Foster and Radio New Zealand Ltd - 2020-125 (16 March 2021)
- Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
- Leigh Pearson
- Paula Rose QSO
- Susie Staley MNZM
- Peter Foster
BroadcasterRadio New Zealand Ltd
Channel/StationRadio New Zealand National
[This summary does not form part of the decision.]
An item on RNZ’s Midday Report reported ‘Scientists warn polar bears may become extinct by the end of the century because of climate change.’ The complainant alleged climate change was not threatening polar bears as reported in the item. The Authority found the statements in the item were clearly framed as predictions, and attributed as being the scientists’ view. Therefore, they were analysis and opinion (rather than statements of fact) and the accuracy standard did not apply. 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
 RNZ’s Midday Report on 21 July 2020 (RNZ National) reported on a new research paper in the Nature Climate Change journal:
Scientists warn polar bears may become extinct by the end of the century because of climate change. They say some populations have already reached their survival limits as the Arctic sea ice shrinks. Polar bears rely on the ice of the Arctic Ocean to hunt for seals.
 The item included a quote from Chief Scientist for Polar Bears International (PBI), Dr Steven Amstrup:
Polar bears won’t all be impacted by melting ice at the same time, or even perhaps in the same way. But we do know that they depend on that ice to catch their prey. So from an energetic standpoint, when the ice in certain areas gets low enough, polar bears aren't going to be able to reproduce and ultimately they won't be able to survive.
 Mr Foster complained the item breached the accuracy, balance and programme information standards:
- ‘The information given was totally false. The polar bears are in no danger.’
- He referred to an article, ‘Polar Bear Scientists May Be Hiding Good News’1 and argued ‘…the polar bear population has increased from 5000 in 1960 to over 30,000 today. They are also in good health and certainly not threatened by climate change’.
- ‘…you will find reports from science institutions that prophesy doom and gloom for the bears, but such claims are not supported by evidence’.
- ‘Quoting false claims from other organisation[s] does not make your reporting OK.’
- ‘PBI is funded by donations and grants and through its publicity polar bears have become an icon of the climate change movement. Claiming the polar bears are threatened enhances their funding so when a researcher finds and publicizes the fact that the polar bears are thriving then such people pose a threat to the funding of organisations like PBI.’
- Mr Foster argued that polar bears will survive an increase in global temperatures: ‘it should be obvious to any fool that examines Earth's history, that a few degrees is not going to affect the polar bears, they have survived much warmer times and will again.’
The broadcaster’s response
 RNZ did not uphold the complaint:
- It characterised the complaint as ‘at best…a “possible dispute” around scientific facts’.
- ‘RNZ is entitled to rely on the credibility of the scientific spokesperson for Polar Bears International and the audience would have understood that it was a prediction made by the scientist concerned.’
- ‘Earlier decisions by the Broadcasting Standards Authority indicate that in short items such as this piece in the midday News, broadcasters are not required to detail all the various points of view bearing on a particular topic.’
 The accuracy standard2 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.3
 The balance standard4 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.
 The programme information standard5 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.
 We have listened to the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.
 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.
 This item reported on a new study’s findings, released by a prominent research institute, 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.
 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.
 The first question is whether the relevant statements in the item were statements of fact to which the accuracy standard applies. The standard does not apply to statements which are distinguishable as comment, analysis or opinion.6 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.
 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 item was a brief news report summarising the key findings of the PBI research.
- 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.7 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 ‘scientists warn’, ‘polar bears may’, ‘perhaps’ and ‘they say’, indicating these were predictions based on current climate change data and 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.8
- Dr Amstrup was clearly providing an analysis, for example, saying polar bears ‘perhaps’ will not all be impacted in the same way.
- A reasonable viewer would likely interpret these as statements of opinion or analysis rather than statements of fact.
 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 PBI and Dr Amstrup, as a pre-eminent resource9 for information regarding polar bears and their habitat.10
 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’.11
 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’.12 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.13
 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 are, in essence, that the research and modelling reported on here are premised on inaccurate information (namely, unproven claims in relation to warming). In this context, he argued the item lacked balance as it did not include the information provided with his complaint (at paragraph  above).
 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 2013.14
 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’.15
- ‘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.’16
- ‘There’s a high probability that ice-dependent species like polar bears and reindeer will experience a population decline as their food options disappear.’17
- ‘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.’18
- ‘Few people understand that the Arctic sea ice “death spiral” represents more than just a major ecological upheaval in the world’s Far North.’19
 Nor do we consider the particular focus of this item, a brief news item reporting 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. It was not required or necessary in the circumstances for RNZ to present an alternative viewpoint on the predicted impact on polar bear populations.
 Therefore we do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.
For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
Judge Bill Hastings
16 March 2021
The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1 Peter Foster’s complaint to RNZ – 21 July 2020
2 RNZ’s decision – 21 August 2020
3 Mr Foster’s referral to the Authority – 17 September 2020
4 RNZ’s confirmation of no further comments – 19 October 2020
1 The Global Warming Policy Forum <www.thegwpf.com>
2 Standard 9 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
3 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
4 Standard 8 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
5 Standard 2 of the Radio Code of Broadcasting Practice
6 Guideline 9a
7 Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 64
8 As above
9 See for example, <www.aza.org> and <www.charitynavigator.org>
10 See factors relevant to the assessment of whether or not the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy in the broadcast: Guideline 9d
11 Guideline 8a
12 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
13 As above
14 McMillan and Television New Zealand, Decision No. 2013-025
15 NASA Earth Observatory (16 September 2016) “Arctic Sea Ice” <earthobservatory.nasa.gov>
16 US Global Change Research Programme “September Arctic sea ice extent is declining” <www.globalchange.gov>
17 Student Conservation Association “The Global Impacts of Arctic Sea Ice Loss” <www.thesca.org>
18 World Wildlife Fund “Six ways loss of Arctic ice impacts everyone” <www.worldwildlife.org>
19 Peter Wadhams “The Global Impacts of Rapidly Disappearing Arctic Sea Ice” Yale School of the Environment, Yale Environment 360 (online ed, 26 September, 2016)