SUNIL PORUMAMILLA, KAVEETA BHAVSAAR AND KOSMIC FUSION AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2741

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Discrimination
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
False Accusation
Headlines and Captions
Photographs
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] The complainants Sunil Porumamilla and Kaveeta Bhavsaar are the founders of a spiritual movement known as Kosmic Fusion.Mr Porumamilla has the holy name of Shri Ji and Ms Bhavsaar has the holy name of Sree Maa and “devotees are asked to refer to them as a single entity Sree Maa Shri Ji.”

[2] The complaint relates to a Stuff article dated 31 July 2018 which the complainants say breaches NZ Media Council principles 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 11 and 12.Ordinarily the Media Council would expect a complaint to be lodged promptly after receipt of the publication’s initial response, however an exception has been made due to the effect of the article upon the complainants.[1]

[3] The article discusses the experiences of two now ex-members Ms Joy Kuo & Ms Iphigenie Amoutzias (the founders describe members as volunteers) who no longer associate with Kosmic Fusion and provides their account of the interactions that took place during their time as members of Kosmic Fusion.

[4] The key focus of this complaint centres around the accuracy or otherwise of the information provided by the two ex-members as well as current members including the founders to the journalists who authored the article.The article also includes commentary by two experts on cults.

[5] The article is titled Bad vibrations: The implosion of a New Age cult.



[1] “There has been considerable delay in raising this issue as me and my partner had to deal with the consequences of such a biased and unfair article, emotionally, mentally and physically.”

The Complaint

[6] The complainants suggest that NZ Media Council principle 1 has been breached, “The journalists have been very economical with truth and have misconstrued information in several statements to second their projection…The said article is biased right from the heading and further undermining all the facts I have provided.”

[7] There is further discussion by the complainants about bias, “There are several contradictions in the article which only proves our suspicion that the article is heavily biased… It is apparent from the presentation of the videos in the article itself that the narrative is biased as it gives 95% of the screen time to the duo and 10 seconds of badly edited clip to cover our answer.”

[8] The complainants say a lack of Accuracy, Fairness or Balance occurred in preparing the article, “We provided journalists with contacts to complete their fact check, however it appears they chose not to corroborate the facts.Further to which the sequence and timeline of various events is purposely skewed to give colour of ‘Cult’ to Kosmic Fusion.In fact, we shared contact details of all our volunteers who were willing to be interviewed independently however the journalists never contacted such individuals…”

[9] In relation to the principle of ‘Balance’ the complainants say “all statements received from current and former volunteers have been heavily shortened, while [the now ex-members] Ms Kuo & Ms Amoutzias have been given the biggest platform for their allegations, including getting “experts” to talk about their made up experiences – the individuals show strong signs of Narcissist Personality Disorder however no qualified psychologist was contacted in this coverage.”

[10] The complainants have stated that their privacy has been breached owing to the inclusion of their full legal names on more than one occasion.They say the ex-members have not had their full legal name used, “…one of the false accusers has only been referred to by a fake name ‘Ms Joy Kuo’…The other false accuser’s last name has been deliberately misspelled in order to hide them from search results.”The complainants say this privacy is emphasised as “we did not speak to the journalists in any other capacity except Sree Maa and Shri Ji...There was no consent taken from us to include our full names in the article, even though [one of the accusers] was apparently offered the option to use a fake moniker.”

[11] The complainants say they were not informed of the filming which occurred by Stuff, “The journalists started recording us without our consent.When we realised, they were recording us, we specifically told them not to use our videos in the article without our explicit consent.”The complainants say they were advised that they would be spoken to “about it later on before publishing it, but no such consent was taken before publishing the videos.”Moreover, “All video footage was heavily edited, including morphing of images and fake ‘re-enactments’ to further a false narrative.”

[12] Referring to the article headline, the complainants posit that NZ Media Council principle 6 has been breached, “The title of the article quoted “Bad Vibrations”, “New Age Cult”, “Gods’ fusion and disillusion” which labels us right from the beginning of the article and throughout the narration.”

