BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

The New Zealand Forest Owners Association Inc and Discovery TV Ltd - 2020-111 (24 February 2021)

Members
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
  • Leigh Pearson
Dated
Complainant
  • The New Zealand Forest Owners Association Inc
Number
2020-111
Programme
Newshub Live
Broadcaster
Discovery NZ Ltd
Channel/Station
Three

Summary  

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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint from the New Zealand Forest Owners Association regarding a two-part investigation into the impact of carbon farming and the Emissions Trading Scheme on rural communities, particularly around the East Coast. The items examined the shift from sheep, beef and dairy farming to forestry, particularly carbon farming, and interviewed locals as to their perspectives on the impact of this. The Authority found the period of interest relating to the issue discussed in the items was ongoing, and that balance was achieved with significant viewpoints presented in other coverage as well as within the pieces. The Authority also found they were not inaccurate as the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of material points of fact. Other inaccuracies raised were not material, or were technical, unimportant points unlikely to mislead viewers.

Not Upheld: Balance, Accuracy


The broadcast

[1]  A two-part segment on Newshub Live at 6pm, as part of its ‘Because it matters’ series, investigating the impact of carbon farming and the Emissions Trading Scheme (the ETS) on rural communities was broadcast on 21 and 22 June 2020. The first was introduced:

There are warnings tonight, New Zealand's goal to be carbon neutral by 2050 is actually destroying rural communities. Productive sheep and beef farmland on the East Coast is being blanketed in pine trees that may never be harvested. That's called carbon farming. Growing trees for carbon credits, but not for sale. Well, the emissions trading scheme makes carbon farming a financial windfall for landowners, often making it more lucrative than farming stock or milling the trees for export. And East Coasters fear an impending forestry boom will turn more of their communities into ghost towns.

[2]  It included interviews with Tokomaru Bay residents who used to work on farms ‘that are now planted in pine’, and described how ‘The banks are long gone from the town, as is the post shop and the farm supply store. The local school is just hanging on and so are the last of the locals.’ The item outlined how as carbon farming meant the planting of trees without harvest, this impacted jobs, ‘while forestry is job rich during the harvest, there is no harvest if you're only farming carbon’.

[3]  Owners of a sheep and beef station were interviewed, saying: ‘If we just keep planting pines and planting pines, we won’t have communities.’ Gisborne District Councillor Kerry Worsnop said: ‘The ETS settings already make it more profitable for me to plant my farm in pine trees and claim the carbon credits, than to produce what I produce, employ the people that I employ.’

[4]  Then-Forestry Minister Shane Jones provided comment:

Jones:        I have no interest whatsoever in shrinking by 55 per cent the amount of land that Kiwis are farming for sheep and beef purposes. But there are some gross mistruths and they're designed, I think, largely to spread fear in our rural communities.

Reporter:   MPI is preparing advice on whether limits should be placed on where and how much exotic forestry is allowed. But Shane Jones says it's up to the public to agitate for limits to be applied.

Jones:        We have no agenda to pass legislation prohibiting carbon farming, but I fully accept it'll be quite a big issue in rural communities during our election.

[5]  The second part, broadcast the following evening, opened with:

Pressure is building on the government to prioritise the planting of native trees over pine and the Climate Change Minister now says he'll consider a biodiversity credit to encourage it. In Gisborne, where the pines grow the fastest, more and more farmland is being converted to the cash crop. But local business owners accuse the government of the biggest marketing con of our generation.

[6]  The second item had comment from locals including a wool buyer, ‘a sawmiller, a teacher, a stock agent and a vet who all believe their likelihoods are under threat.’ The reporter presented statistics from Beef + Lamb New Zealand Inc:

Beef + Lamb analysis found that on average, for every 7.4 jobs a sheep and beef farm generates on the coast, forestry generates 2.2. During harvest time that jumps to 5.1, but it's just 0.6 if it's being farmed for carbon. There's also a big difference in money going back into the local economy. For every 300,000 dollars a farmer spends locally, the equivalent forestry block spends 100,000. During harvest that does jump to close to 250,000 dollars. But if you're carbon farming, it's just 27,000 dollars.

[7]  It discussed pine forests as compared to native forests. An interviewee commented on pine, ‘these trees are just going to continue to grow until they're too heavy. They're going come sliding down the hill into the rivers and end up on our beaches.’ The reporter noted that pine trees, by age 27, absorb ‘more than twice’ as much carbon as native trees ‘even when they’re 50 years old.’ But ‘it’s our native forests that can really do the best for our waterways and for our biodiversity’. The Climate Change Minister James Shaw commented on incentives to plant native forestry, including a biodiversity credit:

We've actually seen huge rates of permanent native forestry going in, and part of that is because the companies that are using forestry to offset their emissions want to make sure that they're part of the New Zealand story…We will be revisiting some of these questions in the future.

