The Press Council considered a complaint from Professor David Lindenmayer concerning articles published by The Weekly Times headed “Chipping away at the facts” in print and “Native forest logging: ANU academic’s claims on timber industry scrutinised” online on 10 June 2020 (“the June article”); and “Loggers can expect classic action: academic” in print and “Academic says forest industry face class action over bushfires” online on 1 July 2020 (“the July article”).
The June article reported the “academic who first called for an end to native forest logging across Victoria’s Central Highlands to create a new 355,000ha Great Forest National Park, has been accused of distorting facts to further his arguments. Evidence has emerged which appears to show Australian National University Professor David Lindenmayer is feeding environment groups and the media information on logging, fire harvesting and threatened species that contradicts critical facts.” The article set out several of Professor Lindenmayer’s comments on a range of issues including fire-damaged trees and salvage logging, employment figures in the East Gippsland forestry area, plantation forestry, and trends in the size of the Leadbeater’s possum population. The article then set out counterpoints on each of these topics, including statements attributed to forestry industry representatives, consultants and other academics, and data from sources such as the Victorian Government which it said contradicted Professor Lindenmayer’s claims.
The July article reported “ANTI-logging academic David Lindenmayer claims legal action is about to be taken against the forestry industry for loss of property in this summer’s fires.” The article included various comments made by Professor Lindenmayer at a recent zoom seminar, and quoted him as saying “I’m quite surprised there hasn’t been a class action around the issue (logging near urban areas)…I’m sure there will be fairly soon” and “[w]e need to rethink logging of forests, that are becoming more fire prone, particularly near human settlements”. The article then reported an opposing view attributed to a “professional forester” as well as comments from a bushfire scientist.
In relation to the June article, the complainant said the print headline and subheading “[t]imber workers and foresters want the distortions to end…” unfairly imply that he runs a campaign to distort facts. The complainant said the publication quoted him out of context in order to misrepresent his views and omitted much of his response to the journalist’s questions. He said he was not given the opportunity to respond to several assertions in the article, including his remarks about growing the forest industry using plantations; his statement about ‘salvage’ logging; and factual material regarding the Leadbeater’s Possum population. The complainant also said various statements in the article were inaccurate or misleading, and that several key facts were omitted from the information he provided. These included: the fact the East Gippsland post-fire logging would recover a maximum of 10% sawn timber and perhaps a percentage as low as 5 or 3%; the fact he was referring to East Gippsland post-fire logging of the mixed species forest; and the fact he was referring to recovery rates of actual timber compared to woodchips. He also said the article’s definition of the East Gippsland forestry area was deliberately misleading, and contrary to the VicForests’ definition. The complainant said his statements about “on-the-ground” harvesting employees and plantation logging were taken out of context and presented unfairly. He also said the article misleadingly suggests the population of the Leadbeater’s Possum is not declining by confusing sightings of animals with long-term population change and noted long-term data shows unequivocally that populations of Leadbeater’s Possum have declined by 50% in the past 20 years. He said the article failed to make clear that the ‘professional forester’ quoted is also a lobbyist for the timber industry.
In relation to the July article, the complainant said the phrase “Anti-logging academic David Lindenmayer” is an unfair and misleading attempt to discredit his work. The complainant said he supports sustainable use of natural resources and always has and noted that he has worked extensively with the forestry industry for decades. The complainant also said the statement “…Lindenmayer claims legal action is about to be taken against the forestry industry for loss of property in this summer’s fires” is inaccurate, as his statement was in fact about logging in forests that have become very fire-prone near human settlements, and did not refer to a particular fire or time.
In response to the concerns expressed with the June article, the publication said Professor Lindenmayer is one of the go-to experts on the impact of logging and fire on the forestry industry. It said the article was initiated after it received calls from timber industry workers, VicForests’ staff and forestry researchers raising concerns at the accuracy of material Professor Lindenmayer was supplying to environmental groups for use in lobbying and the media. The publication said it obtained an email, which was crucial to the industry’s concerns, containing information the complainant was supplying to the media and environmental groups. It noted Professor Lindenmayer’s email explicitly stated that information “gets sent to the media” and said the timber industry and forestry researchers had every right to challenge such information. The publication said timber and forestry industry researchers challenged three key points in Professor Lindenmayer’s email, which the publication then raised with Professor Lindenmayer. These three points were: (1) that just three contracting crews in East Gippsland Victoria employed 15 people, (2) that trees cut after being fire damaged cannot be used for sawn timber, and (3) that the logging industry is uneconomic. It said the complainant did not respond by the deadline. It later received a draft response from a PR consultant, and then eventually a response from the complainant.
The publication said the article was based on details from the questions it put to the complainant as well as comments he has made on the public record. The publication said the complainant had attempted to qualify his original claims in the email he sent to environmental groups after the fact.
The publication said in relation to possum numbers, it relied on Victorian Government information which evidenced that the species is found in many of the areas which were burnt out in the 2009 Black Saturday fires. The publication also said it accurately and clearly identified a named individual in the article as a ‘professional forester’.
The publication said in relation to the July article that it is clear in numerous publications that Professor Lindenmayer has called for an end to logging in Victoria’s vast Central Highlands. The publication said he was one of the first to call for the formation of Great Trees National Park across the region and has been active in promoting the end to logging. It also said the complainant’s comments regarding legal action were made in the wake of last summer’s devastating bushfires, and any audience would consider he was referencing that event.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3 (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council notes that the articles were presented as news stories which set out various statements of fact, as distinct from commentary or opinion.
In relation to the June article, the Council considers its definition of the East Gippsland forestry area to be misleading, noting in particular that information provided to the publication by the complainant made it clear he was utilising the relevant VicForests’ definition. The Council considers that the article misleadingly conflated sightings of the Leadbeater’s Possum with trends in the possum’s population, and notes the complainant was not given the opportunity to respond to this claim. The Council also considers the articles should have made clear that the “professional forester” referred to is also a forestry industry consultant. The Council accepts that the information contained in Professor Lindenmayer’s original email, which gave rise to the article, was provided to the media. However, it considers the statement “…Lindenmayer is feeding environmental groups and the media information…” unfairly implies a political motivation on the part of the complainant. On the issue of “contracting crews” in the East Gippsland area, the Council notes the complainant’s original statement was relayed accurately, but considers the publication should have sought a response from the complainant to the criticism in the article. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in these respects.
In considering the issues of fire-damaged timber and plantation forestry, the Council did not find a breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice in these respects.
In relation to the July article, the Council considers the references to Professor Lindenmayer as “anti-logging” were unfair and misleading, given the evidence of the complainant’s extensive, ongoing involvement in sustainable logging. The Council also considers that the article did not accurately report the complainant’s statement regarding possible legal action, and the publication failed to seek a response from the complainant on this issue. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in these respects.
As the claims in the articles called into question the validity of statements made by the complainant as an expert, the Council’s Standards of Practice required the publication to put such adverse claims to the complainant in their entirety. It was not reasonable in the circumstances to simply criticise comments the complainant may have made in the past, without giving him a fair opportunity to respond to those criticisms in the article. As such, the publication breached GP4.
The publication is required by General Principle 4 to ensure the complainant is given the opportunity for the subsequent publication of a reply.
Relevant Council Standards:
This Adjudication applies the following Standards of Practice:
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.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
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.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.