The Broadcasting Standards Authority has not upheld a complaint laid by Robin Grieve about a TV One news item. An item on One News, broadcast on TV One at 6pm on Wednesday 18 November 2009, discussed the Government’s new Emissions Trading Scheme. The news presenter introduced the item by saying:
Farmers may have to fork out an extra $3000 a year in pollution taxes by the year 2030. The Prime Minister says the Agricultural Sector must pay its share under the Emissions Trading Scheme.
Immediately after the introduction, the reporter stated that “Agriculture is our biggest polluter, but farmers say they’re being stung for more than their fair share.”
My complaint was that not only is it insulting and derogatory to use the term pollution and polluter, it is inaccurate.
Farmers may be NZ’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide equivalents, but these are not pollutants. They are not pollutants because they are not real; they do not exist in the atmosphere because they are only a unit of measure. For farmers to be polluters they have to be producing a pollutant or polluting something. The only real thing they produce is CO2 & CH4 & N2O. None of these are pollutants.
TVNZ argued that they are pollutants because they harm the environment, because they cause global warming.
I argued that if that is the case they should provide evidence to back up their claim. I said the evidence they needed to provide should show how agricultural emissions were harming the environment, after all they were making the claim. I said they had to demonstrate that farming was causing an increase in the greenhouse gas effect and that this was causing warming. I went further and said that as the definition they had used for a pollutant was that it was something that was harming the environment they should demonstrate that global warming was harming the environment. ( I made this point because this has never actually been proven, warming must provide some benefits surely)
I went through the whole argument about atmospheric concentrations of methane and the recycling of greenhouse gas to and from the atmosphere by animals and that no net increase resulted.
TVNZ put up a previous decision by the BSA in which MAF figures showing livestock emissions making up a large percentage of the National Inventory of Greenhouse gases was used by the Authority to conclude;
On that basis, the Authority finds that it was not inaccurate to imply that farmers were “the really big polluters”, because MAF’s statistics show that agricultural land and animals are responsible for a significant proportion of national emissions.
I responded to that in detail but the short version is that the National Inventory is a list of greenhouse gas emissions; it is not a list of pollutants. I added that greenhouse gases were essential for life and anything but a pollutant. I also said the NZ Inventory was not a complete inventory but a political document and that the figures that were included or excluded were done so and calculated to suit a political agreement, namely The Kyoto Protocol. It was not a document that could be relied on to indicate any harm to the environment.
The Authority’s decision was very short.
 Mr Grieve argued that the references to “pollution” in the item were inaccurate as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are not pollutants. The debate among politicians, scientists and industry as to whether such natural components of the Earth’s atmosphere should be considered pollutants is not one we can determine.
 However, the USA Environmental Protection Agency has classified rising gas emissions as a hazard to human health because of their role in propagating climate change. As noted in Butler, Dunleavy and Prior and TVNZ, MAF has found that in New Zealand the principal source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions is agriculture.2 It was in the context of a short item on New Zealand’s “Emissions Trading Scheme”, which aims for the reduction in the emission of such gases, that these gases were referred to as a “pollutants”. In that context we find the word “pollutant” was an acceptable shorthand used by the presenter and the reporter. Scientific precision was not necessary.
I did not expect much more from the Authority, but I am a little disappointed, I think their decision was a cop out. What does acceptable shorthand mean? The Authority states that The debate among politicians, scientists and industry as to whether such natural components of the Earth’s atmosphere should be considered pollutants is not one we can determine.
The authority did not have to determine this, they have missed the point. If it can not be determined, it should not be stated by TVNZ as a fact. It was not up to the Authority to determine it at all, once they had established it could not be determined by them or TVNZ or anyone in the world that CO2, and CH4 and CO2e’s and N2O are pollutants, they should have ruled it was inaccurate to call them that.
The fact that the BSA mentioned the USA’s EPA was surprising as they did not get this info from TVNZ, they went and searched for it themselves. Usually the BSA just rules on evidence provided by the complainant and the broadcaster, the fact they decided to seek their own evidence to assist TVNZ demonstrates a bias here that is not normal. I think they did it to try and bolster a fairly weak decision. Maybe I am a bit biased here myself, but the BSA has already ruled on this in a previous complaint and they were obviously not wanting to contradict their previous decision. However in my complaint I had challenged all the arguments they had put forward so they were not left with many arguments. That is why their decision was very brief and rather weak, I would love to challenge it but that is a High Court Job and too much money for me.
But maybe we made a point and maybe TVNZ will modify their reporting. I firmly believe that this is the battleground on which we should fight. Something is either a pollutant or it is not. It is not a matter of discussion it is a matter of fact. To call the life giving CO2 a pollutant is a misrepresentation and we should not allow it.
Politicians will continue to do it but that is just ignorance and politicking, it is an insulting derogatory term used against farmers. We may have to accept this bullshit from John Key and his mates but we don’t have to accept it from broadcasters who are supposed to be impartial and accurate.
Fiction that is stated as factual will become fact in the minds of the public if it is not challenged at every opportunity. That is why I laid the complaint.
The claim that enteric methane is causing an increase in the greenhouse gas effect is an example of fiction dressed up as fact. This has never been established, no evidence of this exists anywhere in the world but because it was never challenged at the outset of this global warming hysteria it has become accepted as factual by most people.
It is not a fact, and TVNZ need to be reminded of that too. One day I may get the chance to do so.
In the meantime if you hear anything on TV and you don’t like it, there are standards and you can do something about it. The complaint may not be successful but by complaining it makes them at least take notice. Do nothing and they will keep misrepresenting facts. The next time TV calls farmers polluters for their emissions I will complain again and again and again until they stop. The next time you hear anything put in a complaint or get in touch and we can all make a complaint.
If you would like to read the full decision the link is below.