[13] There have been a number of examples offered by the complainants relating to the breach of principle 7 ‘Discrimination and Diversity’.The primary focus for the purposes of this complaint centre around the reference toreligion, “The journalists have created highly disrespectful morphed video images.They have morphed the face of ‘Bhagwan Swaminarayan’ onto an image of Sree Maa.This is extremely insulting to the entire Swaminarayan sect, which has millions of devotees world-wide.There is a strong feeling by the complainants that the Swaminarayan sect has been unnecessarily entangled in the reporting on Kosmic Fusion, “The article was about Kosmic Fusion, not the Swaminarayan Sect, so it is completely inappropriate and offensive for the journalists to personally attack the religion and portray it like this.”

[14] The use of the image referred to above is also considered a breach of principle 11, “They have morphed the face of ‘Bhagwan Swaminarayan’ onto an image of Sree Maa.This is extremely insulting to the entire Swaminarayan sect, which has millions of devotees world-wide.”

[15] Throughout the complaint there is a request by the complainants that the NZ Media Council carry out its own independent enquiry vis-à-vis the allegations made by the ex-members.For the sake of clarity, this was not undertaken as this is not a function performed by this Council.Also, the amount of material provided by the complainants was substantial and there was further material provided post complaint.After careful consideration the additional material was not incorporated into this complaint as it did not add anything material to the original complaint and what was originally provided was more than sufficient to allow the Council to assess the alleged breaches of the Council’s principles.[2]


[2] The NZ Media Council has been sent more information leading up to the Council meeting of Monday 10 December.The Council has received additional material on 2 further occasions after the complaint was lodged by the complainants. We reviewed all of the material provided but arrived at the decision that it did not add further weight beyond the original complaint and the original supporting material. It would appear that this has been and may continue to be a long running dispute between the founders and the now ex-members.The Council can not be expected to become involved in a matter that has such conflicting views with such strongly disputed facts. As a Council we provide a forum to allow complaints to be lodged and considered but that does not extend to being sent more and more material by one side to the dispute on an ongoing basis.

The Response

[16] Responding on behalf of Stuff, Editor in Chief Patrick Crewdson has said “…the complaint can be boiled down to three key elements:

1) Mr Porumamilla doesn’t like Stuff’s portrayal of Kosmic Fusion as a cult; 2) doesn’t accept the validity of our sources; 3) believes we are biased.”

[17] Mr Crewdson has stated that the complainants were offered a fair opportunity to have their views and version of events heard and reported on, “We believe Mr Porumamilla’s complaint can be fairly characterised as the protest of someone who simply does not like how he and his organisation have been portrayed, and so will level every possible criticism to dispute it.”

[18] Addressing the breach of principle 1, Mr Crewdson disputes there has been a breach of Accuracy, Fairness or Balance, “Our reporters had no agenda going into this story, and they reported it fairly, accurately, with balance, and without any intention to smear Mr Porumamilla or Ms Bhavsaar.”On discussing ‘balance’ Mr Crewdson advises, “A repeated refrain from Mr Porumamilla is that we failed to contact prospective interviews he and his wife nominated.In fact, our reporters spoke with Renu Ryder, Sheree McRae and Ritu Bhargava.We also conducted a 90-minute interview with Mr Porumamilla and Ms Bhavsaar and exchanged multiple follow up emails.We considered this ample representation of the view of Kosmic Fusion and its supporters, and we formed the view that there was limited value in ‘patsy’ interviews…”

[19] In relation to the breach of ‘balance’ Mr Crewdson has explained how Stuff reached their conclusion in interviewing the two ex-members, “Our reporters interviewed Ms Kuo and Ms Amoutsias at length, and obtained information that corroborated their accounts.On balance, we found them persuasive.”

[20] The complaint included reference to the notion of bias within the article.Mr Crewdson has offered the following explanation in addressing this concern, “Mr Porumamilla complains that the story’s ‘script, storyline and conclusion is already premeditated by journalists to lead the reader in a certain direction’.Naturally, by the time of publication, the journalists had settled on framing and a narrative for their story.That does not equate to bias or a lack of balance.”Mr Crewdson added further comment, “We agree with Mr Porumamilla that all our material, including our video footage, was edited – but not to create a ‘false narrative’.”