The complaint

[8]  The New Zealand Forest Owners Association Inc (the FOA) complained the items breached the accuracy and balance standards, for the following reasons:

Balance

  • The programme was presented as an investigation into the effects of forestry but included no ‘viewpoint from or sympathetic to the forest industry’ or evidence regarding the benefits of afforestation to such rural communities.
  • While the broadcaster argued that such viewpoints were not necessary as the programme was ‘clearly and specifically focussed on “carbon farming”’, the FOA did not accept that characterisation, noting:
    • There is no ‘separate and distinguishable enterprise of rotation harvest forestry where all the income is derived from wood’ and harvested plantation forests are eligible for carbon credits as well.
    • ‘A forester may plant with the intention of harvesting, and then, many years later, decide not to harvest and rely on carbon income alone. Conversely, a carbon planted forest may actually be harvested.’
    • It was unclear throughout whether interviewees were discussing carbon farming or forestry in general.
  • Because ‘media stories critical of “blanket” afforestation of “productive” farmland’ help ‘create a climate of opinion hostile to plantation forestry in general and not just carbon farming’, the broadcasts raised the following key issues regarding balance:
    • Balancing comment was not sought from the FOA, the local Eastland Wood Council or Ngāti Porou, the local iwi who hold investments in pine plantations.
    • While the reporter sought comment from two ministers, they represent the views of Government, not the forest industry.
    • A wool buyer was interviewed who blamed plantation forestry for threatening his occupation. However, the reporter did not mention that current wool prices do not cover the cost of harvesting the wool.
    • An interviewee stated the pine trees ‘would fall over and be washed up on beaches’. However, the reporter did not question whether indigenous trees presented the same issues. While pines are shallow rooted, so are other indigenous species such as tōtara.
    • Other reasons for rural community decline (eg increased mechanisation, improved roads, declining sheep and beef profitability, school amalgamation and big box retailing) were not mentioned, making forestry the ‘scapegoat’.
  • Despite MediaWorks having stated it had attempted to contact the FOA, enquiries of FOA staff have identified no evidence of this.

Accuracy

  • Key inaccuracies included:

(a)  The item inferred that farmland is only ‘productive’ if it is used for farming stock. However, forestry is also productive, ‘in fact earning four times the amount of foreign exchange, per hectare, per year’.

(b)  Broadcast statistics from Beef + Lamb incorrectly:

(i)    showed the rate of conversion from farmland in New Zealand last year as  13 times greater than the average of the past five years which is, ‘not accurate, as a look at the National Exotic Forest Description would show’.

(ii)   stated that ‘sheep and beef farming employed more people per thousand hectares than forestry did, even during the period when the forest was being harvested, and many times more when the forest was planted solely for carbon’.

(c)   The statement in the item, ‘modelling by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment [the PCE] estimates that around 60 per cent of sheep and beef farmland will need to be converted into forestry to meet the carbon neutral target’ was inaccurate as ‘the PCE was referring to the year 2075 and not the carbon neutral carbon ‘target’ date of 2050, and thus conveying a more alarmist and misleading impression of the amount of land to be converted and when’.

(d)  ‘The East Coast Wood Supply Region has now a smaller area in pine trees than there has been in previous years, thus making it rather difficult for TV3 to accurately claim that there had been an increase in pine plantations which displaced local human populations.’

The broadcaster’s response

[9]  The broadcaster did not uphold the complaint for the following key reasons:

Balance

  • ‘Both stories were clearly and specifically focussed on ‘carbon farming’ and therefore in our view, while potentially it may have been good to have the Forest Owners Association included in the story…they were not critically central to the discussion at hand.’
  • The reporter tried and failed to contact the FOA.
  • As the broadcasts were centred on the Emissions Trading Act and concerns around the relevant legislation, alternative perspectives were presented from the Forestry Minister and the Climate Change Minister.
  • ‘This issue will be an on-going nationwide conversation. We would argue the period of interest to achieve balance on this issue is still ongoing.’

Accuracy

  • ‘Numbers supplied by Beef and Lamb were referenced as such and clearly labelled. The numbers were specifically regarding “the coast” of Gisborne, which was the setting for the entire series and where special research had been conducted due to the increase in afforestation there. Other data was nationwide. We also had numbers supplied by the Forestry Minister’s office which concluded while the scale of land-use change was low, the rate of afforestation had increased.’
  • ‘The term ‘productive’ is descriptive and was used to distinguish the difference between farmland that would be used as a platform for sheep and beef, as opposed to the high erosion areas, which are effectively ‘dead’ land and could be used for valuable planting purposes, such as forestry.’
  • There was no suggestion that forestry/carbon wasn’t profitable.
  • It was not difficult to discern between plantation forestry and carbon forestry, and audiences would not be misled about which was under discussion.
  • The statement regarding modelling by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is ‘clearly established on various government websites, including the Ministry for the Environment’.
  • ‘The opinions of those interviewed throughout the Broadcasts were clearly distinguishable as such, which the Accuracy standard allows for.’
  • The broadcasts did not contain any material errors of fact.

