Thursday 17th May 2012: Today I attended a meeting of the Australian Press Council’s Complaints Committee over a complaint that I had made against a column written by Piers Akerman. A very strange and somewhat amusing experience.
Here are the two complaints under discussion, taken from a column of Akerman’s entitled, in typical temperate fashion: Greens and their crazy cronies are holding a gun to our head.
In it, in addition to the usual loony anti-climate change ranting, he made what I asserted and the APC agreed two what could be assertions of fact which, I was there to maintain, were demonstrably false. They were:
1. ‘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 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.’
2. ‘The US, Russia, China, India and Japan and other important economic powers have walked away from the IPCC.’
As most of the discussion in the room hinged on the APC General Principle 6, here it is:
Transparent and fair presentation
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.
Let me state a fair and honest opinion based upon observation: Piers Akerman is an arrogant, pompous and self-important prick.
I arrived at the APC offices first and was seated in the foyer when he arrived with his minder. Charles Miranda who I thought was a lawyer but turns out to be a journalist. When they entered, I stood up, introduced myself and held out my hand. Miranda took my hand, introduced himself and smiled back. Akerman reared back as if I was the anti-Christ and seemed of two minds whether to take my hand or not. Eventually he took it as though it was a stinking sardine and immediately dropped it. I said something about courteous discourse and asked whether we could agree to disagree. He reared up and in his best orotund and stentorian voice boomed “I certainly agree to disagree with you!”
At that exchange, the nice lady who sat at the front desk whisked me into an office and closed the door. I then sat listening to them discussing old mates in the APC and felt distinctly on the outer.
We were ushered into a large meeting room around which sat the complaints committee, the only faces I recognized were the chairman, Julian Disney, and the APC’s Jack Herman, who I had been communicating with. There were about eight in all, including Disney, a mixture of journalists and members of the public – and only one woman.
We were told we’d each have five minutes to speak, then we would be questioned by the panel, then there would a two minute summing up at the end. I read from my prepared notes (which are too long to include in this post) and handed over to Akerman.
He began by asking “have any of you ever worked for or advocated for Greenpeace or the World Wildlife fund?” There was a stunned silence. “Well, you all know where I’m coming from, I think it only fair if you let me know if you bring any agendas into the room with you” or something like that. This was ignored. We were then treated to a potted version of the Triumphs of Piers Akerman, which included the fact that had once sat on the board of the APC “when it meant something.” I think this was his way of getting the panel on side.
It wasn’t just what he said, it was the pompous way he said it. I had the feeling looking around the table that some members of the panel would have liked to smack him.
His rambling dissertation did not once touch on the matters under consideration but pounced on the fact that his column is headlined opinion, and that if it was in his column it was an opinion. Most of the questioning went to this point, with all questions to Akerman on this topic. One questioner wanted to know did he feel he owned the facts in his column. Another asked if he stated that the sun came up in the west would he defend that as an opinion or a fact. Akerman stumbled over that, Miranda dived in and suggested it could be used as a metaphor, but Disney dismissed it.
I tried to speak succinctly and to the matters in hand. A number of times Akerman went wondering off onto the wilder shores of denialism, quoting all manner of obscure American denialists which was not really within the parameters.
He set himself up as a defender of the freedom of the press. That is, the freedom of the press to twist and weave and tell porkies if it so suits them.
The line between fact and opinion was discussed at length and I briefly told the story of the Blues Point Café (ask me) and the general principle of defamation law, which we all agreed was a bit shaky but attempted to delineate the two.
I reckon the result of the committee’s deliberations will hinge on three words: ‘walked away from.’ At the very end Disney asked me what I think was meant by them: that the countries in question had left the IPCC; that they had dissociated themselves from the reports of the IPCC or that they had turned their back on the IPCC. I said all three but certainly the first two.
It would be interesting for the IPCC’s representatives in Australia to take the little weasel to court – but he really isn’t worth it.
It is interesting, when you see him pontificating and fulminating, you wonder has he ever asked himself – “what if I’m wrong?”
I don’t think Mr Akerman has ever experienced a moment of self-doubt or even self-examination. He epitomises the Socratic maxim ‘the life that is unexamined is not worth living.’ Mr Akerman’s life is not examined, but rather blustered through on a series of poorly examined but stubbornly held prejudices.
Who am I to believe on the matter of climate change science: Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones – or the 1250 scientists who submit peer-reviewed articles and papers to the 2007 assessment report of the IPCC?
Gosh, what a dilemma.
Monday 2nd July 2012: I have received the judgement from the Australian Press Council (see below) and it is neither a win nor a loss for either of us. As I see it he weaselled out with ‘turned their back on’ as I predicted, but was given a limp-wristed rap over the knuckles towards the end of the piece.
Adjudication by the Australian Press Council
Adjudication No. 1542
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, commensurate opportunities must also be given for coverage from other viewpoints.
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”.
And finally, a little evidence of Akerman’s assiduous relaying of misinformation on the the subject of climate change