[21] The article included the use of experts who commented on cults.Mr Crewdson stands by the inclusion of said experts, “Mr Porumamilla also repeatedly questions the credentials of our experts.Both experts have strong standing to comment on cults.Mark Vrankovich has run Cultwatch, recognised as the major cult clearinghouse, for a long time and has been used for expert comment by media for over a decade.Peter Lineham is a religious studies professor who again has often given expert media comment and has written books related to cults.”

[22] Mr Crewdson has offered an explanation of why Stuff has not entered into a line by line reply to the points raised by the complainants, “We don’t wish to mire the Media Council in a line-by-line assessment of the story, but neither do we wish the sheer number of Mr Porumamilla’s complaints to create the mistaken impression that the story is flawed, so we will address specific points.”For the sake of brevity with no intention of wanting to dismiss any crucial points NZ Media Council have included some of the key bullet points referred to by Stuff who have stated, “For the avoidance of doubt, we stand by all aspects of our story, including any criticisms not specifically addressed.”:

  • We did not misquote Ms Bhavsaar, Ms Ritu or Ms McRae. Those conversations were tape-recorded, and we have confirmed the accuracy of our quotes.
  • Use of words such as follower, member etc:

  • We have used clear, concise language easily understood by readers to explain what we found about his group.We think any neutral outsider would find nothing unusual about our word selection.Mr Porumamilla has taken this approach throughout – for example, he told us that the terms “Indian’ and ‘Hinduism’ were offensive and shouldn’t be used.
  • Narcissistic personality disorder – it is illogical for Mr Porumamilla to suggest we should have consulted medical experts to corroborate his amateur diagnosis.The onus of proof for such a claim – which was aired in the articleas a claim, not ignored – is on him.
  • Mr Porumamilla mentions statements he solicited and provided from his followers.We read these and, where they added new information, included it.Many were repetitive and did not add to the narrative, being principally long-winded exhortations of devotion to Mr Porumamilla and his wife.

[23] In response to the use of the complainants’ legal names, Mr Crewdson has advised thus, “There can be no breach of privacy in using Ms Bhavsaar and Mr Porumamilla’s legal names.There may be an arguable point of etiquette, but we also used their preferred monikers Sree Maa and Shri Ji.”In relation to the ex-members Mr Crewdson has said, “We did not employ a double standard with names ‘Joy Kuo’ is not a pseudonym; that is her anglicised name.We also cited her Kosmic Fusion name, Komal.If Iphigenie Amoutsias’s name was misspelt (and she has not complained as such herself), that was inadvertent.”

[24] In relation to the matter involving the filming of the complainants, Mr Crewdson has said that there “was absolutely no covert action in our filming of Ms Bhavsaar and Mr Porumamilla.Our visual journalist set up his camera – with lights and a tripod – in their small living room.It is inconceivable that the couple were not aware that they were being filmed. In fact, at one stage in the process, Mr Bhavsaar turned to the camera and addressed Stuff’s audience directly down the lens.”

[25] For the sake of clarity in relation to principle 4, Mr Crewdson has advised, “There is no inappropriate mingling of factual information and comment or opinion in this feature.”

[26] Principle 6 relates to Headlines.The headline Bad Vibrations was a “pop culture reference nodding to the Beach Boy’s song Good Vibrations” and is deemed by Mr Crewdson as being “entirely fitting for a story about a dispute within a spiritual organisation where one of the leaders claims to control the ‘Quantum Vortex Scalar Wave Proton Pulse – the ‘mother of all frequencies, energies and vibrations.”

[27] There was reference by the complainants that Stuff had breached principle 7 ‘Discrimination and Diversity’, “Mr Porumamilla repeatedly suggests that our reporting and the design and layout of our feature has unfairly denigrated his religion.We submit that this is based on a misinterpretation of what it means for publications to refrain from religious discrimination…complicating matters, Mr Porumamilla conflates the Swaminarayan sect with the Kosmic Fusion cult.We haven’t questioned the Swaminarayan movement in the story and have not suggested it is a cult.It is our position that Swaminarayan movement and Kosmic Fusion are two discrete organisations – Sree Maa is claiming she is ‘channelling’ Swaminarayan himself and that she possesses the ability to channel a healing wave.These positions take Kosmic Fusion away from a standard Swaminarayan following as we understand it and therefore into a standing as a separate group.We were writing about Kosmic Fusion, not Swaminarayan.”

