BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Foster and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2020-121 (16 March 2021)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Peter Foster
Number
2020-121
Programme
1 News
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

An item on 1 News (sourced from the BBC) reported on the impact of sea ice decline on polar bears, including a statement by the reporter, ‘At the current rate of warming, the researchers say all but a few polar bear populations will collapse before 2100.’ The complainant alleged climate change was not threatening polar bears as reported in the item. The Authority found the broadcaster was entitled to rely on internationally reputable sources in the report and had made ‘reasonable efforts’ as required by the accuracy standard. Reporting on the predicted future impact of declining sea ice on polar bear survival as shown in studies did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue, so the balance standard did not apply.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance, Programme Information


The broadcast

[1]  An item on 1 News on 21 July 2020 (TVNZ 1), sourced from the BBC, reported on a new research paper in the Nature Climate Change journal:

They are the poster species for climate change. Predators that depend on a fragile, transient hunting ground, the Arctic sea ice. And this study has shown that polar bears' survival is tied to that ice. The scientists used models based on satellite data to forecast sea ice decline in the Arctic over the coming decades. That enabled them to predict a future tipping point to create a timeline for when the frozen hunting season will be too short for the bears to fatten up before the summer. At the current rate of warming, the researchers say all but a few polar bear populations will collapse before 2100.

[2]  The item included brief excerpts of an interview with the Chief Scientist for Polar Bears International (PBI), Dr Steven Amstrup:

Dr Amstrup:    With less fat, they're entering a fasting season that's longer than it used to be.

Interviewer:     So is that now unavoidable? Are we already on that trajectory, to just lose polar bears?

Dr Amstrup:    The trajectory that we’re on now is not a good one, but if society gets its act together globally, we can halt global warming in time to save polar bears. And if we do, it will benefit the rest of life on earth, including ourselves.

The complaint

[3]  Mr Foster complained the item breached the accuracy, balance and programme information standards, disputing the item’s claim that polar bears will not survive an increase in global temperatures:

  • The polar bear population is actually increasing (‘The recovery of the bear populations post-1960 occurred because shooting them was banned’), and ‘the Arctic ice has stabilised and as from 2012 has increased’.
  • The information in the broadcast ‘came from a paper which is merely creating alarm for the purposes of getting more funding. Nothing they claimed was correct’. It ‘is junk science intended to garner funds for polar bear research’.
  • Mr Foster provided sources showing ‘the correct information on polar bears’,1 how the models relied on by the research reported ‘overstate warming by a factor of two to three times that observed’,2 and information about temperatures 2,000 years ago.3 ‘A new paper has just shown the Mediterranean to have been 2 degrees warmer in the Roman warm period from AD 0 to AD500’.
  • ‘A far better thing for TV One to do would be to ask the question, where is the evidence that CO2 drives climate change. I can save you some time, it does not exist… In fact there is not one scientific paper produced that shows that CO2 drives climate change.’

The broadcaster’s response

[4]  TVNZ did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:

Accuracy

  • The item discussed ‘possible future decreases in polar [bear] population due to predicted decreases in sea-ice (which they use for hunting); rather than decreases in the current polar bear population’.
  • Polar Bears International disputes that the polar bear population has increased by 30%, stating this is a ‘myth’.4
  • The item ‘clearly states this is a prediction based on current research and the parameters of the discussion are clearly outlined for viewers’.

Balance

  • The item did not discuss a controversial item of public importance. The broadcaster was ‘unaware of any widespread controversy about the findings of the polar bear study in New Zealand’.
  • ‘It is an established principle of this standard that reports can contain information that is from one perspective as long as it is clearly signalled, which it was in this news report.’
  • Significant viewpoints on the issue of global climate change have been canvassed in the media within the period of interest. Viewers ‘could reasonably be expected to be aware of the opposing views on global climate change’.

Programme Information

  • The programme information standard does not apply to an unclassified news programme which didn’t require a warning.

The standards

[5]  The accuracy standard5 states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure any news, current affairs or factual programme is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. It protects the public from being significantly misinformed.6

[6]  The balance standard7 states when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

[7]  The programme information standard8 is concerned with ensuring programmes are correctly classified and scheduled in appropriate timeslots. It is not applicable to the complainant’s concerns and we therefore do not uphold this part of the complaint.

Our analysis

[8]  We have watched the broadcast complained about and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[9]  The right to freedom of expression is an important right in a democracy and our starting point. Our task is to weigh the right to freedom of expression 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.

[10]  This item, sourced from the BBC, reported on new study findings on the impacts of climate change on polar bears. Although some people continue to dispute its existence and causes, examining the possible or likely effects of climate change and exploring what governments and society can do in response is a matter of significant public interest in New Zealand and internationally. We have not found harm in this case that justifies regulatory intervention or restricting the right to freedom of expression, for the reasons below.

Accuracy

[11]  Mr Foster has raised a number of concerns about this item, ranging from the underlying drivers of climate change, to the validity of and motivations behind the research reported on, and whether or not polar bears are in fact increasing or declining in number.

[12]  The first question is whether the relevant statements in the item about the future of polar bear populations were statements of fact to which the accuracy standard applied. The standard does not apply to statements which are distinguishable as comment, analysis or opinion.9 The following factors are relevant when considering whether the statements are distinguishable as comment, analysis or opinion:

  • the language used in the item
  • the type of programming and the role of the person speaking
  • the subject matter
  • whether evidence or proof is provided
  • whether the statements are attributed to someone.