The standards

[10]  The balance standard2 requires broadcasters to present significant alternative viewpoints in news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The standard also allows for balance to be achieved over time, ‘within the period of current interest’ in relation to a particular issue.3

[11]  The accuracy standard4 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. Its objective is to protect the public from being significantly misinformed.5

Our analysis

[12]  We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[13]  We have also considered the important right to freedom of expression, which includes both the broadcaster’s right to present information and ideas to the public, and the audience’s right to receive that information. Our task is to weigh the value and public interest in the broadcast against the level of harm potentially caused by the broadcast.

[14]  In this case the harm alleged by the complainant is the risk of misleading the audience as to the impacts of forestry, creating ‘a climate of opinion hostile to plantation forestry’.

Balance

[15]  The two broadcasts discussed the issue of carbon farming’s impact on rural communities, specifically around the East Coast. This is of public interest and importance to New Zealanders given the significant potential impact and is controversial as the ETS and climate-related issues are of topical currency. The potential negative impact of the ETS on communities excites conflicting opinion. Therefore the balance standard applied.

[16]  Balance can be achieved within a single broadcast, or it can be achieved over time, ‘within the period of current interest’ in relation to a particular issue.6 One factor in considering balance is the nature of the issue and whether viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of views expressed in other coverage, including coverage in other media. For example, if an ongoing topic of debate, viewers may reasonably be expected to have a broad understanding of the main perspectives on the issue.7

[17]  Newshub published a number of items around the same time, including three items from the forestry industry’s perspective.8 Other media outlets have also covered the issue over the past two years.9 The debate is ongoing, with the Gisborne Herald writing about the issue on 20 December 2020 (Jack Marshall “Fears our farms will turn into forests”) and on 2 January 2021 (Mark Peters “Concern about carbon credit threat to farms”).

[18]  The broadcasts were covering a nuanced debate, and we recognise that the FOA sees this as a complex issue. Such issues lend themselves well to the achievement of balance over time (it being challenging to encompass all perspectives within the time constraints of a particular programme or programmes). In these cases, it is important for broadcasters to continue to delve into the issue over time, to properly analyse the complexities. As outlined in paragraph [17], that has occurred here with the challenged broadcasts presenting community perspectives of relevance to the broader debate.

[19]  Given the ongoing coverage and the focus of the items on the impact of carbon farming on rural communities and the community perspective, we found the requirements of the balance standard were met. We also took into account the following:

  • There is some dispute as to whether the broadcaster attempted to contact FOA for its views prior to broadcast. We are not in a position to resolve that issue. However, as described above, the balance standard requires significant viewpoints to be presented and that can occur in a number of ways, or over time.
  • Significant viewpoints on the subject were sufficiently presented within the items, given they were signalled as coming from the East Coast community perspective.10
  • There were mentions of the profitability of carbon farming: ‘Well, the emissions trading scheme makes carbon farming a financial windfall for landowners, often making it more lucrative than farming stock or milling the trees for export.’
  • Comments were included from Shane Jones, then-Forestry Minister, regarding ‘gross mistruths’ being shared in relation to the risks to rural communities. This signalled the existence of an alternative perspective.
  • There was a description of the effectiveness of pine forests as carbon sinks.
  • Comments were provided from James Shaw, Climate Change Minister about planting of natives and the possibility of a biodiversity credit.
  • While not all the perspectives above address the complainant’s concerns, it does indicate the items considered the issue in broader terms beyond the local community.

[20]  In these circumstances, particularly given the focus of the broadcasts and the considerable ongoing media coverage of relevant issues, the potential for harm under the balance standard as a result of this particular Newshub investigation was reduced. Accordingly, the potential harm did not outweigh freedom of expression or the public interest and value in presenting the community perspective. Therefore the items do not breach the balance standard.

Accuracy

[21]  The broadcasts were framed as exploring community concerns about loss of employment and impact on their lives, and locals’ opinions and experiences were a dominant theme. This was legitimate to investigate and carried high public interest.

[22]  Point (a) in paragraph [8] was not materially inaccurate in the context of the broadcast. Viewers would have understood ‘productive’ to be a distinction between pines planted to stay and farmland actively worked on rather than a commentary on the value to be derived from any particular land use.

