BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

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The Church of Scientology of New Zealand Inc and TVWorks Ltd - 2010-045

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Tapu Misa
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • The Church of Scientology of New Zealand Inc
Number
2010-045
Broadcaster
TVWorks Ltd
Channel/Station
TV3 # 3

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
Inside New Zealand: How to Spot a Cult – two-part documentary – spoke to former members of cults – included three former members of Scientology – allegedly in breach of controversial issues, accuracy and fairness

Findings
Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints) – programmes did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance – not upheld

Standard 5 (accuracy) – programmes were not inaccurate or misleading – not upheld

Standard 6 (fairness) – Church of Scientology was well informed about the nature of the programmes – Church’s responses were included in the programme – not unfair – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Broadcast

[1]   Inside New Zealand: How to Spot a Cult was a two-part documentary series which was broadcast on TV3 at 9.30pm on Wednesday 25 November and Wednesday 2 December 2009. The documentary discussed some techniques such as time control, information control and relationship control, which could be considered overarching characteristics of groups exhibiting cult-like qualities. These techniques were discussed using examples and interviews with former members of some groups, including Scientology, Centrepoint, Gloriavale, Avatar, Exclusive Brethren and Camp David. The programme also consulted a number of experts in the field.

Complaint

[2]   The Church of Scientology of New Zealand Inc (the Church), made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the programmes’ treatment of Scientology breached standards relating to controversial issues, accuracy and fairness.

[3]   The Church argued that the programmes’ focus on “cultic techniques” was “terribly one-sided” and that the programmes failed to provide any balancing information. It considered that the series aimed to persuade viewers that cults were “bad”, based on unsubstantiated claims.

[4]   The complainant contended that the programmes were misleading in their portrayal of Scientology because it was “virtually indistinguishable” from the other groups discussed. Further, the series only sought the views of former members, it said, and relied on their views as being accurate. The Church argued that the programmes omitted any reference to when events occurred which was misleading. It also considered that the programmes misrepresented Scientology by juxtaposing it with the other religious groups and implying that all of the cultic characteristics featured applied to all of the groups. Scientology was not a closed community, the Church said, and did not restrict members’ access to information or to the outside world.

[5]   The Church noted that the programme makers had asked the Church of Scientology for comment after they had filmed the three former members. The Church maintained that it was not told that the programmes would focus on “cultic techniques” or that “Scientology was to be painted as a dangerous cult-like group fitting in alongside closed Christian communities and Bert Potter’s psycho-sex therapies at Centrepoint. This was unfair.” Further, the responses given to the producers were not fully conveyed in the programme, and the Church provided written material and DVDs which were not included.

[6]   The complainant noted that no information was given about the former members, their motivations or their reliability. In particular, there was no mention of their affiliations with anti-Scientology groups or their activism. The Church argued that their claims had not been challenged.

[7]   The complainant also considered that the programmes contained “misleading graphics and sounds” and “ominous re-dramatisations” which lent to the misrepresentation of Scientology, and was unfair.

[8]   The Church argued that the programmes did not explain who “cult watchers” and “some experts” were referring to, and that their “statements appeared to be presented as facts when they were too general to be factual”. It also considered that the opinions of the experts in the programmes were not challenged which made the programme unbalanced and unfair, as the experts “appeared to be fully aligned to the message of the programme”. The complainant argued that the programme should have interviewed a professor from Victoria University recommended by the Church.

[9]   The Church argued that it was unfair to refer to the “One True Path” ideal in reference only to cults, as most Christian religions held that ideal.

Standards

[10]   TVWorks assessed the complaint under Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provide:

Standard 4 Controversial Issues – Viewpoints

When discussing controversial issues of public importance in news, current affairs or factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Standard 5 Accuracy

Broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming:

  • is accurate in relation to all material points of fact; and/or
  • does not mislead.
Standard 6 Fairness

Broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to.

