The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by John Newton about an article headed "Greens and their crazy cronies are holding a gun to our head” in The Daily Telegraph on 8 March 2012.
The article, by columnist Piers Akerman, stated amongst other matters that “much of the world has now woken up to the reality that the UN's global warming bogeyman was created by members of environmental activist groups working within the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”. It also stated that “the US, Russia, China, India and Japan and other important economic powers have walked away from the IPCC”.
Mr Newton complained that these statements were inaccurate and misleading. He said the IPCC consisted of independent scientists and he referred especially to its Third Report in 2001 which he said represented the scientific consensus on climate change as shown by its explicit endorsement by eminent scientific academies in many countries. He said these scientists and academies could not accurately be described as “environmental activist groups”. He also said that each country mentioned in the article still endorsed the 2001 report and the only government which had denounced the consensus was Canada.
The newspaper responded that the column was clearly the writer's opinion, based on a range of sources. It referred in particular to a recent book which disputed the strength of expertise involved in preparing the IPCC report and claimed many of the authors had close links with environmental activist organisations. The newspaper said that the named countries had “walked away from the IPCC” in the sense that they had failed to endorse its call for action at the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 and at subsequent meetings related to the IPCC's findings they had not decided to implement its agenda.
The Press Council’s principles require that in an opinion article of this kind relevant facts must not be “misrepresented or suppressed”. Free public discussion is a matter of such importance in the public interest that, even where there may appear to be strong arguments that misrepresentation of facts has occurred, the Council may sometimes consider there has not been a clear breach of its Principles. This may occur, for example, because there is some tenable scope for doubt about the relevant facts or about the meaning of the words used to assert them.
The Council has concluded that Mr Akerman’s assertions about environmental activists and the role of the IPCC are not sufficiently clear breaches of its principles for this aspect of the complaint to be upheld. This conclusion is based on its view that the assertions are insufficiently specific to be established as irrefutably accurate or false.
The Council has concluded that the assertion about countries having walked away from the IPCC is also not a sufficiently clear breach of the Council’s principles for that aspect of the complaint to be upheld. This conclusion is mainly because the words “walked away” do not necessarily connote formal disengagement from the IPCC. They can also be used to mean, for example, a substantially reduced commitment to the organisation’s proposals for action and it is tenable to argue that such a reduction has occurred.
Accordingly, neither element of this complaint is upheld. However, the Council emphasises that this outcome is due largely to the assertions in question being insufficiently specific for their accuracy or falsity to be established. The outcome does not imply acceptance or rejection of the assertions by either the columnist or the complainant in relation to the IPCC.
As the Council stated in a 2004 adjudication, while columnists and other writers of opinion articles have a wider licence than applies to news stories it is “not unfettered”. For example, it said, they must not publish what they could reasonably be expected to know is false. Moreover, the Council’s principles of fairness and balance require that if extensive coverage is given to a particular view on a strongly controverted issue, reasonable opportunities must also be given for publication of differing views on the same or other occasions.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 6: “Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest”.