Climie and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2021-017 (21 July 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- James Anthony Climie
BroadcasterTelevision New Zealand Ltd
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
The Authority has not upheld a complaint about an item on 1 News that reported a third marine heatwave in four years in Auckland and Northland. It described the causes of the heatwave in terms of subtropical winds and global warming, and its consequences in terms of sea level rises and ocean acidification, and included comments from local experts. The complaint was that the broadcast misled viewers to believe the higher ocean temperatures in Northland and Auckland were due principally to climate change and the warming effects were global (when actually the heatwave was driven by a natural climate event, occurring locally). The Authority found the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy, including reliance on authoritative experts, and the broadcast was unlikely to mislead viewers.
Not Upheld: Accuracy
 An item on 1 News, broadcast on TVNZ 1 on 21 November 2020, reported a third heatwave in four years in Auckland and Northland. The item described the causes of the heatwave in terms of subtropical winds and global warming, and its consequences in terms of sea level rises and ocean acidification. It included comments from a New Zealand climate scientist Professor James Renwick and NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) meteorologist Ben Noll:
Newsreader: The seas off Auckland and Northland have reached unusually high temperatures for this time of year in what’s described as a marine heatwave. It means we’re in for a hot summer. But for climate scientists, it’s a stark warning sign…
Reporter: It’s another sign this blue planet is in hot water. The seas off Auckland and Northland have already hit their summer temperatures, 18 to 21 degrees, causing a marine heatwave.
Mr Noll: Offshore Auckland and Northland, on average, 1.6 degrees above average are the ocean temperatures.
Reporter: The cause? Subtropical winds and global warming. The oceans help combat climate change by absorbing carbon, but they’re now working overtime.
Mr Renwick: The oceans are absorbing over 90 percent of the warming of the heat that comes from increased greenhouse gases. So the oceans are soaking up vast amounts of heat.
Reporter: This marine heatwave is the third in four years. They contribute to sea level rises and ocean acidification – bad news for what’s below.
Mr Renwick: The carbon dioxide turns into carbonic acid. So you’re basically pouring acid into the ocean. Creatures in the ocean, again, feel that….
 James Anthony Climie complained the broadcast breached the accuracy standard. In summary, he submitted:
- The reporting was ‘inaccurate and misleading… as to the cause and projected effects of the developing marine heatwave affecting parts of the northern North Island.’
- Regarding the reference to ‘subtropical winds’ as a cause of the heatwave, ‘Clarity would have been improved if the marine heatwave had been attributed to the development of “La Niña” (surprisingly not a term used at all in the segment).’
- ‘As to the early summer high temperatures being a “stark warning sign” to climate scientists, in the context of a developing La Niña this should not be the case and is an extravagant characterisation of conditions that are not unprecedented.’
- The item’s ‘predictions of sea level rise and ocean acidification caused by the marine heatwave, with the inference that they are of global scale, are not soundly based. The La Niña warming effects are too localised and too distal from the Antarctic ice sheet to significantly influence global sea levels.’
- ‘Far from “absorbing carbon [sic], and working overtime”, the warm water pool of the marine heatwave will actually be exsolving CO2 to the atmosphere since the solubility of CO2 in warm water is less than in cold water – also casting doubts on any related ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is highly controversial in any event, since the oceans have a very large buffering capacity.’
- ‘In addition to sub-tropical winds, the presenter states that the marine heatwave is also caused by “climate change”... This is speculation for which there is no supporting evidence. The La Niña event is the driver of the marine heat wave – an entirely natural climate effect...’
- ‘Based on these errors and misleading statements, the average viewer will have incorrectly concluded that the higher ocean temperatures adjacent to parts of New Zealand are due principally to “climate change” and that the associated warming and effects are of global extent. It is actually a naturally-driven global cooling event.’
- ‘The input of Professor Renwick appears to be quoted out of context… he appears to be giving his particular view of global-scale climate processes, rather than addressing the more restricted circumstances of the marine heatwave.’
- ‘Overall, the segment is confusing, is a poor and inaccurate representation of the La Niña episode, and is misleading the viewer. It seems to be more about promoting concern and fear than conveying a rational and objective explanation of the marine heat wave.’
The broadcaster’s response
 TVNZ did not uphold Mr Climie’s complaint:
- ‘We note that it can generally be said that sea-level rise is caused in part by thermal expansion due to warming temperatures… [S]ea-level rise varies for different regions, as NIWA points out.1 There is no claim in the 1 News item that these sea-level changes are “global”.’
- ‘The Committee…does not agree that it is misleading to state that marine heatwaves contribute to ocean acidification.’2
- The statement ‘The oceans help combat climate change by absorbing carbon, but they’re now working overtime’ is ‘consistent with what is known about global climate change’.
- ‘The claim that the ocean warming is caused by climate change is commentary which comes from NIWA and the Committee has no reason to doubt its veracity. We note that NIWA provides academic support for this claim…’
- ‘The item also recognises the effects of La Niña in the discussion about ocean surface warming.’
 The accuracy standard3 protects the public from being significantly misinformed.4 It states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that any news, current affairs or factual programme is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead.
 We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 We have also considered the important right to freedom of expression, which is our starting point. Our task is to weigh the right to freedom of expression – including the value of, and public interest in, the broadcast – against the potential harm caused by the broadcast. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where the resulting limitation on the right to freedom of expression is reasonable and justified in light of the harm caused.
 This 1 News item reported on a third marine heatwave in four years in Auckland and Northland, and situated this within the context of climate change and global warming, albeit in simplified terms. Although some people continue to dispute the existence and causes of climate change and global warming, examining weather patterns and climate events – in this case, marine heatwaves – in this light are matters of significant public interest in New Zealand and internationally.
 The harm alleged in the complaint is that the reporting was ‘inaccurate and misleading… as to the cause and projected effects of the developing marine heatwave’ in particular by suggesting the heatwave was caused in part by climate change (rather than being a naturally occurring event), and that the effects were being experienced on a global (rather than only local) scale.
 It is not the Authority’s role to determine the causes and effects of climate events or marine heatwaves, nor the veracity of the science around climate change and global warming. The accuracy standard requires only that the broadcaster made ‘reasonable efforts’ to ensure accuracy. The assessment of whether a broadcaster has made reasonable efforts includes consideration of the source of the material broadcast (eg whether it relied on an authoritative expert) and the extent to which the issue of accuracy was reasonably capable of being determined by the broadcaster.4
 As we have said, occurrence of marine heatwaves (and other climate events) and their causes and consequences, in the context of ongoing discussion about climate change and global warming, are matters of public interest. Here, the broadcaster has endeavoured to explain some of these factors and phenomena in a short news item, less than two minutes long, in a simple and accessible way for its viewers. TVNZ has explained the basis for each of the statements complained about, citing NIWA and National Geographic. It is reasonable for the broadcaster to rely on these sources and to distil complex scientific ideas into a digestible format.
 Additionally, the requirement for factual accuracy does not apply to statements that are distinguishable as comment, analysis or opinion. The item’s main points largely relied on, and summarised, the views of the reputable local experts featured, regarding the causes of the heatwave and its possible implications. By their nature, ‘projected effects’ as referred to in the complaint, are based on analysis and opinion. Direct comments from the experts contextualised and further explained other statements made by the reporter. The complainant may hold different views from the experts, but it does not follow that the item as a whole was inaccurate or likely to mislead the general audience.
 Overall we find the broadcaster made ‘reasonable efforts’ as required by the accuracy standard. We have not found actual or potential harm that justifies regulatory intervention or restricting the right to freedom of expression.
 Accordingly, we do not uphold the complaint.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
21 July 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 James Anthony Climie’s formal complaint – 9 December 2020
2 TVNZ’s decision on the complaint – 4 February 2021
3 Mr Climie’s referral to the Authority – 1 March 2021
4 TVNZ’s response to the referral – 9 April 2021
5 Mr Climie’s final comments – 5 May 2021
1 NIWA “Sea levels and sea-level rise” <niwa.co.nz>
2 NIWA “Investigating ocean acidification” <niwa.co.nz>; L. Jeremy Richardson “Changes in Ocean Temperature and Chemistry” National Geographic (online ed, Washington)
3 Standard 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
4 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
5 Guideline 9d