The Press Council has considered a number of complaints about an article by James Delingpole in The Australian on 3 May 2012, entitled, "Wind farm scam a huge cover-up". The article said, amongst other things, that wind farms cause several medical conditions in humans and animals and the farms’ development is subsidised by a “scam” involving excessively generous benefits under the Federal Government’s Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) scheme.
Three people submitted separate complaints to the Council. The complaints about inaccuracy related to the article’s assertions about adverse medical impacts, the alleged size of subsidies under the certificate scheme and it being a "kind of government-endorsed Ponzi scheme". They also related to the article’s allegations that court orders had been sought by a named law firm to prevent public comment by people with wind farms on their property, and that the wind farms “produce very little power”. It was also complained that the article was gravely offensive by including a quote attributed to an unnamed sheep farmer that the "wind-farm business is bloody well near a pedophile ring. They're f..king our families and knowingly doing so".
The newspaper responded that the article was clearly an opinion article and it believed the opinions were honestly held by the author. It provided examples of articles and letters praising the benefits of wind farms and denying adverse health impacts, which had been published by it both before and after this article. On the day after the article appeared, the newspaper published a letter from the law firm denying it had sought court orders to prevent landowners making public comment.
The Council has upheld three aspects of the complaints. First, it has concluded that even if the REC scheme has the weaknesses alleged in the article it cannot tenably be described as a “kind of government-endorsed Ponzi scheme”. The REC scheme does not have an essential characteristic of a Ponzi scheme, namely criminal fraudulence, and is not reasonably analogous to such a scheme.
Second, it has concluded that the claim that a law firm sought gagging orders has been publicly denied by the firm and, in the absence of any supporting evidence, constitutes a breach of the Council’s principles concerning misrepresentation. The newspaper’s prompt publication of the law firm’s denials prevented aggravation of the breach but did not absolve it.
Third, it has concluded that the report of the anonymous remarks concerning paedophilia, a very serious and odious crime, were highly offensive. The Council’s principles relate, of course, to whether something is acceptable journalistic practice, not whether it is unlawful. They are breached where, as in this case, the level of offensiveness is so high that it outweighs the very strong public interest in freedom of speech. It was fully justifiable in the public interest to convey the intensity of feeling by some opponents of wind farms but that goal did not require quoting the reference to paedophilia.
The Council has not upheld other aspects of the complaints. Its principles require that an opinion article must not misrepresent or suppress relevant facts. This means that if a particular statement is likely to be read as purporting to be a statement of fact, there must at least be a tenable argument that it is correct.
In relation to the article’s statements about the health impacts of wind farms, the complainants provided extensive academic research to contrary effect. The Council concluded, however, that this evidence has not reached the very high threshold which is necessary for it to regard the statements as clearly untenable and therefore in breach of its principles.
The statement that the amount of power produced by wind farms is “very little” is too vague to be regarded as an untenable description of available evidence, especially as the level appears to depend heavily on the geographic area and time period in question. Assessment of the level of subsidies under the scheme involves too much detailed dispute for the Council to be able to conclude that the article’s statement is untenable.
These issues, however, are of substantial public importance and the complainants provided strong countervailing evidence to the article’s assertions. Accordingly, the Council's principles relating to fairness and balance require the newspaper to provide opportunities for publication of evidence of that kind on other occasions. The Council has concluded that opportunities were provided shortly before and after publication of this article and therefore its principles were not breached in this instance.
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
Separate complaints were received on this article from Blair Donaldson, Richard Mackie and Associate Professor Tim Stephens.
Relevant Council Standards
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This adjudication applies part of General Principle 3 "Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, is should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication“; General Principle 6: "Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed ...”; and General Principle 7: "Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence."