side have little merit and will by and large not be published.

As the editor of the Los Angeles Times put it in 2013: "Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying 'there's no sign humans have caused climate change' is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy." Letters claiming there is no evidence humans cause climate change will not be published.

In 2013 the Sydney Morning Herald stated, a letter which claimed "there is no sign humans cause climate change" would not make the grade.

The policy of the Guardian letter editor in Britain seems the most balanced approach and one the Council believes is in tune with the needs of free speech, an editor's role, and the recognition that science can reach a consensus but certainty is more elusive - or to put it another way all scientific truths are potentially "provisional".

In the Guardian's view "you should never absolutely rule out views heretical to the scientific orthodoxy, even if cautious to give them space. So I would be unhappy about an absolute ban on those who might be grouped together as climate change deniers, but would need to see a strong case to run anything from them (and know something about what commercial interests they might be linked to)."

The Council does not believe Mr Muir has breached Principle 5 that states letters for publication are the prerogative of editors who are to be guided by fairness, balance and public interest.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, and Tim Watkin.