That would have been the end of it expect for the fact that the ruling was the first one concerning religious vilification by a media outlet. Triple R management denied the ABA had any influence over the decision to axe the program as this was a decision that came about as a general review of all programs. It was simply unfortunate that the timing of the two coincided on the same day leaving the presenters staggered, and media-watchers scratching their heads.
ABA spokesman Donald Robertson expressed to 'The Australian' (March 8) that a guest on the September 3 show last year made comments found to be "extreme" and also appeared to have the support of the interviewers. "In the ABA's view, it amounted to a breach of the program's standard relating to gratuitous vilification" he said.
The ramifications of the decision are grave. Can the Catholic church now claim to be vilified because a negative view is presented in the media regarding some of the activities of their priests who have been charged for paedophilia activities? Can a prisoner listening on the prison radio to an interview involving his victim scream about vilification because a negative view is being presented? The possibilities are endless. One must bear in mind that at no point was the religious belief of Scientology questioned or criticised, only the activities of the group. Interestingly the ABA didn't take into account whether the comments made on the Triple R broadcast had any substance, even though the 'Radio Program Standards' bible which guided the un-named investigators clearly states, "A licensee must ensure that - factual material is presented accurately and that reasonable efforts are made to correct substantial errors of fact".
The ruling has now opened a Pandora's box for radio and television on where criticism falls over the line and becomes vilification. To gain an insight into the ABA's criteria of this, it is important to study this test case and it's circumstances, and the response of the Triple R management to accept the decision readily.
The Church of Scientology picked up comments regarding their activities early in the piece, and formally requested a right of reply. This eventually led to full scale debate in September 1993 involving church representatives, ex-members and visiting American author and cult expert, Steve Hassan. Apart from a lot of shouting from both sides, nobody really won the debate and all went their way with views unchanged. Further comments mentioning Scientology were often in the form of news pieces read from papers to which the church continued to demand right of reply. At one point, a delegation of two church members turned up at Triple R presenting a complaint to former station manager Lucille Rogers about allegations of harassment of Scientology by 'The Liars' Club'.
It should be noted that the church has a long history of attempting to intimidate critics, usually by litigation. The U.S. Society of Professional Journalists publication, 'Quill', Vol. 81 No.9, 1993, ran an article by Robert Vaughn Young, a former Scientologist who handled the church's media and PR for twenty years before jumping ship and revealing the tactics utilised against critics, especially media. "Scientology stands ready and able to unleash an assault on the journalist that can include private detectives and lawsuits, making it little wonder that publications have grown reluctant to write about the Hubbard empire" he said. Scientology founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard issued an edict to followers on how to handle critical journalists. "The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorised, will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease, if possible, of course, ruin him utterly".
ABC's Terry Laidler (3LO), when discussing a forum on free speech recently, told participants not to mention the name of the church when discussing 'The Liars' Club' case. Asked later why he made such a request, Laidler said he was joking. But he may as well not have been. Many journalists who have written on Scientology and spoken to for this article did not want to be quoted and had a 'gutful' of threats of litigation passed to their editors and publishers. Radio National presenter Terry Lane covered the issue (March 17) and invited 'Time' journalist Richard Behar to participate without success. Behar was responsible for the most thorough expose so far of the church's activities in 1991 (The Cult of Greed) for 'Time'. He claims to being hounded ever since. Paranoia and fear have also hit many other publications who have published stories critical of Scientology. That media fear exists is no exaggeration.
Although banned in the state of Victoria in 1965 after a Board of Inquiry into the church's activities led by Justice Kevin Anderson, a High Court decision recognised them as a religion in 1983. In recent weeks, a German court found the church to be a 'business' rather than a religion. Likewise, a judicial judgement has just been brought down in The Hague (Netherlands) courts against Scientology attempts to squash discussion on the Internet.
Only the September 3 program was found in breach of 'Radio Program Standard 3 (RPS 3') which states - a licensee may not transmit a program which; (a) is likely to incite or perpetuate hatred against, or (b) gratuitously vilifies - any person or group on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, race gender, sexual preference, religion or physical or mental disability'.
The September 3 program featured an interview with Cyril Vosper, a former Scientologist, who was organising a public demonstration outside the church's Melbourne headquarters. This was part of a world-wide campaign highlighting the battle between Scientology and Internet users disseminating information which Scientology claims is copyright material. Vosper related his personal experience with Scientology and stated that "there is a lot in common between Nazism and the Scientologists, believe you me". This appears to be the "extreme" comment the ABA found offensive and to have the support of the presenters. Their own report does not indicate this, in fact, it clearly states, "... cannot be said to be sufficient to be likely to incite or perpetuate hatred against the church of Scientology or Scientologists in a hypothetical listener from a Sunday morning broad community audience in suburban Melbourne in 1995". The report continues that the presenters did not agree with Vosper's "Nazi" claim, and indeed stated "That's a pretty heavy claim" as a non-acceptance of Vosper's view. Anyone listening to Nick Herd being interviewed by Terry Lane would have been in little doubt that the 'Nazi' remark was the rod that wielded the vilification stick. He said, "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". Yet the report states a countervailing view was presented. Did Herd read the report? Indeed his own comments on Lane's program may open him to a serious breach of his own company rules, let alone libelling the presenter of 'The Liars' Club' for attributing remarks which were not stated. The ABA report found that general remarks indicated "Sympathies clearly lay with Mr. Vosper and that he (Joseph) endorsed or agreed with a number of Mr. Vosper's views including that Mr. Vosper's first marriage had been completely destroyed by Scientology; that the situation with Scientology was a serious one, though not as serious as the civil war in Bosnia; and that Scientology "has been called mind control" and all sorts of things". The fact that some esteemed courts have linked "mind control" to Scientology didn't seem to have any weight in the investigators analysis.
As this was the first case of religious vilification against a radio station, Triple R management had no idea how to respond, nor if and what kind of penalty was to be dispensed after the final ABA ruling was brought down. A covering letter invited further comments the station proposed to take in respect of the breaches. After learning 'The Liars' Club' was suspended for four weeks over the matter, but would not return after that, the ABA publicly stated that no further action would be taken. 'No further action' would indicate to the interested observer the axing of 'The Liars' Club' was 'action' taken, although the ABA never stipulated that particular action, which leaves one to ponder what action would have been considered. Could the ABA revoke Triple R's licence? Indeed they could. Or impose a hefty penalty which a public broadcaster such as Triple R could ill afford.
The actions of the ABA in this matter open a minefield of questions for commercial and community radio and television operators to contemplate. The fact that the church of Scientology was involved, with its record of harassment of media, comes as no surprise. What is more concerning is the criteria used by the ABA which will be seen as the precedent of future actions against media who involve themselves in critical comment. Religious vilification would certainly have been an issue if the beliefs of a group were constantly attacked in a democratic society. This has not been the issue on this occasion, rather, the right to be critical of the actions of a group that possibly infringe on individuals liberties. If a one hour weekly program promoting critical thinking and exposing exploitative groups on a public radio station can be silenced, how does this bode other media outlets with resources and larger listening bases to involve in analysis without stepping over the line?
the Manager, 3RRR-FM, 25 Victoria St. Fitzroy VIC 3065.
Peter Webb, Chairman, Australian Broadcasting Authority, Level 15 Darling Park, 201 Sussex Street, Sydney NSW 2000.
Senator Richard Alston, Minister for Communications & Arts, Level 2, Suite 3, 424 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne VIC 3004.
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