Skip to main content

Powell and CanWest TVWorks Ltd - 2005-125


  • Joanne Morris (Chair)
  • Paul France
  • Tapu Misa
  • Diane Musgrave


  • Michael Powell of Hamilton


22nd February 2006






CanWest TVWorks Ltd

Complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Inside New Zealand: Leaving the Exclusive Brethren – experiences of five people who had left the Exclusive Brethren – allegedly in breach of privacy, unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair

Standard 3 (privacy) – no private facts revealed – no offensive intrusion – not upheld

Standard 4 (balance) – programme did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – no inaccuracies – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – not unfair to the Exclusive Brethren – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


[1] A documentary entitled Inside New Zealand: Leaving the Exclusive Brethren was broadcast on TV3 at 8.30pm on 18 August 2005. The programme followed the experiences of five people who had left the Exclusive Brethren.

[2] Interviews were also conducted with a married couple and their children who were members of the Brethren, and an Exclusive Brethren elder. A psychologist, Arnold Staite, discussed his work with people who had left the Brethren, and Associate Professor Peter Lineham (religious and social historian at Massey University) offered his perspective on the Brethren.


[3] Michael Powell complained to CanWest TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme had breached the privacy of members of the Brethren, and was unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair. With respect to privacy, Mr Powell argued that by showing images of Brethren attending worship without their consent, CanWest had breached their privacy.

[4] The complainant also argued that Standard 4 (balance) was breached. He made the following points in support of his argument:

  • CanWest did not allow the Brethren to present independent psychological opinions to respond to Peter Lineham and Dr Staite’s negative opinions.
  • Brethren members were not allowed to respond directly to assertions made by ex-members, who were given a disproportionate amount of time in the programme.

[5] The complainant argued that members of the Brethren had not been allowed to explain the accusations from their point of view at the commensurate professional levels. He suggested that the programme may have been responsible for subsequent acts of vandalism to the Brethren’s property in New Zealand.

[6] Turning to consider Standard 5 (accuracy), Mr Powell referred to a statement in the programme that “exclusives who leave are ostracised for the rest of their lives from friends and family”. He contended that this statement was inaccurate because the word “ostracised” implied “cut-off”. Mr Powell maintained that contact was allowed and people were encouraged by friends and family to come back into fellowship. In his view, this statement had misled the public.

[7] The complainant also referred to Mr Lineham’s statement that the Brethren was “a conspiracy of fear”. He argued that this was incorrect because the Brethren was in fact a “circle of love and affection”. No opportunity had been given to refute this statement, Mr Powell said, and it had publicly demeaned the Brethren and misrepresented their Christian nature. This was also unbalanced, he maintained.

[8] Considering Standard 6 (fairness), Mr Powell referred to the use of the colour red in connection with references to hell and the image of an apparently dead person upside down in dim light. These had cast the Brethren in a negative light as a sinister part of the community, he said, and were not a true reflection of the events and views expressed (guideline 6a).

[9] The complainant also objected to images showing the hall gates closing and references to prisons. He wrote that this had exploited a security feature to present an inaccurate picture of the Brethren as a secretive imprisoning system. Mr Powell also argued that images of Brethren members walking in a slow or warped motion had implied a negative state, in contrast to “sprightly, definite happy steps”.

[10] Mr Powell stated that the editing of the programme had created a false and unfair impression of the Brethren which had caused loss of property and loss of enjoyment of life.


[11] CanWest assessed the complaint under Standards 3, 4, 5 and 6 and guideline 6a of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:

Standard 3 Privacy

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with the privacy of the individual.

Standard 4 Balance

In the preparation and presentation of news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters are responsible for maintaining standards consistent with 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.

Standard 5 Accuracy

News, current affairs and other factual programmes must be truthful and accurate on points of fact, and be impartial and objective at all times.

Standard 6 Fairness

In the preparation and presentation of programmes, broadcasters are required to deal justly and fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Guideline 6a

Care should be taken in the editing of programme material to ensure that the extracts used are a true reflection, and not a distortion, of the original event or the overall views expressed.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

Standard 3 (privacy)

[12] CanWest noted that the footage of Exclusive Brethren going to church was filmed from a public place. It argued that this did not intentionally interfere (in the nature of prying) with any of the individuals involved. Further, the fact that they were going to church was not a highly offensive and objectionable fact. CanWest maintained that no private facts about the people in the footage were revealed, and did not uphold the Standard 3 complaint.

Standard 4 (balance)

[13] CanWest did not consider that a “controversial issue of public importance” was discussed in the programme. It found that the balance standard did not apply to a programme which discussed the experiences of those who belonged to the Exclusive Brethren fellowship, and those who had left or been excluded from the fellowship.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[14] Agreeing that the documentary was a “factual” programme, CanWest noted that it did not purport to be a comprehensive investigation into the Exclusive Brethren fellowship. Rather, it had approached the topic from the perspective of five individuals who had left the Brethren. CanWest stated that none of their stories were generalised or suggested as being indicative of a common experience for all those who were part of the fellowship.

[15] Referring to the statement about those who left the Brethren being “ostracised”, the broadcaster noted the following other comments from the programme:

Dr Lineham: “one of the most difficult things for them is the estrangement and alienation from former friends and relatives and loved ones”, and “...huge loss that they have felt combined with feeling alienated from people that meant everything to them”

Exclusive Brethren elder Allan Davis: “Withdrawal is only the very, very, very last thing we do – it’s hard to get out of the fellowship…we don’t want to put anyone out of the fellowship. It’s only when there is excessive evil that we cannot go on with”

Exclusive Brethren Greg Mason: “Exclusive Brethren really is a large family and persons that go away that leave it is painful for them, but it must be remembered it is painful for us as well”, and “…so we believe in separation from evil and separation from the world…we live in the world but we are not of the world”.

[16] CanWest maintained that the statement about a “conspiracy of fear” explained the state of mind of the interviewee and why she felt that she could not get help within the Exclusive Brethren. It did not apply to the whole Brethren faith.

[17 ]The broadcaster considered that the programme clearly and carefully distinguished between factual reporting and comment, analysis or opinion. It believed that viewers would have appreciated that the stories were personal stories, and that the fellowship had many happy and decent members who had experiences in direct contrast to those described by the five interviewees who had left or been excluded. CanWest found no breach of Standard 5.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[18] CanWest stated that guideline 6a concerned the editing of footage to make it appear that something was said or filmed that did not happen. This did not occur in the documentary, it said.

[19] The broadcaster did not agree that the programme was unfair or unjust to the Exclusive Brethren faith. It focused on five people who had left the fellowship and talked about their individual or family experiences. CanWest considered that the programme had given ample time to members of the Brethren to discuss their perspectives on the issues raised.

[20] In CanWest’s view, the documentary did not claim that all marriages in the Brethren were violent and abusive, but it did explain the position of women in Exclusive Brethren marriages. The positive experiences of the married couple in the item were presented, it noted.

[21] The broadcaster contended that the programme had not portrayed the Exclusive Brethren as inferior, nor had it encouraged denigration of or discrimination against Brethren members. Any comments in the documentary were genuinely held opinions, and were identified as such by the structure of the programme. CanWest did not uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[22] Dissatisfied with CanWest’s decision, Mr Powell referred his complaint to the Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

Authority's Determination

[23] The members of the Authority have viewed a copy of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 3 (privacy)

[24] Mr Powell complained that the footage of Brethren members attending church had breached their privacy. In the Authority’s view, Privacy Principles (i) and (iii) are relevant to this complaint. They provide:

(i) The protection of privacy includes protection against the public disclosure of private facts where the facts disclosed are highly offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities.

(iii) There is a separate ground for a complaint, in addition to a complaint for the public disclosure of private and public facts, in factual situations involving the intentional interference (in the nature of prying) with an individual’s interest in solitude or seclusion. The intrusion must be offensive to the ordinary person but an individual’s interest in solitude or seclusion does not provide the basis for a privacy action for an individual to complain about being observed or followed or photographed in a public place.

[25] Privacy principle (i) protects against the disclosure of private facts where those facts are “highly offensive and objectionable to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities”. Irrespective of whether it was a private fact, the Authority considers that a reasonable person would not find it highly offensive that the people in the footage were attending the Exclusive Brethren church. Accordingly, it finds that privacy principle (i) was not transgressed.