Broadcaster's Response to the Complainant

[11]   TVWorks argued that the programme did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance to which Standard 4 applied. It said, “While the subject of cults and the associated experiences of individuals is a topic intermittently visited by the general media through documentaries and current affairs items, it is not controversial in the sense that there is ongoing public debate about it.” TVWorks considered that the complainant’s concerns would be better addressed under accuracy and fairness.

[12]   With regard to the complaint that the programmes made unsubstantiated claims and speculations, TVWorks noted that Standard 5 related to statements of fact. However, it said, the complainant had not specified which statements it considered were opinion presented as fact. It therefore limited its response to the argument that Scientology was misrepresented in the programmes through association with the other groups featured.

[13]   TVWorks first considered the complainant’s concern that the programmes implied that Scientology was a closed community, and that the programmes were misleading by juxtaposing Scientology with scenes of other groups including sexual abuse at Centrepoint and guns at Camp David. It provided comment from the production company which said:

The programme does not say that Scientology is a closed community. Former members do say that their sources of information were controlled in various ways, especially if they were part of the Scientology staff, and [the complainant] was expressly given opportunities to respond to that allegation.

[14]   TVWorks said it accepted this comment and noted that at the beginning of the first part of the programme one of the former members inferred that it was not a closed community when she said, “People say, you know you were there of your own volition, you could have left at any time; people talk about these concepts of power and control like it’s real simple. It’s not.”

[15]   TVWorks disagreed with the complainant that sexual abuse or gun-toting characteristics were attributed to Scientology either explicitly or by association. It maintained that the producers were very careful to individually introduce each group using full screen graphics with facts, followed by interviews with former members relative to that institution only. It said, “While overarching techniques or concepts were evidenced with examples from the various experiences of interviewees from different groups, a reasonable viewer would not have attributed historical evidence presented in the programme about one group to that of another”.

[16]   TVWorks also responded to the complainant’s argument that it was misleading to attribute the “one true path” ideal to cults because it was held by most Christian religions. It said that it agreed with the producers, who said:

The exact line is, “A group that tells you they are ‘the only way’ to god or salvation is showing a cultic danger sign. Cultwatchers call this the One True Path.” The script does not say that ONLY cults have a one true path doctrine, or that it is the ONLY way to define a cult, but that is a ‘danger sign’ among a list of others...

[17]   With regard to the accuracy of the programmes overall, the broadcaster said that it was confident that the producers had “achieved an accurate and robustly informed documentary”. The producers said that “programme makers spent many hours checking facts in the stories that were provided by former members... It was clear from the ex-members’ comments in the programme that the interview subjects were anti-Scientology. ...The facts in their claims were challenged both by the programme makers’ own research, and by putting the allegations to Scientology for comment, and the counter arguments are included [in the programme].”

[18]   TVWorks concluded that the programmes did not breach Standard 5.

[19]   Turning to fairness, TVWorks reiterated that the former members’ claims were verified before being included in the programme. With regard to the complainant’s claim that the Church was not fully informed about the nature of the documentary, the producer maintained that “[the complainant] knew from first contact that the programme included a number of other groups, that they might be termed cults... [It] obtained a copy of the programme proposal from New Zealand On Air... [It] received several pages of correspondence and spent nearly three hours in the [production company’s] office. To say [the Church] was unaware of the programme content is nonsensical.”

[20]   With regard to the complaint that the Church’s responses were not conveyed fully in the programmes, the producers noted that they were 14 pages long “so it is inevitable that points had to be summarised”. The producers also noted that the Church was asked at least twice if a representative would agree to an on-camera interview, and it did not accept that invitation. They maintained that the complainant was told that the Church’s response would be used as the basis for a scripted rebuttal of the points made by the former members, and that there was no promise to include the Church’s response verbatim. The producers noted that the other material provided was clearly stated to be owned by L Ron Hubbard, and was not relevant to the focus of the programme which was “the personal experiences of people who say they were trapped in a cult, and how such organisations may operate”.

[21]   TVWorks maintained that the programmes were researched fairly, noting that the producers had contacted the Church on many occasions, including phone calls, letters, emails and a face to face meeting. The producers considered it was inaccurate to say that “ONLY the view of former members was sought” as the Church had been invited to provide balance by being interviewed for the programme, but had elected to provide only a written response.

