BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Malcolm and Others and Television New Zealand Ltd - 1994-068

Members
  • I W Gallaway (Chair)
  • R A Barraclough
  • L M Dawson
  • J R Morris
Dated
Complainant
  • Edward Malcolm and Others
Number
1994-068
Programme
Holmes
Channel/Station
TV One


Summary

The decision by a couple to travel to Australia with their children to escape harassment

from other family members was dealt with in an item on the Holmes programme

broadcast on Television One between 6.30–7.00pm on Friday 18 February 1994. The

item reported that the couple shown had previously been members of the Exclusive

Brethren Fellowship, that obtaining custody of their children had involved a dispute

between them and the children's maternal grandparents who lived in Rangiora, and that

family members who remained within the Fellowship sought the return of the children.

Mr Malcolm and other members of the Fellowship in Nelson complained to Television New

Zealand Ltd that the item breached a number of broadcasting standards by suggesting

that the dispute involved the Fellowship generally rather than the family and other

members of the family who were Fellowship members.

Maintaining that the item based on considerable research showed that members of the

Brethren in addition to the family had put pressure on the family featured, TVNZ declined

to uphold the complaint. Dissatisfied with TVNZ's decision, the complainants' solicitors

referred the complaint 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 declined to uphold the complaint

alleging factual inaccuracy and, unanimously, the Authority declined to uphold any other

aspect of the complaint.


Decision

The members of the Authority have viewed the programme complained about and have

read a transcript and the correspondence (summarised in the Appendix). As is its practice,

the Authority determined the complaint without a formal hearing.

An item on Holmes reported that Mr and Mrs Field and their children were leaving New

Zealand as a consequence of a family dispute. In the introduction, presenter Paul Holmes

referred to the Fields' "marathon custody battle" with the Exclusive Brethren for the

children. The item also referred to the on-going dispute between the Fields and other

members of the family – particularly Mrs Field's relatives – who were members of the

Exclusive Brethren Fellowship. Towards the end of the item, the reporter asked Mrs Field:


So what would your message to the Church be, then?

She replied:

Just leave us alone, you bastards, you know. This makes us so angry. The kids are

happy. Why can't they just leave us alone?


Through their solicitors, Mr Malcolm and other members of the Fellowship in Nelson

complained to TVNZ that whereas the item had correctly referred to the dispute between

Mr and Mrs Field and other family members – who were also Church members, the above

comments suggested a "concerted" Church campaign directed at the Fields. The complaint

pointed out that this was incorrect as the Nelson Fellowship had little contact with the

Fields although they lived nearby. Moreover, the complaint recorded that the Fields had

recently been visited by their children's paternal grandparents to say goodbye and there

had been "no animosity or argument of any kind".

The item, the complainants alleged, breached standards G1, G4, G6 and G13 of the

Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They require broadcasters:

G1  To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.

G4  To deal justly and fairly with any person taking part or referred to in any

programme.

G6  To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters,

current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.

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

programme, or

iii) in the legitimate context of a humorous, satirical or dramatic work.


In response to the complaint, TVNZ explained that the item was a sequel to material shown

in 1993 which had dealt with the custody dispute between the Fields and Mrs Field's

family. Its reporter, it continued, had spoken to other former Fellowship members who

had said how hard it was for them to take their families with them when they left the

Church. TVNZ added that the pile of letters shown during the item was evidence of the

pressure applied by Fellowship members other than the maternal grandparents.

Moreover, the reporter was aware – but had not included it in the item – of approaches to

the children by members of the Fellowship in Nelson. TVNZ added that the Fields were

convinced that the Exclusive Brethren was involved in the custody dispute.

As for the visit to the children by their paternal grandparents, TVNZ said the reporter had

been unaware of it at the time of the broadcast but subsequent enquiries had shown it not

to be a happy reunion.

TVNZ disagreed that the item had suggested a "concerted" Church campaign, arguing that

there was only one direct reference to the Church in the item. It believed that the story

was of public importance and had not breached any of the nominated standards.

When they referred the complaint to the Authority, the complainants argued that TVNZ

had misinterpreted the complaint. The complainants regarded as acceptable the use of the

term "family members within the Fellowship" as it was natural for the maternal

grandparents' family to support them. TVNZ, however, had responded to the complaint as

if the maternal grandparents were the only other parties in the contest with the Fields.

Nevertheless, the complainants maintained, the item advanced the incorrect perspective

that the Church as a whole and the Nelson Fellowship in particular was involved in

applying pressure on the Fields. In addition, the complainants claimed that TVNZ was

developing the argument that the Nelson Fellowship was involved after the event. The

complainants explained:

The essence of the complaint is the failure of the programme to draw a distinction

between the Church as a whole and the agony of the particular Field/Hickmott

family custody dispute.


The broadcast had revealed, they continued, that TVNZ did not understand how Brethren

communities operated.

In response, TVNZ said that it had dealt with the complaint on the basis that it was a

Field/Hickmott dispute as that was the way it had been presented by the complainants.

The item had included visual evidence, it repeated, to show that the pressure was applied

by more than the maternal grandparents. TVNZ stated specifically:

Indeed, the Fields clearly felt the pressure even came from non-family members, a

point mentioned in the introduction to the item. The item itself, however, focussed

on the particular family group pressure. That, "Holmes" reported, finally led to the

Fields leaving New Zealand for a new life in Australia.


The Authority has included these details to illustrate the point that the views advanced by

the parties overlap. Whereas the complainants accept that pressure, not unexpectedly,

was applied by the maternal grandparents' family who were members of the Fellowship,

TVNZ argued that although the grandparents and their family were the main sources, the

Fields believed that pressure, in addition, was applied by other members of the Exclusive

Brethren. Moreover, TVNZ maintained, the Fields were correct in that belief.

The Authority was divided when assessing whether or not the item contravened the

accuracy complaint under standard G1 of the Television Code.

The Authority considered that TVNZ had portrayed the circumstances correctly by

focussing on the dispute between the Fields on one side and Mrs Field's family on the other.

However it agreed that at times the discussion was widened to include the Church. A

majority of the Authority did not believe this was a breach of G1 as the story was largely

presented as being the Fields' view of the situation. The opening remarks included the

statement: "The Fields say, the church and family members have continued to harass

them, so they're leaving the country to escape them". In the majority's view this set the

scene for the story, which was obviously being told from the Fields' perspective. It was

reasonable to report their conviction that the church's influence had played a role in the

problems besetting the family. The fact that TVNZ had evidence of involvement from

people outside the family also justified some discussion of the church's role, the majority

decided. The broadcaster was not obliged to present every piece of evidence gathered about

an issue being investigated. It accepted that TVNZ's summary, based on the information it

had gathered from the Fields and from the letters which they had received, was sufficient

to justify the report that both the family and other Fellowship members had been involved

in what the Fields perceived as harassment.

The minority focussed on the item's introduction when the presenter, before he referred to

the marathon custody battle, said:

Stan and Julia Field got their children back last year from the Exclusive Brethren.


and on the question at the end of the programme:


So what would your message to the Church be, then?


Pointing out that these opening and closing comments could be seen as creating the tenor

of the entire item, the minority was of the opinion that total accuracy was required in the

introduction and the conclusion. Failure to meet that requirement, the minority decided,

meant that the broadcast breached the requirement in standard G1 for truth and

accuracy. It is common knowledge to those trained in the art of communication that the

opening and closing material creates the strongest and most lasting impression.

The Authority's conclusion on the other aspects of the complaint was unanimous. As it

was unable to detect any material in which the maternal grandparents' family had been

treated unfairly or unjustly, it did not consider that standard G4 had been contravened.

Standard G4 can only apply to the people actually referred to, so the Authority considered

the Exclusive Brethren's broader concerns were better dealt with under G6.

Standard G6 requires broadcasters to show balance, impartiality and fairness. The

Authority agreed with TVNZ that it was difficult to see what balancing viewpoint could be

provided in a human interest story about a family that believed it was being forced to

leave the country because of what it saw as harassment by church and family members.

The Authority considered that perhaps TVNZ should have offered the Exclusive Brethren

the chance to explain how it saw its role in the family's troubles. However as the story

primarily concerned the involvement of family members it considered such a balancing

comment might have been outside the scope of the item and did not uphold the G6

complaint.

In assessing the complaint that the item encouraged discrimination against the Exclusive

Brethren Fellowship, the Authority understood how Church members might feel should

they have to deal with members of the public who had watched the item. However,

standard G13 (i) and (ii) provide exemptions for factual material and for the expression of

genuinely-held opinion in a news or current affairs programme. Taking into account the

background to the material covered in the item and to the views expressed by Mr and Mrs

Field, the Authority concluded that because of the exemptions, standard G13 had not been

breached.

In summary, the Authority unanimously declined to uphold the complaints under

standards G4, G6 and G13. In addition, the majority declined to uphold the alleged

breach of standard G1.

 

For the reasons set forth above, a majority of the Authority declines to

uphold the complaint that the broadcast by Television New Zealand Ltd of

an item on the Holmes programme on 18 February 1994 breached standard

G1 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.


The Authority unanimously declines to uphold any other aspect of the complaint.


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Iain Gallaway
Chairperson
18 August 1994


Appendix

Mr Malcolm's Complaint to Television New Zealand Limited

In a letter dated 23 February 1994, the solicitors for Mr Malcolm and other members of

the Exclusive Brethren Fellowship in Nelson complained to Television New Zealand Ltd

about an item broadcast on the Holmes programme on 18 February between 6.30 -

7.00pm. The item reported that a couple - the Fields - were leaving New Zealand as a

consequence of an on-going family dispute.

Noting that Mr Malcolm was a member of the Exclusive Brethren Fellowship, the solicitors

maintained that the family dispute referred to, which had involved a custody case,

involved Mr and Mrs Field and the maternal grandparents - not the Fields and Brethren

members generally. The writer commended the reporter for using the expression in the

item "family members within the Exclusive Brethren Fellowship" although she asked one

question which referred to the Church rather than the members. Moreover, the

complainants' solicitors added:

Regrettably Mr Holmes himself shows no such restraint in his introduction to the

item which plainly portrays the contest as being with the "Exclusive Brethren".

In fact, he said, the Nelson fellowship had little contact with the Fields while they were

living nearby in Tapawera. Indeed, he observed that the item also omitted to mention the

fact:

Stan and Julia Field invited their parents (ie the paternal grandparents, still

members of the fellowship in Nelson) over to their home to say goodbye to the

children. The invitation was accepted and was a happy time enabling them to do

just that. There was no animosity or argument of any kind.

Nevertheless, the solicitors argued, the item suggested a concerted "Church" campaign

directed at the Fields which resulted in their emotional exhaustion.

The letter concluded by alleging breaches of standards G1, G4, G6 and G13 of the

Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

TVNZ's Response to the Formal Complaint

TVNZ advised the complainants' solicitors of its Complaints Committee's decision in a letter

dated 5 April 1994. It reported that the complaint had been assessed under the nominated

standards.

The item, TVNZ began, recounted the Fields' reluctant decision to leave New Zealand

because of the pressure placed on them by family members who remained within the

Church. The item was a sequel to material shown in 1993 which dealt with the

difficulties faced by the Fields in their efforts to regain custody of their children after they

left the Fellowship.

TVNZ stated that it considered the complaint on the basis of whether the dispute just

involved the family or whether it involved the Exclusive Brethren Church and its Nelson

members. In preparing the programme, the reporter had spoken to other former

Brethren members about how hard it was to take their families with them when leaving

the Church. TVNZ then said that the pile of letters to the children shown in the item was

evidence of the pressure applied by members of the Fellowship other than the maternal

grandparents. Moreover, TVNZ said that the reporter had not presented material in the

item - of which she was aware - about how the children were approached in Nelson by

members who implored them to return to the Church. TVNZ added:

The [Complaints] Committee did not believe that the [reporter's] question "so what

would your message to the Church be then?" was loaded, as is suggested in your

letter. It has to be considered in the context of the absolute conviction by the Fields

that the Exclusive Brethren Church was involved in the three-year court battle

which ended with them regaining custody of their children.

As for the visit to the children from the paternal grandparents, TVNZ said it was not

included as the reporter had been unaware of it. Subsequent enquiries disclosed that it had

not been a happy hour.

TVNZ stated:

The [Complaints] Committee could not agree with your suggestion that the item

implied a concerted campaign by the Church. In a piece running 4 minutes and

40 seconds there was only one direct reference to the Church - and that is dealt

with above. The scripting was done with scrupulous care and concentrated on the

Fields' claims of continued harassment, backed by supporting evidence from letters

addressed to the children and the Fields' own accounts.

The community's reaction against the Church referred to in the complaint, TVNZ

continued, did not result from the item but was a reflection of the prejudice against the

Fellowship already existing in the community.

Dealing specifically with the standards, TVNZ denied that the item was inaccurate, that

anyone had been treated unfairly or that it was unbalanced. Moreover, in view of the

exemption for factual material in standard G13 which prohibits encouraging

discrimination, it had not breached that requirement. Consequently, TVNZ did not believe

that the story which was both of public importance and interest had breached the

standard.

Mr Malcolm's Complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority

Dissatisfied with TVNZ's response, in a letter dated 13 April 1994, the complainants'

solicitors referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a)

of the Broadcasting Act 1989.

The letter questioned three aspects of TVNZ's reasoning for its ruling.

1) TVNZ's description of the story as straightforward did not tally with its explanation

that the broader context for the item had involved speaking to former members as

to how hard it was to leave the Church.

2) TVNZ had misinterpreted the complaint. While acknowledging that a reference to

"family members" within the Fellowship would be acceptable, TVNZ confined this

reference to the "maternal grandparents". The complainants not only accepted

that the maternal grandparents' family was involved, it believed that it was "not

unnatural" for the family to support them. However, it continued, that was

different from the suggestion that the Church as a whole or the Nelson Fellowship

in particular was involved.