[26] The Authority notes that for a privacy complaint to succeed under privacy principle (iii), there must have been an intentional interference with an individual’s interest in solitude or seclusion. The Authority accepts that CanWest filmed the churchgoers from the public footpath, and that they could be seen clearly by any members of the public from that position. In those circumstances, the Authority finds that the people who were filmed could not be said to have an interest in solitude or seclusion. Accordingly, it concludes that filming the Exclusive Brethren members walking into church did not amount to a breach of their privacy.

Standard 4 (balance)

[27] A programme requires balance only if it discusses a controversial issue of public importance. As exemplified by the programme’s title, Leaving the Exclusive Brethren recounted the individual experiences of five people who had left the Brethren and how it had affected them and their families.

[28] While their stories may have been of interest to some people, the Authority finds that the issue under discussion would have had no significant potential impact on, or been of concern to, members of the New Zealand public. The Authority concludes that the programme did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance and, as such, the balance standard does not apply.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[29] The complainant argued that two statements in the item were inaccurate. First, he disputed the accuracy of the reporter’s statement that “Exclusives who leave are ostracised for the rest of their lives from friends and family”. The Authority agrees that this was presented as a statement of fact to which the accuracy standard applies. However, the Authority also finds that there was sufficient information on which to base that statement. In the programme, several people who had left the Brethren explained that they did feel ostracised, and that they had been allowed no further contact with their friends and family after leaving. By way of example, the Authority refers to this statement from an ex-Brethren member:

When I come into contact with an Exclusive Brethren, for example, my brother Andrew, he will be walking along the footpath, he sees me, he’ll either duck into a shop or wait until I’ve gone past or physically cross the road and walk around me.

[30] Another ex-Brethren in the programme explained how he had not had any contact with his sisters since his parents, with whom he was living, had been “withdrawn from”. Under these circumstances, the Authority finds that it was not inaccurate to state that ex-members were ostracised from friends and family after leaving the Exclusive Brethren.

[31] Second, the complainant argued that it was inaccurate to describe the Exclusive Brethren as a “conspiracy of fear”. The Authority notes that this remark was made by Associate Professor Peter Lineham in response to the story of one ex-member who was afraid to speak out about her abusive husband. In the Authority’s view, this was clearly Mr Lineham’s opinion about how it would feel to be in her position – in need of protection from someone within the Brethren, and not being able to speak out for fear of the consequences. As a statement of opinion, it was not subject to the accuracy standard.

[32] Accordingly, the Authority does not uphold the accuracy complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[33] Mr Powell was concerned about the following features of the programme, which he said were unfair to the Exclusive Brethren and cast the fellowship in a negative light:

  • use of the colour red in conjunction with references to hell and images of a person upside down in dim light
  • a tone that implied the opposite to love, life and kindness
  • showing the hall gates closing and referring to prisons
  • pictures of Brethren members walking in a slow or warped motion, as opposed to “sprightly, definite happy steps”.

[34] Having viewed the programme, the Authority finds that the features referred to by the complainant were not significant in the context of the documentary. The Authority considers that the brief images would not have had any material impact on viewers’ perceptions of the Brethren.

[35] In his complaint Mr Powell also specifically referred to the words of guideline 6a, which applies to the editing of programme material, with respect to the use of “references to hell and images of a person upside down in dim light”. There is no evidence to suggest that any of the interviews or footage in the item were distorted, therefore the Authority finds that guideline 6a does not apply.

[36] Overall, the Authority concludes that the programme portrayed the Exclusive Brethren as a self-contained fellowship, seeking not to associate with others and living in accordance with their interpretation of scripture. The impression given by the documentary was that this way of living worked well for most members, but that it had not suited the five ex-members who spoke about their experiences.

[37] In addition, the Authority notes that members of the Exclusive Brethren were given ample time to present their perspective within the programme. The Authority finds that the Exclusive Brethren was treated fairly in the item, and it declines to uphold the Standard 6 complaint.


For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority


Joanne Morris
22 February 2006


The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

  1. Michael Powell’s formal complaint – 30 August 2005
  2. CanWest’s decision on the formal complaint – 29 September 2005
  3. Mr Powell’s referral to the Authority – 19 October 2005
  4. CanWest’s response to the Authority – 9 January 2006