CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY AGAINST WOMAN'S DAYThe Church of Scientology of New Zealand complained to the Press Council that articles in two issues of Woman’s Day were unfairly biased and unbalanced on the subject of Scientology.
The complaint about the articles is not upheld. A complaint about a misleading headline is upheld.
The March 15, 2010 issue of Woman’s Day contained articles and pictures of actor Katie Holmes, wife of actor Tom Cruise. The cover stated Katie forced into Scientology boot camp and the article was headed Katie is sent to baby boot camp. The essence of the article was that Ms Holmes had agreed to attend the “baby boot camp” in preparation for a second child but she had one condition.
Mike Ferriss, the church’s New Zealand secretary, complained in a letter to the editor of Woman’s Day dated April 8 that the cover heading was misleading because the article reported Ms Holmes had agreed to go to a church programme and was not forced.
There was no such thing as a “baby boot camp” programme in Scientology, and the article’s description of a Scientology practice called auditing was incorrect and misleading.
The article had also said the actor would be expected to follow the sect’s “Clear Body, Clear Mind” plan, which involved “rigorous exercise, sauna sessions and vitamins and minerals to cleanse the body of ‘toxins.’ ”
This was not factual and also misleading. The plan was a purification programme and under the church’s rules, a pregnant woman was not allowed to do it.
The April 12 article was headed As Tom’s Scientology cult crumbles . . . Katie takes control. The article said that Mr Cruise’s world was crashing about him because Scientology was being attacked after a spate of damaging claims around the world.
It went on to say the actor was believed to hold “the revered second-in-command position in the controversial cult” and he was facing pressure to manage the bad publicity following the allegations of abuse and fraud. His wife, however, was blooming, taking charge of the family and ensuring the children, including those from his previous marriage, were calm and happy.
Mr Ferriss complained that Mr Cruise held no ecclesiastical position in the church and did not manage any aspect of the church or its affairs, including publicity.
The article had quoted recent negative events and controversies surrounding Scientology including a French court decision, a New York Times article and an Australian Four Corners television programme, but sought no response from the church on any of these, making the reporting biased and unfair.
A section of the article headed Scientology Explained was full of “strange and incorrect information that is a mockery of Scientology.” None of the information came from an official Scientology source, he said.
Lack of balance and the reporting of one-sided and negative and false information were emphasised by Mr Ferriss in his complaint to the editor and later to the Press Council. The magazine routinely did not invite any comments from the church or any authoritative source, a pattern extending back for a considerable period.
The church had written to the magazine on several occasions. On November 19, 2009, following a telephone conversation, Paul Dykzeul, the chief executive, had responded that ACP, publisher of the magazine, did not set out to denigrate the church. Most of the articles were sourced from overseas. The chief executive acknowledged Mr Ferriss’s concerns and said they would bear them in mind in the future.
In his response, Malcolm Swan, New Zealand general counsel for ACP Media Ltd, said Woman’s Day prided itself on the standard of its journalism and quality of stories.
“Having said that, it is widely understood that women’s weekly genre magazines do focus on local and overseas celebrities and many of its stories are understandably more sensational. The objective of the magazine is to entertain and report on celebrity gossip and other human interest stories.”
Readership data showed readers were very interested in the relationship of Ms Holmes and Mr Cruise and the impact of the church on it, especially given the bad press the church had received in Australia and overseas.
Mr Swan said the church had written on numerous occasions and, on all but one occasion when the editor was overseas on extended leave, they had been responded to. The persistent complaints had become tiresome.
At no point in any of the stories had the New Zealand church been mentioned. All of the stories had been sourced from overseas reporting on overseas church activities, particularly the US. The magazine had never purported to describe the workings of the New Zealand church, and had published the articles verbatim on the understanding that the sources were genuine and contents accurate.
Comment from local churches on international stories was not possible on occasions because of deadline pressures, nor was it relevant.
The heading in the April 12 issue about Mr Cruise’s Scientology cult crumbling and Ms Holmes taking charge was not misleading and, as the article was written in Australia for an Australian magazine, they saw no need to contact the New Zealand church for comment.
The March 15 headline about the “baby boot camp” was editorial licence to describe a rigorous cleansing regime practised by the church in the US. Again, the article was from overseas and published in good faith and the sources were believed to be genuine.
Mr Swan said the magazine did not set out to denigrate the church in New Zealand and did not believe the articles were unfair or biased, given the nature of the magazine “and the recent world wide scandal and negativity surrounding the church.”