[22]   Finally, in response to the complainant’s objection to the editing, graphics and sounds in the programme, TVWorks said that it did not “believe that these factors unfairly influenced viewers”. It was of the view that the programme makers were entitled to make creative choices.

[23]   TVWorks concluded that the Church was not treated unfairly and declined to uphold the Standard 6 complaint.

Referral to the Authority

[24]   Dissatisfied with the broadcaster’s response, the Church referred its complaint to the Authority under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

[25]   The complainant disagreed that the programmes did not discuss a controversial issue of public importance. It noted that in the weeks surrounding the broadcasts there was considerable media coverage of Destiny Church and also a programme about a former member of the Exclusive Brethren.

[26]   The complainant argued that the allegation that Scientology restricted members’ access to information was never put to the Church, though it had been asked whether it used internet filters to filter out critical websites. It disagreed that the programme had inferred that Scientology was not a closed community. The Church maintained that Scientology had been portrayed as being the same as the other religious communities. It reiterated its view that the programme omitted information which was provided by the Church which should have been included, and reiterated the arguments made in the original complaint.

[27]   With regard to fairness, the Church reiterated that none of the experts’ views in the programme were challenged. It maintained that “the programme relied on the stories of ex-members and although they could be claimed as honest opinion the programme makers clearly made no effort to convey another side to the story, one where people might be happy in their choice of religious devotion and where they might consider their religion to have helped them.”

[28]   The complainant maintained that the second part of the programme focused on Scientology, and that the Church was not informed that Scientology would be the focus. It disagreed that the Church’s responses were presented fairly, and considered that the programmes left out key aspects of their comments. It said that there were reasons why the Church had chosen not to appear on the programme, including that the programme proposal “confirmed... suspicions that the programme makers set out to make a biased programme on cults. Their script was thoroughly worked out... and it left little room for balance and countering views to their extreme approach to the subject.”

[29]   The complainant asserted that the DVDs and written material provided contained aspects of the Church’s doctrine which could have been used to achieve balance and fairness.

[30]   The Church reiterated its argument that the style of the programmes was unfair and misleading and it considered that the programme had a deliberate “crime series feel”, which resulted in Scientology being “unjustly made to look criminal”.

Broadcaster’s Response to the Authority

[31]   TVWorks provided further comments from the programme producer. He emphasised that “there are clearly belief systems and groups that greatly control their members in a way that many outsiders consider destructive. The popular current term for such groups is ‘cult’. What such a group looks like, and how it might be defined, is a perfectly legitimate subject of discussion for a documentary, and the first-hand experience of insiders is a perfectly legitimate documentary technique.”

[32]   The producer reiterated that the programme did not include “closed community” as a cult characteristic, and that neither the programme nor the former members said that Scientology was a closed community. Further, there was nothing linking Scientology to sexual abuse or guns.

[33]   The producer pointed out that it was clear from the programme that the former members were “now active critics of Scientology” which did not “add or detract from the accuracy of their comments”.

[34]   The producer also noted that the programme did not state that all new religions are cults, and that one of the experts advised viewers to “take your time getting involved because there are good groups out there”. He maintained that Scientology was given ample opportunities to respond to allegations and to be interviewed, and therefore considered that the Church had been treated fairly. He considered it was self-evident that the groups featured have members that are happy and consider they have been helped by those groups.

[35]   With respect to the Church’s argument that the programmes should have included the information provided by the Church about its doctrine, the producer emphasised that the focus was the conduct of various groups and the experiences of people who considered they were subjected to cultic techniques, not about the groups’ religious doctrine.

[36]   The producer maintained that the Church was contacted at an appropriate point during production, at a time when it was known which material required a response, rather than presenting it with a vast range of allegations which might not be included in the programme. He asserted that Scientology had a history of being aggressive towards media and critics.

Complainant’s Final Comment

[37]   The complainant accepted the producer’s argument that the subject of cults was legitimate for discussion in a documentary, however it argued that the programmes subject to complaint “validated only the experience of ex-insiders, not active insiders”. It said that the Church’s response was then “only really a footnote”.

[38]   The complainant reiterated its arguments that the overall impression of the programmes was inaccurate and unfair to Scientology. It said that at the Church representative’s meeting with the production company, it had been pointed out that there were a number of former members of Scientology, “but only a tiny few that choose to attack their former religion”. The Church therefore considered that it was inaccurate and unfair to rely on the claims of “this tiny few”.

[39]   The Church also repeated its argument that the Church had been treated unfairly because it was not fully informed about the nature of the programme and the second part’s “focus” on Scientology, and because its responses were “played down” and more like footnotes. It also contended again that the DVD provided to the production company – “Scientology: An Overview” – contained “ample footage” that could have provided balance.

Authority's Determination

[40]   The members of the Authority have viewed recordings of the two broadcasts complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.

Standard 4 (controversial issues – viewpoints)

[41]   Standard 4 states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

[42]   In our view, How to Spot a Cult was a two-part documentary which explored the characteristics of cult-like groups by talking to former members of those groups and cult experts. While this topic may have been of interest to viewers, we do not consider that an exploration of those characteristics and the presentation of the personal views of the interviewees and experts amounted to a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance for the purposes of the standard.

[43]   In any event, we are satisfied that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to present significant points of view from experts in relevant fields, former members of the groups, and from the groups themselves. This was especially the case for the Church of Scientology, whose responses to allegations made against it were read out in a voiceover immediately after the accounts given by its former members.

[44]   Accordingly, we decline to uphold the Standard 4 complaint.

Standard 5 (accuracy)

[45]   Standard 5 states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The Church raised a number of aspects which it considered led to the programmes being inaccurate or misleading. We deal with each of these points below.

Scientology is not a closed community and does not utilise information control

[46]   The Church argued that the programmes were misleading because they implied that Scientology was a closed community, and that it utilised information control.

[47]   Having viewed the programmes, we are satisfied that at no time was it stated or implied that Scientology was a closed community, or that it restricted members’ access to information or to the outside world. We therefore do not consider that the programme was misleading or inaccurate in this respect.

The programme makers only sought the views of former members and relied on them being accurate and did not challenge them

[48]   Guideline 5a to the accuracy standard exempts statements which are clearly distinguishable as comment, analysis or opinion. In our view, the comments of the former members of Scientology were clearly their personal opinions and interpretation of events. Further, some of the comments were prefaced by the narrator with phrases such as, “Former members claim...”, making it clear that they were not assertions of fact.

The programmes should have mentioned that the former members interviewed were part of anti-Scientology groups

[49]   The Church also argued that the programmes should have mentioned that the former members interviewed were now part of anti-Scientology groups. In our view, it was obvious from their comments that the former members were opposed to Scientology and had chosen to leave. We therefore find that viewers would not have been misled in this respect.

The programmes omitted any reference to when events occurred

[50]   The complainant argued that this was misleading because the programmes implied the events discussed were recent. We note that the second part of the programme contained comments such as, “I was a scientologist in Sydney from ‘78 to ‘83” and, “This incident happened in 1980.” We do not consider there was any suggestion that the events discussed were recent, and in any case this was not material to the discussion of the characteristics of the groups. We therefore find that viewers would not have been misled.

The programmes were misleading because Scientology was “virtually indistinguishable” from the other groups discussed

[51]   The complainant argued that the programmes were misleading because Scientology was presented as the same as the other groups and juxtaposed with, for example, sexual abuse at Centrepoint and guns at Camp David. The production company said that it was very careful to individually introduce each group with graphics in relation to a particular characteristic or technique before comments only from former members of that particular group were shown.

[52]   In our view, Scientology was at all times distinguishable from the other groups through the use of frequent graphics identifying which group was under discussion and which group each interviewee was formerly associated with. The programme did not imply that Scientology, or any other group, was the same as all of the other groups discussed. Nor was there any suggestion that Scientology was associated with guns or sexual abuse. We are satisfied that the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure that the programmes were not misleading in this respect.