[13]  Applying these factors here, we find the predictions reported in relation to the impacts on the polar bear population were analysis and opinion, rather than statements of fact:

  • The extent to which the polar bear population is impacted in the future is not a verifiable fact that can be proved right or wrong, but rather a matter of prediction.10 Predictions are by their nature opinions about possible future events, based on the analysis of available research and data.
  • The language used included terms such as ‘forecast’, ‘predict’ ‘the researchers say’, ‘if’, indicating these were predictions based on the PBI scientists’ research.
  • The predictions were attributed to PBI and Dr Amstrup. Statements that are attributed to someone or a source are more likely to be treated as opinions.11
  • A reasonable viewer would likely interpret these as statements of opinion or analysis rather than statements of fact.

[14]  On the basis the accuracy standard does not apply, we do not uphold this part of the complaint. For completeness, responding to the complainant’s concerns about the source of the material, we consider it was reasonable for the broadcaster to rely on both the BBC as a reputable news outlet,12 and PBI as a pre-eminent resource13 for information regarding polar bears and their habitat.14

Balance

[15]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement under the balance standard to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to ‘news, current affairs and factual programmes’ which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’, and it must be ‘discussed’.15

[16]  An issue of public importance is something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.16 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.17

[17]  This item reported on research considering the predicted or likely impacts of climate change on polar bears due to sea ice decline. The complainant’s concerns relate, in essence, to the underlying cause of climate change (ie the impact of CO2 emissions) and his view that the research and modelling reported on here is premised on inaccurate information. In this context he argued the item lacked balance as it did not include the information provided with his complaint (at paragraph [3] above).

[18]  We have previously considered instances where climate change and related issues may be controversial issues. The Authority first accepted climate change was a controversial issue about which there was ongoing debate, in 2013.18

[19]  We recognise some people continue to maintain a different view about the existence, causes and impacts of climate change. However, over time and given further research, the level of societal and scientific acceptance of the decline of sea ice as a result of climate change is such that we do not consider the issues discussed in this broadcast can reasonably be considered ‘controversial’ for the purposes of the balance standard. For example in relation to the Arctic:

  • ‘Many global climate models predict that the Arctic will be ice free for at least part of the year before the end of the 21st century. Some models predict an ice-free Arctic by mid-century… Declining sea ice will lead to a loss of habitat for seals and polar bears’.19
  • ‘The September minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic has continued to decrease over the past four decades. Some projections suggest that the Arctic will be virtually ice-free during summers by the middle of this century.’20
  • ‘There’s a high probability that ice-dependent species like polar bears and reindeer will experience a population decline as their food options disappear.’21
  • ‘When there’s less sea ice, animals that depend on it for survival must adapt or perish. Loss of ice and melting permafrost spells trouble for polar bears, walruses, arctic foxes, snowy owls, reindeer, and many other species.’22
  • ‘Few people understand that the Arctic sea ice “death spiral” represents more than just a major ecological upheaval in the world’s Far North.’23

[20]  Nor do we consider the particular focus of this programme, which simply reported on new research from a reputable research institute on the predicted impact of sea ice decline on polar bears, amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue that triggered the requirements of the balance standard.

[21]  Accordingly we do not uphold the balance complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

16 March 2021

 


Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1  Peter Foster’s complaint to TVNZ – 26 July 2020

2  TVNZ’s decision – 20 August 2020

3  Mr Foster’s referral to the Authority – 17 September 2020

4  TVNZ’s final comments – 20 November 2020


1 Global Warming Policy Forum (21 July 2020) “New Model Of Predicted Polar Bear Extinction Is Simply Not Scientifically Plausible” and (27 February 2020) “Polar Bear Scientists May Be Hiding Good News” <www.thegwpf.com>
2 Donna Laframboise (1 July 2020) “Fooling Us With Climate Trickery” <www.nofrakkingconsensus.com>; and Ross McKitrick “The flaw in relying on worst-case-scenario climate model” The Financial Post (online ed, 23 June 2020)
3 Joanne Nova (25 July 2020) “Hottest summers in the last 2000 years were during Roman times” <www.joannenova.com.au>
4 Polar Bears International “Are polar bear populations increasing: in fact, booming?” <www.polarbearsinternational.org>
5 Standard 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
6 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
7 Standard 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
8 Standard 2 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
9 Guideline 9a
10 Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, Page 64
11 As above
12 See Christensen and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-007 at [14]
13 See for example, <www.aza.org> and <www.charitynavigator.org>
14 See factors relevant to the assessment of whether or not the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy in the broadcast: Guideline 9d
15 Guideline 8a
16 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
17 As above
18 McMillan and Television New Zealand, Decision No. 2013-025
19 NASA Earth Observatory (16 September 2016) “Arctic Sea Ice” <www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov>
20 US Global Change Research Programme “September Arctic sea ice extent is declining” <www.globalchange.gov>
21 Student Conservation Association “The Global Impacts of Arctic Sea Ice Loss” <www.thesca.org>
22 World Wildlife Fund “Six ways loss of Arctic ice impacts everyone” <www.worldwildlife.org>
23 Peter Wadhams “The Global Impacts of Rapidly Disappearing Arctic Sea Ice” Yale School of the Environment, Yale Environment 360 (online ed, 26 September 2016)