PETER WARING AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2569

Council Meeting: MARCH 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Columnists
Conflict of Interest
Editorial Freedom
Misleading
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Peter Waring complained about an opinion piece published in The Dominion Post on February 8, 2017 headed “Politics and science a toxic mix”. The opinion piece was written by Matt Ridley and had been sourced by the newspaper from The Times under a news feed service.

The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

Mr Waring complained that the opinion piece breached the principle requiring accuracy, fairness and balance. He claimed that the opinion expressed was based on factual inaccuracy. He also claimed that it failed to disclose relevant information about the author’s personal stake in the coal mining industry and his association with an interest group which is funded predominantly by energy industry players. By omitting this information, the complainant alleged the article was unfair.

Mr Waring stated that as far as he had been able to ascertain, the author of the opinion piece had no recognised qualification in atmospheric science nor had he published any peer-reviewed papers in that scientific discipline. He referred the Council to the journalist’s association with the Global Warming Policy Forum an organisation which is reportedly almost exclusively funded by energy industry players and which is well known for denying the anthropogenic basis of climate change. Additionally, he referred to the journalist having a large open-cast coal mine situated on land from which the journalist personally derives a financial benefit.

Mr Waring asserted that to publish an article on a topic as serious as the effects of human greenhouse gas emissions without also publishing what he argues is relevant background information effectively amounts to misleading readers of the newspaper in that it deprives the readers of information which might assist them to more effectively evaluate the claims made in the opinion piece.

Mr Waring further complained that he submitted three letters to the editor in response to the opinion piece but that none of these had been published by the newspaper at the time of his complaint.

The Response

The editor rejected all the bases for Mr Waring’s complaint.

She said the article was an opinion piece and was clearly labelled as such. Articles published in the opinion section of a newspaper represent a range of views from every perspective. The editor made it clear that the newspaper did not necessarily endorse the opinions it published. It would, however, be a retrograde step were newspapers to exclude views that editors, or even the majority of readers, may not agree with. Freedom of expression permits the publication of both popular and unpopular views.

She rejected any lack of balance and stated that the newspaper’s coverage of climate change reflected diverse views. Two days after the publication of the article Mr Waring complained about, the newspaper published an article from Professor Renwick of Victoria University critical of the opinion piece as well as two letters to the editor in a similar vein. The newspaper also published one letter to the editor which supported the opinion expressed by the journalist.

In response to the complaint that no reference had been made to the journalist’s personal interest in the climate change debate, the editor stated that any complaint about publishing an article by him had “no basis”.

Finally, the editor explained that Mr Waring had sent a number of emails to her personal account and that these were not cleared until she had returned from annual leave. She then informed him that one of his letters was to be published and this letter was duly published on February 21, 2017. The editor explained the need to submit letters to the editor to the generic letters address rather than to the editor’s address.

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The Decision

It is not the role of the Council to adjudicate on the relative merits or otherwise of the ‘science’ contained in an opinion piece published by a newspaper. Provided that an article is clearly labelled as an opinion piece, which it was, then any complaint about its scientific accuracy is for another forum. The author is entitled to freely express his views however much they may be at odds with established or even generally accepted scientific opinion. The editor is entitled to choose to publish such views, and any countervailing views, as a matter of editorial discretion. Section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 provides for freedom of expression.

After publication of the opinion piece the newspaper published a range of views in response. The Council agrees that balance was achieved by the newspaper in its coverage. It does note, however, observations made by the Council previously (decisions 2436 and 2437) that the subject of anthropogenic climate change had become a declining topic of debate in newspapers both because editors judged that readers were weary of the issue and had generally come to accept the scientific consensus. In such circumstances, an editor needs to remain vigilant about the need for balance.

That leaves the question as to whether the paper was unfair by failing to include information which the complainant asserts was germane to the views expressed by the journalist in the opinion piece. It is a fine line for editors to tread as to what inquiry they should make into the personal background of a journalist. While a basic search would likely have revealed information which the complainant argues was omitted, the Council accepts that a newspaper editor would rarely undertake such a search on an opinion piece when its source was a reputable newspaper with which the newspaper had a commercial news feed relationship. The Council does not find the failure to undertake such an inquiry lead to any unfairness. The responses to the opinion piece (including the letter to the editor from the complainant) address the concerns raised by the complainant and would have alerted interested readers to other lines of inquiry. Had the newspaper not achieved balanced coverage following on from the publication of the opinion piece, this head of complaint may have been more problematic for the newspaper. It has been effectively negated by the newspapers later balanced coverage.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens, Vernon Small and Tim Watkin.