Case Number: 3358

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact

Ruling Categories: Bias
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Unfair Coverage


[1] Henry McLean has complained about two stories published on July, 25 and July 26, 2022 on RNZ’s website. The stories carried the headings Ex-Plymouth Brethren Christian Church members call for its charitable status to be stripped and Former Exclusive Brethren members detail the church’s money-go-round. Mr McLean maintains that the stories breach NZMC Principles (1), Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and (4), Comment and Fact. The complaint is not upheld. 

The Article

[2] Both stories are investigations into the financial affairs and charitable status of the Plymouth Brethren Church, an international organisation. Investigative journalist Nicky Hagar shares a byline on both stories with an RNZ staff reporter. The first story relies on several unnamed former church members as well as the complainant’s brother, Rob McLean, who is named and photographed and is also a former member of the church. Rob McLean talks about how he was asked to take large sums of money from New Zealand to give to the head of the church in the US. Other former members spoke of the pressure to donate to church boss Bruce Hales, as well as a network of charitable organisations which they claimed weren’t really charities because funds were funnelled back to church members exclusively and the organisations functioned as tax shields. The second story expands on the first story with allegations that church members are coerced into buying goods and services from leading NZ companies which in turn give money back to the church. The story quotes unnamed former members who claim among other things church leader Bruce Hales has set himself and the church up to profit from members’ business interests at the expense of the NZ taxpayer.


The Complaint

[3] Under Principle (1) Mr McLean states that describing the church as a cult is a “deliberate and malicious attempt” to smear church members. Specifically Mr McLean believes the “smear” translates to himself belonging to a “nefarious organisation” that is controlled by Bruce Hales, a “non divine person”. A diagram that accompanied the story was inaccurate because it stated that Mr Hales controlled a number of Brethren organisations. 

[4] Church spokesman Doug Watt was given only nine lines of text in the stories which amounted to 95 percent “attack” and 5 percent “defence”. The money given back to the church from New Zealand businesses were rebates not “kickbacks” which was a “malicious attempt to imply dodgy arrangements”. Mr McLean also detailed other points in the story which he claimed were inaccurate including a statement that every Monday employees at Brethren companies 
“religiously” watched a church produced production called ``Silver Bulletin”. That was an exaggeration and using the word “religiously” was a “mocking and unnecessary” slant against Christian beliefs. Stating that Brethren were not free to choose and were used as “cash cows” by their leaders was an “insulting lie”. Nobody but “traitors” would be interested in the story which was “pure envy and revenge bile”. A quote from the story stating that church members had to go to expensive business meetings across New Zealand, that older Brethren were depressed because they know “it’s all wrong” and church connections were used to run businesses and control people was “made up BS from a demented grot”.

The Response

[5] In response, RNZ said while it acknowledged Mr McLean’s concerns that did not mean that RNZ was in breach of the Council’s principles. RNZ did not agree with the “gist” of the complaint. Regarding use of the word “cult” or “cult-like”, RNZ observed that a relevant dictionary definition of the word refers to a system of "religious beliefs or practices" and that combined with the reality of Bruce Hales’ close involvement in the organisations spoken of, is a reasonable representation.

[6] The Media Council does not call for “stopwatch” or “word count” journalism when considering balance in articles. “It is enough to alert readers that there is more than one significant point of view on a controversial issue of public importance, and in these two articles, a number of people were interviewed for their perspectives.”

[7] Regarding use of “kickback” rather than “rebate” again RNZ notes that these words are used to describe slightly different circumstances and RNZ notes that the payments made by suppliers under the arrangements reported did not go back to the originating companies so are strictly not a "rebate".

[8] There was no evidence provided by the complainant to support the allegation that former Brethren Rob McLean’s comments in the stories were lies.

The Discussion

[9] It is not uncommon for a party or parties to feel aggrieved if they or the organisation of which they are a member are the subject of hard hitting stories or indeed an expose. But feeling aggrieved does not necessarily translate to a breach of any Media Council principles, as RNZ points out in its response. The Council understands that it might be confronting for members of an exclusive group, such as the Brethren, to read about former members’ views and the way the group operates but that doesn’t prevent the media from reporting stories of public interest and undertaking investigations such as the one complained about. In a free and open society the media has every right to report on all aspects of a society or a community as they see fit.

[10] The Council does not agree with Mr McLean that RNZ sought to deliberately smear either Mr McLean or anyone of the Christian faith by referring to the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church as a cult or cult like. As RNZ says, a dictionary definition is a reasonable representation of the church with its members' apparent devotion to Christ and Mr Hales as the figurehead or “Elect Vessel”. By its very nature the church is exclusive therefore it is not open to or necessarily trusting of the wider population. This together with the complainant's reference to former members as “traitors” gives a strong impression of a closed off, cult-like organisation with its own beliefs, social mores, rules and regulations.
[11] In a similar vein Mr McLean says use of the term “kickback” instead of rebate is malicious. The Council does not agree. The term is used by an insurance broker source in the story to describe a scheme where money is given back to the church by companies as a reward for custom. The money is tax deductible and goes into the church’s coffers. RNZ rightly argues that the money was not strictly a rebate because it did not go back to the original businesses, rather the church as a whole. Regardless, the Council’s view is that the term was appropriate when used within the context of the story.

[12] Mr McLean also complains that stating that the congregation “religiously” watch a business programme was deliberately mocking. The Council does not agree as the term religiously, in this context, implies consistency or repetition. Brethren were described in the story by former members as having no “free will’’ and being “cash cows”. Mr McLean’s view is that is untrue, however the descriptions were those of former members who made those claims to a journalist. 
They have every right to make honestly held claims in the context of a news story and the Church had every right to counter them but they chose not to be interviewed, opting instead for emailed questions and anodyne answers.

[13] Both stories go into some detail about Brethren owned businesses, donations, and what is described as a money-go-round with the beneficiaries being church members and Mr Hales himself. Mr McLean says this is untrue but he provides no evidence to back up his claim. On balance RNZ has quoted several sources in the guise of former church members including, apparently, Mr McLean’s brother and all say otherwise. In the face of a lack of evidence to the 
contrary, the Council is unable to rule that the story is inaccurate on that basis or any other.

[14] The complainant believes the story is unbalanced because the church spokesperson does not have an equal voice within the story. Addressing the concept of balance, RNZ notes that the Council does not call for “stopwatch” or “word count” journalism when considering balance in articles. He is correct. The reader is aware of a counter view provided by spokesperson Doug Watt. The Council notes that the Church chose not to put forward a spokesperson for a face-to-face or telephone interview, opting instead for emailed questions. The Council believes that organisations fare better when they take an opportunity to be interviewed. Emailed questions are an attempt by an interview subject to limit the scope, clarity and nuance of an interview which the Council believes is detrimental to both parties.

[15] Decision: The complaint is not upheld.

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Jonathan Mackenzie, Scott Inglis, Tim Watkin, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, , Marie Shroff, Alison Thom and Richard Pamatatau. 


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