Further Comments from the Complainant
In his response, Mr Ferriss disputed Woman’s Day had responded to correspondence when the NZ church attempted to correct inaccurate information. While Woman’s Day had not covered the New Zealand church, it had covered Scientology often within the context of celebrity gossip. Because it was sold in New Zealand, it had an impact on readers as well as the local Scientology community – “we do hold the same beliefs as our overseas churches.”
It was good journalistic practice to check facts, especially when the church had pointed out inaccuracies. Deadline issues were not an excuse, degrading the profession of journalism and making it appear irresponsible and careless.
The New Zealand church was not acting for Scientology celebrities, it was concerned only about accuracy when reporting on Scientology and its practices.
There are several elements to this complaint.
The Press Council has debated before the question of ensuring accuracy when articles are sourced from overseas. It is not reasonable to expect publications to have to do so when sources are considered reliable. The magazine says this applies here.
The New Zealand church had asked that it be given a chance to respond to claims before publication but, given the acknowledged international sourcing of the stories and the fact that they were mainly about celebrities, there seemed no good reason to do so, although the magazine editors should have been aware of the New Zealand church’s claims of past inaccuracies.
Both the New Zealand church and ACP Media agree that the church has made complaints about Woman’s Day’s coverage of Scientology celebrity stories – to the point of becoming tiresome, according to Mr Swan.
There is inconsistency in the magazine’s attitude to the complaints, however. The chief executive had said last November in direct response to one such complaint that the church’s concerns were noted and they would bear them in mind for future publications. The response of Mr Swan, the legal adviser, indicates a quite different attitude.
Nevertheless, with a story written by sources considered reliable in another country about international figures, it seems a step too far to have to take local sensibilities into account, even if the readership is local.
There is little doubt that the celebrity aspect is the main interest of the magazine, that is, the actors themselves, their relationship and their association with the church. Mr Swan stands by the standard of Woman’s Day’s journalism but asks the Press Council to take into account the genre of women’s magazines and reporting of “celebrity gossip” which, taken literally, means what is reported may be groundless.
The Council has debated this point before - Case 1060, which also involved Woman’s Day. In that case, the complaint involved misleading cover headlines and, by a 7-4 majority, the Council upheld a complaint of inaccuracy on Principles 1 and 10.
In the meantime, the Council has amended its Statement of Principles and genre of publication can be taken into account in its deliberations. In some circumstances, the publication of gossip in magazines that deal in “celebrity” gossip openly so that the ordinary reader would be aware of its reputation, would not warrant a reprimand on the ground of accuracy.
Much of both articles fall into this category. The presentation of the articles and pictures are sensational and typical of gossip magazines, as is the writing. The March 15 article is speculative and contains vague attributions to a “source,” “reports” or an “insider.” The April 12 article is largely a mixture of observations and speculation based on public sightings of Ms Holmes and Mr Cruise’s children, reported issues involving the church published or broadcast elsewhere and a quote from a South Australian senator.
The Press Council believes an ordinary reader of Woman’s Day, knowing its genre, would therefore view the articles and their lack of confirmed substance presented in a sensational manner as largely gossip and would judge them accordingly.
The secondary article on Scientology itself in the April 12 issue is more worrying. It is presented as fact and purports to present some detail of Scientology and how cult members should behave. Mr Ferriss disputed its accuracy. But he offered little or no alternative documentary material of the correct position. The Council therefore is unable to make judgment.
Nevertheless, the Press Council believes there are limits to which a “gossip” magazine can claim latitude or “editorial licence,” as Mr Swan put it. One such limit is where there are contradictions between heading and text. Such an instance exists here.
The headline, Katie forced into Scientology baby boot camp, is contradicted, as Mr Ferriss pointed out, in the first paragraph of the March 15 story which began: “Katie Holmes has agreed to attend Scientology baby boot camp in preparation for a second child, but she has one condition.”
The facts as presented by Woman’s Day indicate the actor was not forced into the programme. The headline is misleading, as is the stand-first above the first paragraph. The latter talks about the star having a “few conditions,” the introduction reports on only one.
The Church of Scientology of New Zealand’s complaints about the articles on the grounds of accuracy and being misleading are not upheld on the grounds that it is clear the articles are gossip and can not bear a strict test of accuracy.
The complaint about the headline, Katie forced into Scientology baby boot camp, is upheld on the grounds that it does not reflect the article.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.