TL: Nick, what does the standard against gratuitous vilification actually say?
NH: Well, the standard requires that a broadcaster can't transmit a program which is ... gratuitously vilifies any person or group on the basis of their ethnicity, nationality, their race, gender, sexual preference, religion or physical or mental disability.
TL: What does 'gratuitous' mean?
NH: Well, 'gratuitous', I think, carries with it the concept that there will be occasions when some sort of vilification may be justified in certain circumstances. So 'gratuitous' means that it was unwarranted.
TL: But in this case, of the criticism of the so-called Church of Scientology, the criticism was made, as I understand it, by a former member, and was therefore hardly gratuitous.
NH: Well, the circumstances that we looked at, we'd received a number of complaints from the Church of Scientology - and let me add that the High Court of Australia has in fact found the Church of Scientology to be a religion under Australian law, so it's not a case of calling it the "so-called Church of Scientology" ...
TL: I think that - Let me just say in my defence here, I am aware of this, but as a person who takes the term 'church' seriously, I will persist in referring to it as the "so-called Church" or even the "bogus Church" of Scientology.
NH: [momentary pause] Okay, I accept that, but we did take into account the ruling of the High Court in considering this complaint. So we considered complaints about a number of broadcasts on 3-RRR from the Church of Scientology about comments by the compere of the Liars' Club and some of the guests on the program. Many of these were critical of the Church of Scientology - highly critical, in fact - and, while the ABA agreed that a lot of it was undoubtedly offensive to Scientologists, most of it didn't amount to gratuitous vilification. But in this one instance, the one broadcast which contained, as you said, an interview with a person who said they had previously been a member of the Church, in which he made some very sweeping critical claims about the Church of Scientology in Australia and internationally, including making a comparison between Scientology and Nazism. Now, these comments on their own probably wouldn't have amounted to gratuitous vilification, if it wasn't for the fact that the interviewer appeared to endorse and support the comments, rather than offer any countervailing view.
TL: But Nick, what if the so-called Church is like the Nazi Party of Germany? Are you still not permitted to say it?
NH: Well, what we're saying is that, in certain circumstances, I mean, if that comparison is a valid one or that's someone's opinion, in this circumstance the interviewer made that comparison, but the interviewer appeared to go beyond the role of a broadcaster in presenting both sides of the story, or even to be robust in their criticism, but to endorse what appeared to the authority to be extreme views, and in by doing that stepped over the line into gratuitous vilification.
TL: How is it decided? When you receive a complaint from a so-called Church and you then have to consider that complaint, how do you do it?
NH: Well, all complaints that we receive, we have to investigate. We have no choice in that. We receive a complaint, we listen to the broadcast concerned, we consider the broadcast against the standards or the relevant code of practice ...
TL: Who is 'we'?
NH: Well, the Broadcasting Authority does. That's what ... (pause)
TL: Which is? What people make up that group?
NH: Well, it's the ... the Broadcasting Authority consists of a board of three full-time members and one part-time member, and the Authority as a whole makes the decision on whether or not a complaint is justified.
TL: What penalties can you impose on a radio station? Can you deprive them of their licence?
NH: In an extreme case we could possibly deprive them of their licence, but that's ... it would have to be a very, very serious matter to make the Authority take that step. And there are, before that, I mean, we could make, say, for example, compliance with a code of practice a condition on their licence, or take other administrative steps to ensure that the broadcaster understood what the relevant standard was or the relevant code of practice was, and had taken appropriate steps to ensure that there was no repeat of the broadcast.
TL: What I find difficult to understand, Nick, is why you would take action to defend an organisation which has been subject to investigation and report and, at one time, banning in three states in Australia, its leaders have been imprisoned in a number of different places in the world, the American Internal Revenue Service has accused the Church, or the so-called Church, of tax fraud, in Spain it's been investigated and it has been denied status as a religion, in Germany they've been investigated and accused of infiltrating political parties, in Canada nine of its members were prosecuted for stealing Government documents ... why would you feel that you should use the majesty of the Australian Broadcasting Authority to defend such an organisation?
NH: Well, let me make it clear: we're not setting out to defend the Church of Scientology. That's not what we're here for. But they, as any other group in this, in our society, have a right to make a complaint about a broadcast, and we have a duty to consider that complaint against the appropriate standard. Now, that's what we did. We're not endorsing or defending the particular actions of the Church, but we are ... of Scientology, but we are giving them their right for us to consider their complaint.
TL: But did you try to determine whether or not the Nazi analogy was appropriate? Or did you just assume to call people Nazi-like is in itself vilification and indefensible?