Misleading graphics and sounds

[53]   The complainant considered that the programmes contained “misleading graphics and sounds” and “ominous re-dramatisations” which lent to the misrepresentation of Scientology, for example a “spooky synthesised effect”.

[54]   We consider that the graphics and sounds employed were legitimate stylistic techniques, and that it was clear which footage was re-enacted. We therefore find that viewers would not have been misled in this respect.

It was inaccurate to associate the concept of “one true path” only with cults

[55]   The complainant argued that this was inaccurate because most Christian religions held this ideal. The production company maintained that the programme did not state that only cults believed this.

[56]   In our view, this was not a material point of fact to which Standard 5 applied. In any case, we agree that the programme did not state that only cults espoused this view.

The opinions of the experts were not challenged

[57]   The Church did not point to any statements the experts made which it considered were inaccurate.

[58]   We consider that it would have been clear to viewers that the experts interviewed were offering their own opinions, and therefore that their statements are exempt from the accuracy standard under guideline 5a.

The Church’s responses were not conveyed completely in the programmes which left a misleading impression

[59]   As already stated, the Church’s response was presented following each claim by a former member of Scientology. We agree with the production company that it was inevitable that a lengthy written response would have to be condensed and that the most relevant points would be selected for inclusion in the programme. Furthermore, the Church was offered an interview on camera, which it declined. We do not consider that viewers would have been misled in this respect.

[60]   Accordingly, we decline to uphold any part of the Standard 5 complaint.

Standard 6 (fairness)

[61]   Standard 6 states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme. In our view, the Church of Scientology is an “organisation” for the purposes of the standard.

[62]   The complainant argued that a number of aspects of the programmes resulted in unfairness to the Church.

[63]   We have determined under Standard 5 that some of these aspects, including the use of graphics, references to the “one true path”, the failure to mention that the former members were in anti-Scientology groups, and the Church’s belief that Scientology was not distinguishable from the other groups, were not inaccurate and did not result in the programme being misleading. We therefore also find that these aspects of the programme were not unfair to the Church.

[64]   The remainder of the fairness complaint related to the information the Church was given about the programmes, and the opportunities it was given to comment for the documentary and to respond to the claims made by other people interviewed, including the former members and the experts.

[65]   The Church argued that it was not told that the programmes would focus on “cultic techniques” or that “Scientology was to be painted as a dangerous cult-like group”. It also maintained that the Church was not told that Scientology would be the “focus” of the second part of the programme.

[66]   We disagree that Scientology was the “focus” of the second part of the documentary; while it may have been mentioned more than in the first part, it was still clearly one of a number of groups featured.

[67]   We note that in its formal complaint, the Church referred to the programme makers’ application for funding as being for a programme “warning about cults and the supposed techniques they use”. The Church referred several times to the programme makers contacting the Church and asking for responses to allegations and claims made by its former members. It was granted a three-hour meeting with the production company to discuss the programmes, and was also offered an interview on camera. The Church declined and provided a lengthy written response, parts of which were included in the programme in response to the views of the former members.

[68]   As outlined above, we consider that it was not reasonable to expect that the Church’s entire 14-page response would be included in the programmes. Relevant points were selected and included in response to each of the claims made by the former members interviewed. In these circumstances it was not unfair to omit the other material provided by the Church.

[69]   For all of the above reasons, we are satisfied that the broadcaster fully informed the Church about the nature of the documentary, and that the Church was given a fair and reasonable opportunity to comment for the programme.

[70]   The Church also argued that it was unfair to find former members to interview by canvassing anti-Scientology websites. In our view, this was a perfectly legitimate strategy for finding interviewees for the programme.

[71]   We therefore find that the Church was treated fairly and we decline to uphold any part of the Standard 6 complaint.

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
6 July 2010

Appendix

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

1.          The Church of Scientology’s formal complaint – 22 December 2009

2.          TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 1 March 2010

3.          The Church’s referral to the Authority – 24 March 2010

4.          TVWorks’ responses to the Authority – 8 and 19 April 2010

5.          Comments from production company – 10 May 2010

6.          The Church’s final comment – 21 May 2010