The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article by Emeritus Professor Ian Plimer headed “Let’s not pollute minds with carbon fears” published by The Australian in print and online on 22 November 2019.
The article was an opinion piece in which the writer criticised what he described as an “attack” on carbon dioxide. The article included statements that there “are no carbon emissions. If there were, we could not see because most carbon is black. Such terms are deliberately misleading, as are many claims.” The article also referred to “fraudulent changing of past weather records” and “unsubstantiated claims polar ice is melting”, as well as “the ignoring of data that shows Pacific islands and the Maldives are growing rather than being inundated…”.
In response to complaints received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article breached the applicable Standards of Practice requiring publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and to ensure factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance and writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3). In light of a concern raised that Professor Plimer was or has been a director of a number of mining companies and that this was not disclosed in the article, the Council also asked the publication to comment on whether the article breached the obligation to take reasonable steps to ensure that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material (General Principle 8).
In response, the publication said the article appeared in its commentary section, where it has published a range of views on the climate debate over many years. It said there should be considerable latitude given to pieces that are clearly commentary and climate change attracts robust views on both sides and is a complex area with many facts strongly contested. It said its audience is well-equipped to decide what weight they wish to give to the writer’s views. The publication provided the Council with academic and other relevant material which it said supported both the factual statements in the article and the bases of the writer’s expressions of opinion.
The publication said that while the author holds exploration and mining company directorships, this was not a conflict of interest in breach of the Council’s standards. It said the writer’s industry expertise and experience in mining geology has equipped him to form his perspectives on climate change. However, it conceded that best practice would have seen such directorship disclosed in the opinion piece.
The Council considers that although the article was an opinion piece, the obligation to take reasonable care to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading applies to factual material which is included in it.
The Council considers that the statement concerning the Bureau of Meteorology fraudulently changing weather records is one of fact and implies an element of dishonesty or deception on its part. The Council does not consider there was anything in the material relied upon by the publication to substantiate this. The Council also notes a 2017 Federal Government commissioned report which dealt extensively with the issue of adjusting weather data found the BOM dataset to be well maintained and an important source of information on Australian climate records. Accordingly, the Council considers the publication breached General Principles 1 and 3 in this respect.
In regard to the reference to “unsubstantiated claims polar ice is melting”, the Council notes the material in support of the statement provided to it by the publication and considers there is a diversity of scientific opinion on the issue of polar ice. However, it considers that the term “unsubstantiated” misleadingly suggests that there is no reliable evidence whatsoever to support a view that the polar ice is melting. The Council considers that the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure these statements were accurate and not misleading. Accordingly, the Council concludes General Principle 1 was also breached in this respect.
As to the statement about data showing Pacific Islands and the Maldives are growing rather than being inundated, the publication referred to and provided Council with material providing a basis for its statement. While the Council does not express any opinion on the scientific issue, it considers that the publication has not breached its General Principles in this respect.
As to General Principle 8 and the writer’s past or present mining industry directorships, the Council considers it would have been preferable for the publication to disclose them in the article. A conflict of interest might arise when an interest or duty of the writer or publication conflicts with an interest or duty the writer or publication has in the published material. However, the Council considers it is inherent in an opinion piece that the writer will advocate for a position and considers that in this case his past or present directorships of mining companies and advocacy in the debate around climate change were so well known that reasonable steps to adequately disclose the columnist’s conflict of interest did not in this case require that they be specifically disclosed in the piece. In the case of an opinion piece, reasonable steps to avoid a conflict influencing published material will often be satisfied, as it is in this case. Accordingly, the Council considers that General Principle 8 was not breached.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
8. Ensure that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material.