NH: Well, it wasn't the fact that the comparison was made on its own, it was the combination of that with the endorsement of the broadcaster of the time, which made us make the decision that we did. As I said before, the courts in Australia have ruled that the Church of Scientology is a religion within the meaning of the law, and we weren't trying to discriminate against the Church of Scientology as a particular religion. I guess we had to put ourselves in the place of thinking, "well, whatever the community may think about the Church of Scientology, it is considered legally to be a religion." And if similar comments in the same circumstances were made about any other religion, we felt it would have amounted to gratuitous vilification.
TL: I really doubt that. I mean, I've lost count of the number of times, for instance, that Pope Pius XII has been accused of being anti-Semitic and a Nazi sympathiser, and I doubt that the ABA would rise up to defend the reputation of Pope Pius XII.
NH: Well ... Let me say again, it's not the fact that criticism is made, or that a comparison is made on its own. If in that particular broadcast that comparison had been made, and there had been some attempt by the broadcaster to present an opposing view or to give the impression that the broadcaster didn't agree with the view or endorse the view, which were extreme views, then probably the ABA wouldn't have found that it had amounted to gratuitous vilification.
TL: Yeah, but the point I'm trying to get at, Nick, is, what if the analogy is a true analogy? Now, here's a sentence from the report of the man who conducted the enquiry into Scientology in Victoria - admittedly a long time ago, I was surprised to see it was 1965 - but he concluded: "People accept the fantasy of Scientology theories because they have been processed and have become mentally crippled." Now, you could substitute the word "Nazi" for "Scientology" there, and the sentence still makes sense: "People accept the fantasy of Nazi theories because they have been processed and have become mentally crippled." So in that sense - and as I understand it, the man on the RRR program was making exactly this point - in that sense that Scientology, like the National Socialist Party, uses methods of mind control and distortion to control its adherents, the so-called Church of Scientology is like the National Socialist Party of Germany. Why should a person not be entitled to say it?
NH: Well, let me again make clear: it's not a question of us trying to stop people saying that. What we're concerned with is the responsibility of the broadcaster to present a range of views and not appear to be endorsing what we felt to be extreme views; they could present those views and present them as the views of someone who is strongly critical of the Church of Scientology. When the ABA wasn't and isn't about trying to stop people expressing themselves on the radio or television or expressing those views, but the standard that we're dealing with, essentially, goes to tempering the right of free speech with some protection against gratuitously vilifying someone on the basis of their religion or their sexual preference or the range of other matters that I discussed before.
TL: Yeah, but the point that I'm making is that it's not gratuitous, it is considered, and it has some basis in fact. Why should there not be a consistency of opinion between the management of the station, the presenter of the program and the guest on the program on this particular issue? I would think that you would expect, for instance, that the management of the ABC, me as a presenter and any guest that I would be likely to have would be in agreement that the Australian League of Rights is a Nazi-like organisation, because we know that they are anti-Semitic. I can't see that you would find that exceptionable in any way. So if the management of RRR, the presenter of a programme and the guest of a programme are coincident in their opinion that Scientology is like the Nazi Party, why should that be considered to be gratuitous vilification?
NH: Well, because, I mean, you've got to look at it in the context of the programme. As I said, there are other broadcasts which presented equally strong material but which the ABA felt didn't amount to gratuitous vilification because the presenter of the programme didn't go so far as to appear to endorse the views. Now, I mean, the programmes concerned were fairly strongly critical of the Church of Scientology, but we felt in the context of that whole programme, the combination of the views being put by the interviewee with the endorsement of the presenter of the programme appeared to us to amount to gratuitous vilification. Now, I mean, this is the first such decision that the ABA has made, and it was not an easy one to make, I'll grant you that. And the broadcast industry will have to consider this decision and look to the way it presents news and current affairs. But it's a question of balancing the right of everyone to free speech against affording some protection to individuals or groups in the society against being gratuitously vilified.
TL: Did you consider the fact that Scientology is called a church, and has been deemed to be a church by the High Court, really is a legal fiction; that what the High Court said was that the government has no business in defining what is a religion - if people say they're a religion, they're a religion?
NH: [pause] Um, well ...
TL: Which leaves the field pretty wide-open. I mean, it really does mean that pretty much anyone can call themselves a religion, and the Scientologists have taken advantage of that.
NH: Well, the High Court did decide that the Church of Scientology was a religion, and it's not our role as the ABA to try and argue against the signings of the High Court; I mean, we're a statutory authority, and we're bound by the rulings of the court. So we took into consideration what the ruling of the court was in relation to the Church of Scientology.
TL: What penalty hangs over the head of RRR now?
NH: Well, in this case ... What we've said to the station is that, because it was the first time that we had made a decision in relation to interpreting this standard, and that the station had viewed the matter seriously, that we weren't going to take any action in this instance; but that if there were further instances, then we'd have to consider, y'know, what ...
1996: The Church of Scientology formally complained to the ABC about the above broadcast. If the ABC doesn't act on the complaint within sixty days, it bounces to the ABA for consideration. Fun fun fun!
1998: Looks like the above complaint went nowhere. Funny, that.