Energy Governance-SA vs. Business Day

Ruling by the Press Ombudsman

21 September 2015                                                        

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Dr Jeff Rudin on behalf of Energy Governance – South Africa (eg-SA – a coalition of energy and climate change specialists) and those of Sharon Chetty, deputy editor of the Business Day (BD) newspaper.

Complaint

Rudin is complaining about a story in BD of 31 August 2015, headlined ‘Gazillions’ at stake in coal-fired clash.

He complains that, in general, the newspaper:

·         gave prominence to “bald assertions” that climate change was a lie (invented by the vast majority of scientists from around the world in order to attract funding);

·         never gave the South African government or any of its specialists the opportunity to respond (which is the “essence” of the complaint); and

·         reported unfairly.

The text

The article, written by Charlotte Mathews, reported that a major battle in the war on the continuingly widespread use of coal was to take place in Paris in November and December at the United Nations Climate Change Conference – and that both sides were already arming themselves for it. She added that, for South Africa, the issue was significant not only because coal was a major provider of jobs and foreign earnings, but also because the country remained heavily reliant on coal for power and liquid fuels.

“Coal has been identified as the major culprit in rising carbon dioxide levels, leading to global warming, and it is predicted that parts of SA will be worse hit by higher temperatures than the global average.”

Mathews stated that 196 countries, including South Africa, were expected to accept new plans on carbon reduction to limit the rise in global temperatures to no more than two degrees by the end of the century.

“The assumption behind all these plans and commitments is that rising global temperatures are caused by humans burning fossil fuels (called anthropogenic climate change). The proponents of this argument are so vastly in the majority and well funded that they tend to drown out skeptical scientists who argue that rising global temperatures are not necessarily caused by higher carbon emissions. They argue it is a common logical pitfall to assume that because two events happen at the same time, one necessarily causes the other.”

The article ended with quotes from retired nuclear physicist Don Mingay – that “gazillions” of dollars were at stake for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in championing anthropogenic climate change – and from Prof Philip Lloyd of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Energy Institute: “[The] IPCC should be called the ‘LiePCC’ since only half of its authors are scientists and all their predictions have been proven wrong.”

The complaint in more detail

Rudin says that, even though BD did report the news truthfully and accurately in terms of the people it quoted, the reportage was not fair. “It would, for instance, be strange for the CE of the World Coal Association not to assert that, for many developing countries, coal is their ‘cheapest and most available resource’. In South Africa, however, both these claims are highly contentious but this was not reflected in the article.”

Even more serious, he says, is the accusation (both explicit and implicit) that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by opportunistic academics and NGO’s for funding purposes. “At the very least, fairness demands that the hoaxed South African government and/or any of its hoaxers be given an opportunity to comment.”

Rudin concludes that eg-SA fully endorses the need to give space to minority views but, he says, in rare instances doing so is contrary to the public interest as it impedes the development of informed judgments. “Giving one-sided coverage to climate change denialism in the build to COP 21 cannot be considered responsible journalism.”

The arguments

Chetty says the article was not a hard news story, but a feature addressing some of the issues related to the upcoming climate talks in Paris. “The aim of such an article is to provide readers with insight into some of the matters informing the climate talks. As it is part of a series ahead of the December event, it is in no way the definitive article on carbon reduction and the climate talks and does not purport to be so.”

She adds that the article in no way stated that climate change was a hoax. “The people making the strident comments are quoted on the record and are public figures whose views are already well known. It was not deemed necessary to obtain comment from the government because the article mentions policy in a broader context and the government’s actions were not the only subject of the article.”

The deputy editor stresses that the government will “most certainly” be given the opportunity to share its views in subsequent articles. “By reflecting different aspects of a debate, our intention is to inform readers and is in no way malicious to those left out of an article.”

She therefore denies that the article was irresponsible.

Rudin replies the acknowledgement that the article reflected only some of the debate “is precisely why we contend that the report was not fair”. He adds that the article did not give the reader any indication of BD’s intention of affording the government the opportunity to respond in subsequent articles. “Moreover, the most appropriate chance for the government to give its views is not some unspecified time in the future but in the particular context of a report quoting people – with enhanced credence particularly because they are ‘well known public figures’ – claiming that the government is being duped into giving even more ‘gazillions’ to defrauding scientists.”

He concludes, “[Giving] prominence to climate change denialism can no longer be in the public interest. The Ombudsman’s view on this matter is particularly welcome.”

Analysis

The gist of the article was about the “war” (to be continued at the Paris meeting later this year) on the continuingly widespread use of coal. This presupposed that there were conflicting opinions on this matter.

As long as there are dissenting voices on the issue of global warming, the press should be expected to reflect those opinions. The argument that the public interest is not served by reflecting a minority opinion does not hold water, not even close.

I cannot expect a newspaper to state, in every report on such a matter, all the views on the issue. Besides, the following (central) sentence brought the necessary balance to the article in dispute: “The proponents of this argument are so vastly in the majority and well funded that they tend to drown out skeptical scientists who argue that rising global temperatures are not necessarily caused by higher carbon emissions.”

From this it was clear that the dissenting voices were by far in the minority – even though those of the majority were not presented in detail.

I do expect BD to reflect the South African government’s views as well as those of the majority on the matter in follow-up articles, as Pillay has promised.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman