New Zealand Law Society - Lawyers for Climate Action complaint against Newshub not upheld

Lawyers for Climate Action complaint against Newshub not upheld

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A complaint by the Lawyers for Climate Action NZ Inc group against an article on the Mediaworks Newshub website has not been upheld by the New Zealand Media Council.

In its decision, Joseph Williams against Mediaworks Newshub, the Council says an opinion piece headed Peter Williams - The science is never settled on climate change was published on the website on 17 July 2019. It describes Peter Williams as a television presenter, talkback host and writer.

The Council says the theme of the article was that the world is in crisis because of climate change "nonsense" and that the New Zealand media is biased against publishing material which says the prophecies of irreversible damage arising from climate change may be wrong.

The article said science on global warming could not be regarded as settled and it referred to information which it said presented a different view of the world climate.

Two complaints

The Council said it received two complaints against the article. The first, from Joseph Williams, said the article violated the standard on balance and accuracy.

The second complaint, from Lawyers for Climate Action NZ, was based on breach of Principle 1 of the Media Council Principles which requires accuracy, fairness and balance and that publications should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.

The Council says the complaint stated that Mr Williams’ views are contradicted by a vast body of data and research showing that global warming is proceeding at unprecedented rate. "Climate change is caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, and to limit further warming a significant reduction of global emissions of greenhouse gases is required."

It says Lawyers for Climate Action NZ accepted that Mr Williams was entitled to hold his beliefs, but Newshub had provided a platform for misinformation and "bogus science", A "misinformed public was at risk of being deprived of the opportunity to support the policies and actions which are urgently needed to combat global warming”.

Mediaworks' response

The owner of Newshub, US-owned Mediaworks New Zealand, responded that the article was clearly marked as an opinion piece, and it was followed up by two opinion pieces that were critical of it. It said there was adequate balance.

"In relation to the Lawyers for Climate Action complaint, the Mediaworks Standards Committee advised that the complaint was not accepted. It was stated again that the article is labelled 'Opinion' and clearly reads as an expression of opinion. Reference is made to an earlier Media Council discussion on the topic."

Mediaworks said the decision to publish the article was on the basis that it was understood that the piece would provide some debate, which it did, with contrary views published shortly thereafter in two articles.

The Council decision

The Council says as part of Principle 1 it is stated that exceptions may apply for long-running issues were every side cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion.

The article was plainly identified as an opinion piece, as required by Principle 5.

"There is no doubt the discussion on climate change is one of these long-running stories referred to in Principle 1. It is fair to say that most scientific and political opinions are given on the basis that global temperatures are increasing as a consequence of emissions of greenhouse gases arising from human causes. However, this is not a universal view and some scientists from reputable institutions express a contrary or qualified view."

It says in the area of climate change - just as in any other area where there are strong competing views held - balance requires free and open encounters to still take place. Those who read Mr Williams' statement of opinion would be well aware of the arguments supportive of the position taken by the complainants. On this well-vented issue, a decision to publish or not to publish a piece such as this, which is headlined as "Opinion" and plainly expressed as such, is for an editor to make and the Council should not intervene.

The Council said It is clear that the large majority of publications in New Zealand recognise the existence of climate change, but there are New Zealanders who hold and express a contrary view.

"The prohibition of the article in question which gives an opinion challenging the majority view would be antithetical to the freedom to debate and the freedom of expression that must be allowed in a free and democratic society."