Going Straight – documentary about curing homosexuals through Christian programme – inaccurate – unbalanced – discrimination against homosexuals
(1) Standard G6 – majority – documentary focussed on perspectives of those featured – no uphold
(2) Standard G13 – genuinely held opinion – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
Going Straight was broadcast on Prime Television on 16 June 2000 at 8.35pm. The programme was a documentary about gay men who were attempting to change their sexual orientation through a Christian programme run at Caleb House in Kansas.
The New Zealand Aids Foundation, through its research director, Tony Hughes, complained to Prime Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme was unbalanced. In its view, an exclusively religious perspective on homosexuality had been presented.
Mike Moore and Calum Bennachie, on behalf of the Campaign for Human Rights, complained that the programme was inaccurate, unbalanced and discriminated against homosexuals. In their view, the programme was based on the inaccurate premiss that homosexuals could be cured, and omitted to include balancing material about the merits of that claim. Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie also complained that the programme stated and implied that homosexuals were mentally ill, and that amounted to discrimination.
In Prime’s view the programme was not inaccurate, as it focussed on the struggle of participants in the Caleb House programme, and did not offer a view on whether homosexuals could be "cured". Prime also contended that the programme was balanced as no moral view was taken by its producers, only two of the participants were depicted as being "cured" while others confessed failure, and it had recounted the "months and years" the participants had taken in their quest for a "cure".
Dissatisfied with Prime’s response, the Foundation and Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie referred their complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaints that standard G6 was breached, and the Authority unanimously declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaints.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendices. The Authority determines these complaints without a formal hearing.
Going Straight was broadcast on Prime on 16 June 2000 at 8.35pm. The programme was a documentary about gay men who were attempting to change their sexual orientation through a Christian programme run at Caleb House in Kansas.
The New Zealand Aids Foundation, through its research director, Tony Hughes, complained to Prime that the programme was unbalanced. It contended that an exclusively religious perspective on homosexuality had been presented:
Everyone who featured on the documentary had a religious perspective on homosexuality of one kind or another. Most were very negative about it. The small piece of footage at the end in which one individual suggested that it is possible to be gay and Christian can hardly be said to balance out the rest of the content.
The Foundation considered that the programme ignored entirely the views of members of the gay community who did not approach sexual orientation from a religious standpoint.
The Foundation then commented on matters which had been raised in correspondence with Prime before the programme was aired on June 16. It noted that Prime had acknowledged that the opinions expressed in the programme might be "anathema to many people, both within and alongside the homosexual community". It believed this suggested that Prime should have understood that it was:
even more necessary to provide balance and not look at the issue only from the perspective of "interest for the viewer"
It also disagreed with Prime’s comment that:
most adults would already have an opinion as to whether those running the Caleb House programme are right or wrong. This programme will not change those opinions.
The Foundation responded that "quality documentaries" could and did influence the attitudes of adult viewers. It said that:
Most people are not coldly rational about homosexuality. They come to the topic with a wide array of preconceptions and other social baggage.
The Foundation was concerned about the programme’s potential effect on those conflicted about their sexuality. It believed the message that they would be likely to take from the documentary was:
changing to a heterosexual orientation would be a good thing; and
church-based "reparative therapy" could make this possible.
The Foundation noted that it had requested that Prime consider screening a back-announcement referring to the resolutions of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association which were opposed to "change" programmes. It said it had made this suggestion "in order to provide some authoritative balance and reliable advice" to vulnerable viewers.
In conclusion, the Foundation said it believed that Prime should not have screened the programme:
without thinking carefully about the implications for more vulnerable members of the community, and without ensuring that perspectives other than those from religious individuals who do not accept their sexual orientation were available to provide an appropriate counterbalance.
Mike Moore and Calum Bennachie, on behalf of the Campaign for Human Rights, complained that the programme breached standards G1, G6, G7, G13 and G14 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. The first four of those standards require broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
G7 To avoid the use of any deceptive programme practice in the presentation of programmes which takes advantage of the confidence viewers have in the integrity of broadcasting.
G13 To avoid portraying people in a way which represents as inherently inferior, or is likely to encourage discrimination against, any section of the community on account of sex, race, age, disability, occupational status, sexual orientation or the holding of any religious, cultural or political belief. This requirement is not intended to prevent the broadcast of material which is:
i) factual, or
ii) the expression of genuinely-held opinion in a news or current affairs
iii) in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work.
Standard G14 provides:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
In their opinion, the programme was a "blatant piece of propaganda for the ‘ex-gay’ movement". In their opinion the "ex-gay" movement was based on the premiss that homosexuality was a behavioural illness which should be cured. They cited research which disputed the accuracy of this premiss.