[23]  Point (b)(i) in paragraph [8] refers to the statement: ‘Of the eight point five million hectares of sheep and beef farmland in New Zealand, less than one per cent was converted into forestry in 2019. But Beef + Lamb says the rate of conversion in the last year is 13 times greater than the average of the past five years.’ This was contextualised in the broadcast, ‘…modelling by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment estimates that around 60 per cent of sheep and beef farmland will need to be converted into forestry to meet the carbon neutral target. The Forestry Minister sees that as an exaggeration.’ This statistic was attributed to the source, Beef + Lamb.

[24]  In challenging the accuracy of the specified rate of conversion, the complainant relied upon statistics regarding ‘exotic forest new plantings’ in 2019 (22,000ha) rather than statistics regarding hectares ‘converted from sheep and beef farmland’. The latter is a broader category including land ‘in the process’ or ‘sold with intention’ of being converted into forestry, rather than just land actually planted.11 These statistics are not measuring the same thing. Therefore, the complainant’s statistics do not necessarily conflict with those from Beef + Lamb.

[25]  In any event, as stated at paragraph [11], the accuracy standard requires broadcasters to ‘make reasonable efforts’ to ensure that news items are accurate on material points of fact, and do not mislead. It is therefore not the Authority’s role to make a conclusive finding12 on the correct rate of conversion. The question is whether MediaWorks made reasonable efforts to ensure these items were accurate, and did not mislead. In this case we find it did. The source of the relevant data was a recognised industry body which was clearly identified in the broadcasts. Viewers would have understood the data to come from Beef + Lamb, and that it had an inherent interest in the statistics produced. This reduced the risk of viewers being misled. In the context, there was no obvious reason for the broadcaster to not rely on this data.

[26]  Point (b)(ii) in paragraph [8] referred to statistics about how many people were employed comparatively by sheep and beef farming compared to forestry. The complainant provided a graph he claimed was ‘compiled from official Statistics Department data’ to refute these statistics. However, as above, it is not our role to determine the employment numbers of forestry as compared to sheep and beef farming. The source was clearly identified in the broadcast and there was no obvious reason for the broadcaster not to rely on the data provided by Beef + Lamb.

[27]  The inaccuracies identified at points (c) and (d) in paragraph [8] were technical points unlikely to significantly affect viewers’ understanding of the items. Therefore, they were unlikely to materially mislead viewers.13

[28]  Therefore, we do not uphold the complaint under the accuracy standard.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

Paula Rose

Member

24 February 2021    

 


Appendix

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

1  FOA’s complaint to MediaWorks – 16 July 2020

2  MediaWorks’ decision – 14 August 2020

3  FOA’s referral to the Authority – 2 September 2020

4  MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comments – 9 November 2020

5  FOA with correct referral attachment – 3 December 2020

6  MediaWorks’ final confirmation of no further comments – 16 December 2020


1 Judge Bill Hastings declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the determination of this complaint.
2 Standard 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
3 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
4 Standard 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
5 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
6 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
7 Guideline 8c
8 “Restricting forest planting 'at odds with NZ's climate change goals'” Newshub (online ed, 23 June 2020 (from RNZ)); “Forestry sector insists it's not the 'big bad wolf' coming after farmers' land” Newshub (online ed, 6 July 2020); “Forestry sector stresses 'right tree, right place' approach as debate over carbon farming continues” Newshub (online ed, 28 July 2020)
9 Gerard Hutching “Carbon farming can provide better returns than sheep and beef” Stuff (2 May 2019); Kate Newton & Guyon Espiner “Green Rush: Will pines really save the planet?” RNZ (online ed, 10 October 2019); Bonnie Flaws “Rural communities under threat from carbon offsetting, farmers say” Stuff (15 June 2020); Eric Frykberg “'Planting a tree doesn't make carbon emissions go away' - Beef and Lamb” RNZ (online ed, 17 June 2020); Tom Kitchin “Farm owner rejects carbon bids to buy East Coast station” RNZ (online ed, 10 July 2020); Eric Frykberg “Labour policy would put forestry decisions in council hands” RNZ (online ed, 6 July 2020); Jo Lines-MacKenzie “Farmer's pitch to big biz: My land, your trees, planet's gain” Stuff (7 July 2020); Rachael Kelly “Shane Jones: Some landowners have 'allergic reaction' to carbon farming” Stuff (19 July 2020)
10 Guideline 8c
11 See James Fyfe “50 Shades of Green campaign takes aim at Emissions Trading Scheme” Newshub (online ed, 30 June 2020) and “Emissions trading reform could end up costing Kiwis jobs - Federated Farmers” Newshub (online ed, 18 June 2020)
12 See, for example, Brill and Television New Zealand, Decision No. 2018-028 at [13]
13 Guideline 9b