WiFi revisited: my visit to the Press Council
Sciblogs readers may remember the kerfuffle in December when Otaki’s Damon Wyman led a campaign to have Wifi hotspots removed from classes at Te Horo School.
I wrote about it at the time here on Sciblogs, taking issue with Wyman’s misguided campaign, which was ultimately successful when the Te Horo Board of Trustees surveyed parents and then decided to switch off Wifi in the school’s junior classrooms.
If I was critical of the campaign, I was even more critical of Wyman and the anti-Wifi lobby in my New Zealand Listener column (subscription required), which was published in January after the decision had been made to switch off the Wifi.
In that piece I stated my opinion that Damon Wyman had confused correlation and causation in linking the death of his son Ethan from a brain tumour in 2012 to Ethan’s use of a Wifi-enabled iPod device, which the 10 year-old slept with under his pillow. I based that assertion on comments I’d seen Mr Wyman make in the media. I also wrote that anti-Wifi campaigners were cherry-picking papers to bolster their case and that the evidence didn’t stack up for many of the claims they made about health and safety concerns stemming from Wifi use.
Mr Wyman and Stephanie Honeychurch, who has for years campaigned to keep cellphone towers out of communities, complained to the New Zealand Press Council about the column. The council, which consists of journalists, lawyers and laypeople and is presided over by retired Judge of the High Court, Sir John Hansen, considered submissions from the complainants, myself and the Listener. My Wyman, his lawyer Sue Grey and myself also gave oral submissions to the Press Council here in Wellington.
The result of all of that is that the Press Council have not upheld the complaints, protecting my right to have an informed opinion on the issue. I stand by everything I wrote. The decision is published on the Press Council website and published below as well. I’m pleased with the outcome of the case and thank the Listener for its staunch support throughout the proceedings.
I met Damon Wyman in Wellington soon after I wrote the column and again at the Press Council. If is fair to say we don’t see eye to eye. I have huge sympathy for what he has been through, though as Damon pointed out to me, I wouldn’t even begin to understand his position, as I do not have children myself.
However, I think he is wrong in his anti-Wifi campaign. I also believe that, having put himself out there in the media making these claims about Wifi safety, he needs to learn to handle the inevitable criticism that will result. At the Press Council hearing I quoted Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The evidence isn’t there to back up his position on Wifi. That’s not to say that the issue shouldn’t be closely monitored as our use of wireless networks increases.
I wish him all the best and hope he finds some peace with the tragedy that has taken place.
As for Stephanie Honeychurch, this email she sent to the Press Council to accompany her submission, says a lot about the way the woman thinks…
“I would so appreciate it if you can do this as this man is virulent, inaccurate and dangerous and I am sure you will agree his bigotry is putting children at risk…
Council Meeting MARCH 2014
There are two complaints about a Peter Griffin technology column, headlined Something in the air, in the February 1 issue of New Zealand Listener magazine published on January 25. The complainants are Damon Wyman and Stephanie Honeychurch and the complaints have been looked at as one in the absence of substantial differences.
Damon Wyman, supported by his wife Jo, and Sue Grey, their lawyer, attended the Press Council meeting and spoke in support of the complaint. Mr Wyman and Ms Grey divided their allocation of time between them.
Peter Griffin, author of the column, attended the meeting on behalf of the editor, and spoke in defence of his column.
In his column, Mr Griffin said it was not true that Wi-Fi devices were dangerous to users health; there was no compelling scientific evidence to suggest that electromagnetic radiation emitted from Wi-Fi devices posed elevated risk of developing brain tumours.
Mr Griffin cited a growing anti-Wi-Fi movement using “dubious research” to bolster counter claims. He used the example of two fathers, Damon Wyman and David Bird, successfully campaigning to have Wi-Fi removed from junior classrooms at Te Horo School.
The Wi-Fi removal followed Mr Wyman’s 10-year-old son Ethan dying after developing a brain tumour. Ethan had slept with a wireless iPod under his pillow and the column said “Wyman is convinced the device was responsible for his son’s brain tumour…”
Mr Griffin said Mr Wyman’s reaction confused correlation and causation and he quoted two scientists, Martin Gledhill and Bruce Armstrong, in his argument that Wi-Fi did not cause adverse health effects.
Mr Wyman complained that he had never categorically said Wi-Fi caused his son’s tumour, only that his son’s tumour has prompted him to research the subject. This is a key plank of Mr Wyman’s complaint.
He believed the innuendo in the opinion column was that there was no basis for health concerns and that the science around this was conclusive. Mr Wyman argued this was incorrect and there was scientific recognition of the need for precaution.
The column’s standfirst, ‘Scaremongers warning of the dire dangers of Wi-Fi are ignoring the science’ was presented as a statement of fact.
Mr Wyman met with Mr Griffin at the end of January and sought an apology, which was not forthcoming. Mr Griffin instead suggested Mr Wyman write to the Listener, which he did.
Mr Wyman was concerned at the impact publicity from Mr Griffin’s column was having on his three children.
Because Mr Griffin is also the manager of the Science Media Centre, Mr Wyman complained that he was being paid by the Government and defending its position. Martin Gledhill also received income from the Government and the telecommunications industry and, therefore, neither his nor Mr Griffin’s position was independent, expert or balanced.
The column, Mr Wyman said, breached Press Council principles of Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Conflicts of Interest, Headlines and Captions, Comment and Fact, Children and Young People and Privacy.
Other than not suggesting a breach of the Press Council principle of Privacy, Stephanie Honeychurch’s complaint was not dissimilar to Mr Wyman’s.
Magazine editor’s response
The complainants had a different view from Mr Griffin.
Based on several media reports quoting Mr Wyman, it was fair for Mr Griffin to conclude Mr Wyman believed the wireless iPod was responsible for his son’s brain tumour.
One particular article quoted Mr Wyman as saying, “We’re not saying that caused it, but it seems like a bit of a coincidence”. The editor argued that it was reasonable to draw from that comment that Mr Wyman believed the iPod was responsible for the tumour.
Mr Griffin’s column was not defamatory of Mr Wyman. Saying Mr Wyman believed a Wi-Fi device caused a tumour would not bring him into contempt, ridicule or disrepute.
The Listener column concerned matters of public interest and did not breach the privacy of Mr Wyman’s children. It did not name them and Mr Wyman had himself chosen to enter the public forum around this subject.
The Science Media Centre which Mr Griffin managed had a charter ensuring its editorial independence from the Government and, therefore, there was no conflict of interest.
The editor also included a response from Mr Griffin, which featured much of the same points, along with scientific references in support of the argument that Wi-Fi did not cause adverse health risks.
The Press Council sets a high bar when dealing with complaints against opinion columns. Mr Griffin was entitled to express his honestly held opinion, supported by scientific research he deemed relevant, and the Listener was equally entitled to publish it.
There is not a requirement for balance in an opinion column.
Use of the word ‘convinced’ to describe Mr Wyman’s view of a link between the tumour and the device was unnecessarily strong and does not align with what Mr Wyman says is his view.
Although the complainants strongly believe Mr Wyman had not categorically linked his son’s brain tumour to the use of the Wi-Fi iPod, it was not unreasonable for Mr Griffin to conclude this, at the time the column was written, based on public reports and comments by Mr Wyman.
The Council, and Mr Griffin, have now heard Mr Wyman state this is not his position.
Mr Griffin and the complainants have differing views on the science around the health risks posed by Wi-Fi devices. Both are entitled to such opinions and both provided much evidence in support of them. It is not for the Press Council to debate or rule on the science.
The column’s standfirst properly reflects its content.
Mr Wyman cannot expect to campaign or lobby on an issue without public scrutiny and comment. His children, other than Ethan, however, were not specifically referenced in the column and it did not breach their privacy.
The Listener published a letter from Mr Wyman which provided an alternative view to the science Mr Griffin had relied on for his column. The letter ran two weeks after the column was published, in part due to the magazine editor waiting for Mr Griffin to meet Mr Wyman.
The complaints are not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
Peter Griffin manages the Royal Society's Science Media Centre. He posts at SciBlogs.