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie also complained that, several times during the programme, homosexuality was referred to as a "sickness" and a "disorder". In their view, it was implied that homosexuals were sick and in need of treatment. They noted that both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association had made statements against the use of reparative therapy to cure homosexuality.
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie observed that the programme had included comment from a man who had reconciled his sexual orientation and religion, but said they considered that this single mention did not provide the programme with balance. In their view the programme ought to have criticised the methods of Exodus International (the Christian organisation reported in the documentary as being behind the Caleb House programme).
As to their complaint that the programme had discriminated against homosexuals, Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie said that the programme was "in clear breach" of standard G13, as it had stated that homosexuals were "mentally disordered – both explicitly and by implication… and that homosexuals are perverts".
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie sought the broadcast by Prime of a programme called One Nation Under God to remedy the standards breaches they maintained had occurred.
Prime advised that it had considered the Foundation’s complaint under s.4(1)(d) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 and standard G6 of the Television Code. Section 4(1)(d) of the Act reads:
Every broadcaster is responsible for maintaining in its programmes and their presentation, standards which are consistent with:
(d) The principle that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed, reasonable efforts are made, or reasonable opportunities are given, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest
Prime then began its response to the Foundation by observing that the programme’s publicity material had described the documentary as follows:
A recent trend in fundamental Christian circles in America has seen the establishment of programmes to help gay men overcome their homosexuality. Caleb House, run by ex-homosexual Mike Babb and his wife, is one such programme. "Going Straight" follows the experiences of the Caleb House inmates as they struggle against their own sexuality in a bid to become "normal".
Prime then described the profiles of some of the individuals featured in the programme.
In Prime’s view, the programme did not present a view on the morality of homosexuality, or debate whether fundamental Christendom was correct in its belief that God could "cure" homosexuality. Instead, it said that the programme had focussed on the struggle within the inmates of Caleb House and between participants in the programme. Prime contended that balance was achieved through:
Prime also commented that:
We do not consider the view by a participant that he belonged to a church that recognised homosexuality as being relevant. The programme was not presenting a view from that standpoint.
In response to the Foundation’s contention that vulnerable viewers might believe that "changing to a heterosexual orientation would be a good thing" and "church-based ‘reparative therapy’ could make this happen", Prime said that the documentary’s depiction of the struggle involved provided "insight not confusion".
Prime declined to uphold the Foundation’s complaint.
Prime considered the complaint by Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie under standards G1, G6, G7 and G14 of the Television Code.
First, Prime noted that it did not consider standards G7 or G14 were relevant as "the broadcast was not edited or otherwise manipulated prior to broadcast except for the provision of commercial breaks", and was not a news programme.
Next, Prime maintained that standard G1 had not been breached as it did not believe that the programme had made any claim about the factual accuracy of the beliefs which underpinned reparative therapy. In its view, the programme depicted and focussed on the struggle faced by the participants in the Caleb House programme. It did not consider that the documentary was about "religious fundamentalism versus homosexuality".
Prime maintained that balance was provided in the programme through showing the failures as well as the successes of participants. It contended that the programme was not unbalanced merely because it was "set in and around fundamental Christian therapies". Prime wrote:
the principal inmate subjects of the documentary made it plain there was no simple cure and in fact the majority of the subjects failed the therapy programme.
Prime declined to uphold Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie’s complaint.
In its referral of the complaint to the Authority, the Foundation made the following points. First, it contended that the central subject of the programme was homosexuality, and maintained that this was a question of "controversial nature". Next, it contended that the programme was specifically about the approach to homosexuality taken by certain Christian fundamentalist groups, which it considered a "doubly controversial matter".
The Foundation went on to note that the following "highly respected" professional associations had passed formal resolutions seeking to distance themselves from the fundamentalist approach:
- American Psychiatric Association
- American Psychological Association
- American Academy of Paediatrics
- American Counselling Association
- American National Council of Social Workers
- American Medical Association
- Australian Psychological Society
The Foundation maintained that:
When dealing with this issue – Christian fundamentalist "therapy" [sic] to change sexual orientation – the programme did not at any level acknowledge the fact of, the extent of, or the reasons for this opposition.
In Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie’s referral, they maintained the premiss behind the documentary was homosexuality could be "cured" by church-based reparative therapy. They claimed that the documentary alleged that homosexuality was a "disorder", a "disease", an "addiction" and a "perversion", and that homosexuals were "sick, diseased and perverted – ‘dead in spirit’." According to Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie, "the truth is the complete opposite of the documentary", and it was inaccurate to refer to homosexuality as an illness. They referred to research cited in their original complaint which they contended had been discredited for making such claims. In their view, Prime could have addressed these issues in a disclaimer or by broadcasting another programme which counteracted the claims made in Going Straight.