[28] Mr Crewdson has offered a simple response to the matter involving principle 11 which covers the graphic design of the feature, “We stand by it.”

[29] Responding to the suggested breach of principle 12 ‘Corrections’ Mr Crewdson has stated “We have not made any corrections because none are required.”

The Decision

[30] In determining whether NZ Media Council principle 1 has been breached, the Council must give due consideration whether the article has deliberately misled or misinformed readers by commission or omission.The complainants have suggested that the article lacks balance and that there is an inherent bias that runs throughout the article based on the level of interaction and engagement by the journalists with the ex-members, the founders and additional members referred by the founders.In deciding whether a breach of principle 1 has occurred or not the Council takes into consideration the information provided in the complaint as well as the response to the complaint by the newspaper.There was a request by the complainants that the Media Council carry out its own independent research to ascertain the validity of the points raised; that is not a function of this Council as the complaint is against the newspaper who provides a response to all points raised.Representing Stuff, Mr Crewdson has addressed the concerns raised by the complainants relating to the breach of principle 1.Taking into consideration all of the information that has been provided the Council finds that there was sufficient opportunity offered to both the ex-members as well as the founders and the additional people who offered testimonials.In conclusion, the Council is of the view that principle 1 has not been breached.

Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance – Not upheld.

[31] There has been concern raised in relation to the breach of privacy which falls under NZ Media Council principle 2.The complainants say there have been two breaches, the first relates to the use of their full legal names.Turning to this matter first, the Council has taken into consideration the information provided relating to this.Based on the information provided by the complainants it would appear that no breach of this principle has occurred as it is usual for the full legal names of a party to be used in reporting.In considering the second prong to this complaint which concerns the filming of the interview it appears that there is a misunderstanding about the use of the filmed material.Mr Porumamilla says that they agreed to the filming but expected to be contacted and informed of the use of the material.Mr Crewdson has advised that the founders were well aware that filming was taking place as one of the founders turned to the camera and addressed Stuff’s audience directly down the lens and it follows that the filmed material was to be made public as a part of this article.

Principle 2: Privacy – Not upheld.

[32] Principle 6 covers Headlines and Captions.The use of the article title ‘Bad Vibrations’ was premised on the Beach Boy’s song ‘Good Vibrations’.There is a correlation to be drawn based on the title of both the song and the headline with the use of the word ‘vibration’ and the Council acknowledges there has been journalistic licence with a play on words but that the play on words does not constitute a breach of principle 6 on this occasion.

Principle 6: Headlines and Captions – Not upheld.


[33] When deciding if discrimination has occurred the Council is guided by the content of principle 7.The key deciding factors include the idea that religion among other subjects are ‘legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest.’The caution that is applied is that ‘gratuitous emphasis’ must not be placed on any such category.There is a clear misunderstanding between the founders and Stuff about what is being reported on and whether there has been a cross reference between the information relating to Kosmic Fusion being labelled a cult and the existence of the religion referred to in the complaint as Swaminarayan movement.The NZ Media Council are charged with establishing whether there has been gratuitous emphasis applied and, in this matter, this has not been established.

Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity – Not upheld.

[34] Mr Porumamilla feels very strongly that the image used by Stuff was highly inappropriate and moreover unnecessarily disrespectful.As set out in principle 11 editors have a responsibility in the selection of images.The Council have given consideration to the use of the image but on balance do not find that this principle has been breached on the basis that the image selected depicted a key characteristic of the article.

Principle 11: Photographs and Graphics – Not upheld.

[35] Some time has passed since the article was first published online. An exception has been made to allow a late filing of this complaint and while there is an onus on the publication to promptly correct errors this is now a moot point in relation to this matter.

Principle 12: Corrections – Not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.