RUSSELL TREGONNING AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2437

Council Meeting: MAY 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Columnists
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage
Conflict of Interest

This case challenged the tendency of newspapers to treat anthropogenic climate change as a subject of debate and asked the Press Council to declare contrary opinion to be a factual error.
Russell Tregonning complained about an opinion piece published in The Dominion Post, headed ‘Hypothetical global warming: scepticism needed’. It was co-written by Professor Bob Carter, identified as an expert in geology and palaeoclimatology, and Bryan Leyland, an engineer specialising in renewable energy. The complaint was not upheld with one member of the Council dissenting from this decision.
Mr Tregonning cited the same principles and evidence as Dr George Preddey, whose complaint he had seen and endorsed. The Press Council considered the complaints together and this decision largely duplicates the decision in Dr Preddey’s case.
The Complaint
Mr Tregonning considered the article contained numerous errors of fact and half-truths. It lacked balance and was neither fair nor accurate. For example, it stated, “We are constantly told that man-made carbon dioxide has caused global warming that will bring doom and disaster in a few years.” That was half-truth in Mr Tregonning’s view. Carbon dioxide had certainly caused global warming but the authors overstated the facts.
By publishing their opinion the editors of The Dominion Post treated global warming as a debate among scientists. It could no longer be regarded as such with 97 percent of climate experts agreeing on its existence and the leading role of human activity in its causation.
The Press Council’s principles required a distinction to be drawn between opinion and fact and it had said, “material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate”.
The complainant asked the Council to give New Zealand newspaper editors clear guidance on publishing of articles on global warming. He would like to see editors required to check the credentials of authors and to submit information put forward as fact to reputable climate scientists for checking.
The Editor’s Response
The Editor in Chief, Bernadette Courtney, responded jointly to the complaints from Mr Tregonning and Dr Preddey. She pointed out the article was published on a page clearly labelled as opinion and was intended to give readers an alternative view to the prevailing orthodoxy on climate change. The Dominion Post regarded its opinion pages as a marketplace of ideas and it was in no-one’s long-term interests to decide some views simply should not be heard.
The Dominion Post was not a peer-reviewed publication. It did not necessarily endorse the opinions it published. It would be a retrograde step were newspapers to exclude views their editors did not agree with or were considered unpopular
The editor noted the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance allowed for differing views on climate change and Carter-Leyland piece was followed by one taking an opposite view, co-written by David Wratt, an emeritus climate scientist for Niwa, Andy Reisinger of the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre and James Renwick, professor of physical geography at Victoria University of Wellington.
The Carter-Leyland article was clearly distinguished as opinion, the headline accurately and fairly reflected the content, there was no subterfuge involved in obtaining the piece and no conflict of interest since The Dominion Post received no fee for the article and was under no obligation to publish it.
Discussion
Editors are in an invidious position when scientists, or sciences, disagree on what constitutes fact. The best that non-scientists can do is to look for precision in matters that are claimed to be fact.
Upon receiving Dr Preddey’s complaint the Press Council invited him to specify the factual inaccuracies he found in the Carter-Leyland article. Mr Tregonning has seen Dr Preddey’s response citing 10 issues identified by Wratt, Reisinger and Renwick in their Dominion Post article, and 24 points in a critique of Leyland-Cater on a website, Hot Topic.
The Press Council examined each conflicting statement carefully. In most instances the differences appeared to lie in interpretations of facts rather than stark factual errors. For example, Carter and Leyland claimed the world had not experienced any significant warming for the past 18 years even though atmospheric carbon dioxide had increased by 20 percent in that time. The accuracy of that statement depended on what degree of warming they considered “significant”, and whether 18 years was a significant length of time. Wratt, Reisinger and Renwick replied that, “The long term warming trend shows intermittent ups and downs”, and that “short-term wiggles don’t change the long term picture”. Hot Topic conceded “there has been some slowdown in the upwards trend of surface temperatures, the so called ‘hiatus’, but no reduction in the amount of heat accumulating in the system, mainly in the oceans”.
Carter and Leyland said that contrary to computer predictions global sea ice was well above the 1970-2013 average. Wratt, Reisinger and Renwick said arctic sea ice showed a long-term trend of retreat while Antarctic sea ice had behaved differently, some areas have decreased, others increased. Total sea ice, they said, was estimated to have decreased by around 1.5 percent per decade since 1979.
Carter and Leyland said glaciers were retreating in some areas and advancing in others. Wratt, Reisinger and Renwick said, “year to year fluctuations and local deviations from the decreasing trend exist but they don’t change the global picture. Hot Topic called Carter and Leyland’s statement, “trivially true but hugely misleading”. The number of retreating glaciers, they said, far outweighed the few that were advancing.
Those examples were typical of the dispute. On most of the points at issue, Carter and Leyland cited anomalies and contradictions in the data while orthodox climate science focused on what it saw to be long-term global trends.
Decision
The Council cannot adjudicate on the scientific issues. It could rule only on whether the newspaper was entitled to publish the article as an item of opinion. It did seem to the Council that the article was highly selective and tendentious in its use of data but it was difficult to say on the counter-arguments provided, that the facts as worded were wrong. The complaint of inaccuracy was not upheld (Principle 1).
In accordance with Principle 5 there was no requirement for balance in an opinion piece such as this.
The Council found the article to be clearly presented as opinion on an issue of ongoing debate. It followed there was no breach of the principle that comment should be clearly distinguished from fact (Principle 4).
The headline’s reference to “hypothetical” climate change was a fair reflection of the article (Principle 6) and the credentials of both writers were properly given (Principle 10). They are both well-known critics of climate change and the Council saw no “subterfuge” in the fact that this was not pointed out to readers. It did not need to be (Principle 9). On the question of conflict of interest, the Council was not provided with evidence that one of the writers receive grants from foundations opposed to climate change (Principle 10).
The NZ Bill of Rights Act (1990) accords to Messrs Carter and Leyland the right to hold and express these views; no Press Council Principles were breached in the editor’s publication of them.
The complaint is not upheld.
While it declined to uphold any grounds of the complaint, the Council observed that the subject of anthropogenic climate change is a declining topic of debate in newspapers, if only because their editors judge, probably rightly, that readers are weary of the issue and have generally come to accept the scientific consensus.
Dissent by Tim Beaglehole
The article complained of appeared on the opinion page of the newspaper and was followed five days later by a critical response written by three New Zealand scientists. One would normally see this expression of diverse views as something to be supported in the interests of free speech, the principle to which the Council gives “primary consideration”. But while the Council, in considering opinion pieces, has been prepared to offer a little license in the application of its principles, such as accuracy, fairness and balance, this should not mean that they can be left out altogether. It is a matter of degree. The complainants [in my judgment] made a convincing case that the article showed a lack of accuracy and balance that meant that even for an opinion piece it did not meet the standards implied by the Council’s principles.
There is, in this case, a further consideration. Freedom of expression is linked as the Council’s primary consideration with “the public interest”. Anthropogenic climate change presents probably the greatest threat to our future well-being; possibly to humanity’s very survival. It is questionable at best whether the public interest is better served by further debate on the overwhelming consensus of qualified scientists, or whether the public interest would not be better served by discussion of how best to counter the effects of global warming and what is already being done in other parts of the world.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small and Mark Stevens.