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie argued that although the programme had shown participants who had failed in their "treatment", it had also shown four out of eight "successful" participants, which they said supported the claim made in the documentary that Exodus International had a 30% success rate. According to Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie, it was inaccurate to portray the "cure" rate in the programme as greater than 30%.
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie referred to the organisations which had taken a stance against reparative therapy. They said they were the same organisations as those mentioned in the Foundation’s referral. They also claimed that no registered New Zealand psychologist would deal with reparative therapy, and observed that the programme did not question reparative therapy techniques which they believed sought to control the lives of participants.
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie contended that reparative therapy programmes sought to target those who were vulnerable and feeling guilty about their sexual orientation. They cited research and case studies in support of this claim. They submitted that the documentary was inaccurate and untruthful because it did not refer to any "ill effects" of the Caleb House treatment. They also maintained that the programme was unbalanced, as it only dealt with one side of the reparative therapy story.
As to the claim that standard G7 had been breached, Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie said they believed that this was caused by "implying or explicitly stating that homosexuality is a disorder that can, and should, be cured" and by presenting one side of the story about reparative therapy.
In relation to standard G14, Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie argued that the documentary could be seen as news, noting that the standard was contained in an area of the Television Code relating specifically to "news, current affairs and documentaries".
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie then expressed concern that Prime had not addressed their complaint that standard G13 had been breached, commenting that it was a "totally indefensible" indication that Prime did not believe it was a serious enough complaint to warrant comment.
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie also commented that they considered Prime’s response insulting. They said they disagreed with Prime’s claim that it depicted and focussed on "the struggle" of Caleb House inmates. In their view, the documentary’s true focus was:
to accentuate and further the beliefs of such transformational ministries, which come in many guises and names.
It is the programme of treatment, which relies on placing an inordinate amount of guilt on an already vulnerable person which causes "the struggle", not their sexual orientation.
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie expressed disagreement with Prime’s suggestion that balance had been achieved by showing programme participants who were failures as well as those who were successes. They explained why they believed that the programme over-inflated the Caleb House programme’s success rate. They said they also disagreed with Prime’s claim that the documentary was not about religious fundamentalism versus homosexuality, maintaining that it was "certainly a documentary on religious fundamentalist beliefs about homosexuality", and commenting that:
If this were not so, their belief system in relation to homosexuality would not be mentioned, nor would religion, or Christianity in particular.
In its response to the Foundation’s referral, Prime contended that the Foundation had misinterpreted the programme as focussing on the debate between religion and homosexuality. In its view, the basis of the documentary was "the struggle facing the Caleb House inmates all of whom hold fundamentalist Christian beliefs".
Prime said it did not accept that balance could only have been provided by presenting arguments that homosexuality could not be "cured" by Christian belief. It said that balance was provided throughout the programme by the failure of the therapy to "cure" the inmates on whom the programme focussed.
In response to the referral of Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie’s complaint, Prime alleged that the complainants were "fundamentally mistaken" that the premiss of the documentary was that "the transformational ministry Exodus International… can cure homosexuality". Prime maintained that the programme’s producers had:
gone into the church to make a documentary on the inmates and to chronicle their success or failure as the case may be.
In Prime’s opinion, the producers had not promoted the church view of homosexuality as the definitive correct view. Prime argued that Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie had inaccurately presumed that the programme producers were "in cahoots with the Church or, at the very least subscribe to the same view". It observed that a comment made at the beginning of the documentary which reflected the fundamentalist position (referred to in the complaint) had been delivered by a preacher addressing his congregation. Prime maintained that this scene was used "to link Caleb House, its inmates and its counsellors to the fundamentalist teachings of its governing church". It believed that Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie had misinterpreted the "descriptive and positioning statement by the narrator" which followed as the point of view of the producers.
Prime acknowledged that the church adherents in the programme had described homosexuality in various negative terms. However, it maintained that those were the genuinely held opinions of those featured in the documentary.
As to the statistics and case studies to which Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie referred in their complaint and referral, Prime reiterated its view that the programme’s focus was the struggle of the Caleb House inmates, and it was not intended to produce "a definitive clinical study of Christianity versus homosexuality". Prime also disagreed that any statistical conclusion could be drawn from the programme based on the success or failure of those featured in the programme.
Prime "unequivocally refuted" the claim that programmes like that run at Caleb House targeted the vulnerable. It argued:
The inclusion of Brad and Greg cannot be construed to be a mechanism by the church to target vulnerable viewers. Prime Television does not consider itself to be the victim of such a conspiracy. Further, it is somewhat extreme for the complainants to assert, "Similarly, people in New Zealand who are likely to be attracted to such programmes are those who are vulnerable for some reason and are already feeling guilty over their sexual orientation".
Prime said it doubted that Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie or any observer was able to make such a claim on behalf of Prime’s viewers.
Next, Prime said it was not in a position to indicate "by way of disclaimer or other means what its stance may be on a particular view held by a documentary participant".
Prime apologised for not addressing standard G13 in its response to the complaint. However, it maintained that the standard was not breached as it believed that the programme participants were treated as adults in a wholly unbiased manner.
In its final comment, the Foundation reiterated the points made in its referral. It contended that Prime was aware that the broadcast would be controversial. Given the controversial nature of the subject and the requirement to present all significant sides under standard G20, the Foundation considered that what it called the "micro-balance" argument advanced by Prime was unsustainable.
In their final comment, Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie reinforced their claim that the premiss behind the documentary was that transformational ministries could "cure" people of their homosexuality. They contended that if this were not the case, information from other sources would have been included in the programme. In their opinion, the documentary failed to mention that the fundamentalist church view was not the only view that people needed to consider.
Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie also maintained that what they believed was Prime’s acknowledgment that homosexuality was shown in negative terms contradicted its later claim that the programme did not represent homosexuals as inherently inferior to others, in breach of standard G13.
The complainants between them contend that standards G1, G6, G7, G13, G14 and G20 of the Television Code were breached by the broadcast of Going Straight. In the Authority’s view, the matters relied upon as constituting breaches under standards G1, G6 and G20 overlap, and are most appropriately dealt with under standard G6. Accordingly, it has subsumed the standard G1 and G20 aspects of the complaints under standard G6. The Authority also considers that standards G7 and G14 are not relevant to the complaints, as there was no apparent technical trickery involved in the presentation of the programme as contemplated by standard G7, and it was not a news programme as required by standard G14.
The Authority is divided in its opinion about this aspect of the complaint. The majority considers that the programme’s primary focus was only on a particular group of men who belonged to a particular religious group, and who were trying to change their sexual orientation through the use of religion based therapy at Caleb House. In its view, the documentary focussed only on the experiences of the men featured within that context. To the extent that comments were expressed about the nature of homosexuality and the potential for individuals to change their sexual orientation, the majority considers those comments were the genuinely expressed opinions of participants in the documentary.
The majority considers that the narrative voiceover was neutral, and took no position on the validity of any of the claims made by those featured in the programme. In its opinion, viewers were invited to respond subjectively to the material which was presented. In this context, the majority does not consider that any balancing perspective was required. In reaching this conclusion, the Authority reiterates that the programme concerned a group of individuals within one fundamentalist church group who had problems reconciling their sexuality with that church’s teachings. It also notes that the documentary was unusually intimate in style, and it considers that it was designed to elicit a viewer response without resorting to didactic overview. Finally, it considers that the broadcast did not occur in a vacuum of information about homosexuality.
The majority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
The minority disagrees. It considers that the documentary was unbalanced in its presentation of the view that homosexuality can be cured by religious reparative therapy. In its opinion, this was the controversial issue about which balance was required. The minority considers that the programme offered no critical comment on the use of reparative therapy, and that the view of homosexuality which was presented ignored the views of those who did not approach homosexuality from a religious standpoint. Furthermore, it considers that homosexuality was apparently regarded by all except one person featured in the programme as aberrant behaviour, and that this one-sided presentation ought to have been balanced by other views.
In the minority’s view, balance could have been achieved if the programme had been clearly signposted as coming from a particular controversial perspective, and it was insufficient for the broadcaster to argue that the narration was neutral. The minority upholds this aspect of the complaint.
The Authority considers, even if the threshold for establishing a prima facie breach of this standard had been met, that the broadcast fell within the exception of material which is the expression of a genuinely held opinion. The Authority declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
For the reasons given, a majority of the Authority declines to uphold the complaints that standard G6 was breached.
The Authority declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaints.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
12 October 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. The New Zealand Aids Foundation’s Facsimile to Prime Television New Zealand Ltd –
16 June 2000
2. Prime’s Facsimile to the Foundation – 16 June 2000
3. The Foundation’s Complaint to Prime Television New Zealand Ltd – 20 June 2000
4. Prime’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 14 July 2000
5. The Foundation’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – received
27 July 2000
6. Prime’s Response to the Authority – 7 August 2000
7. The Foundation’s Final Comment – 11 August 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Michael Moore and Calum Bennachie’s Complaint to Prime Television New Zealand Ltd
– 12 July 2000
2. Prime’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 7 August 2000
3. Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority
– 12 August 2000
4. Prime’s Response to the Authority – 21 August 2000
5. Mr Moore and Mr Bennachie’s Final Comment – 8 September 2000