3) Arguing that TVNZ seemingly appeared to make an ex post facto attempt to justify

the suggestion that the Nelson Fellowship was involved on the basis that this was

the belief of the family featured, the letter maintained that the item disclosed no

evidence of this point.

The letter of referral concluded:

The essence of the complaint is the failure of the programme to draw a distinction

between the Church as a whole and the agony of the particular Field/Hickmott

family custody dispute. That is not a trifling or insignificant distinction and

ground of complaint. In the very first remark of his opening, Mr Holmes has the

Fields getting their children back "from the Exclusive Brethren". Then, a moment

later, the expression used is the Church and family members". The language used

in the Field interview is very strong (eg "bastards") which therefore the general

approach ought to have prompted care. Then at the conclusion the interviewer let

slip the loaded question referred to in the complaint:

"So what would your message to the Church be, then? (underlining is our

emphasis)

It also betrays a lack of knowledge or research of how Brethren communities

operate.

TVNZ's Response to the Authority

As is its practice, the Authority sought the broadcaster's response to the referral. Its letter

is dated 18 April 1994 and TVNZ's reply 16 May.

TVNZ began:

The item told of the plight of Stan and Julia Field, a couple who featured in another

"Holmes" item last year which related their efforts to regain custody of their

children from family members within the Exclusive Brethren Fellowship, after

making the decision themselves to leave the Fellowship.

The February item updated the situation, recounting how the Fields had decided to

leave New Zealand with their two children because of the pressure they felt they

were under from family members within the Fellowship, particularly from the

maternal grandparents.

Arguing that the referral did not introduce any substantially new point, TVNZ said that

the central point of the original letter of complaint was that the custody dispute involved

only the Fields and the maternal grandparents in Rangiora. It then repeated the point in

its letter reporting the Complaints Committee decision that the visual evidence shown

made it clear that the pressure was no means confined to the maternal grandparents. It

continued:

Indeed, the Fields clearly felt the pressure even came from non-family members, a

point mentioned in the introduction to the item. The item itself, however, focussed

on the particular family group pressure. That, "Holmes" reported, finally led to the

Fields leaving New Zealand for a new life in Australia.

The Fields had left New Zealand, TVNZ stated, not because of an "unfortunate domestic

dispute" as the complainants implied but after a "particularly bitter and agonising custody

battle".

TVNZ agreed with the original letter of complaint that the dispute was not between the

Fellowship and the Fields, but:

The Fields believed that the custody battle was the consequence of the association

their family members have with the disciplines of the Exclusive Brethren

Fellowship. They believe an effort was made to split their family because they chose

to leave that Fellowship. That was what "Holmes" reported.

TVNZ disputed the allegation that its Complaints Committee report amounted to an "ex

post facto attempt to justify harassment". It had referred to the contextual material, it

continued, to explain that the Fields left New Zealand to escape the pressures brought by

family members who remained within the Fellowship. The strong language used reflected

Mr Field's family's suffering and, TVNZ concluded:

We reject the solicitor's imputation that the "Holmes" item was loaded. The

programme carried out extensive research into how the Exclusive Brethren

Fellowship "operates" (the word of the solicitor's). It is submitted that the item was

an inaccurate account of the plight of a desperate and unhappy family caught up

in an emotional maelstrom as a consequence of family members of the Exclusive

Brethren Fellowship challenging their right to custody of their children. The item

was a matter of public interest, and for public concern.

The Complainants' Final Comment to the Authority

When asked whether the complainants wished to comment on TVNZ's reply, in a letter

dated 30 May 1994 their solicitor questioned why TVNZ had commented that the

reference did not contain "anything substantially new". Had the referral done so, it added,

TVNZ could justifiably have been critical.

The solicitors insisted that TVNZ, by referring to the mail from family members and the

maternal grandparents continued to miss the point. The breach occurred when the item

suggested that the Church as a whole and the Nelson Fellowship in particular was

involved.

Explaining that this matter continued to be the point at issue, the solicitor observed:

1) Where was the evidence of pressure from non-family members?

2) Why was this evidence not presented in the item?

3) With reference to TVNZ's reference to the Fields' belief that "an effort was made to

split their family because they chose to leave the Fellowship", the letter asked who

made that effort.

4) We are pleased that TVNZ concedes that the language used was strong. We

reiterate that that heightens the need for care, balance and fairness which,

regrettably, was missing.

5) TVNZ's response that the item showed a lack of research was to counter that

extensive research had been conducted but, the solicitors wondered, why had the

item not referred to the parochial nature of the Fellowship.