CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY OF NEW ZEALAND AGAINST NZ WOMAN'S WEEKLY

Case Number: 2191

Council Meeting: JULY 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Woman's Weekly

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The Church of Scientology of New Zealand has complained about two articles in New Zealand Woman’s Weekly relating to actor Katie Holmes, her alleged state of mind and her relationship with the church.
The complaints are not upheld.

Background
On January 31, 2011, under the heading Mother of all Meltdowns and a tagline, Shock Treatment, the magazine claimed the actor wife of Tom Cruise was looking “sad and vacant” and the behaviour of her four-year-old daughter, Suri, was starting to hinder her professional life.
The article, among other things, also claimed that according to former scientologists, Holmes was likely to be indulging in a “controversial church treatment called an e-meter.” The device emitted a low-level electric charge that could kill pain and elevate energy levels and an anonymous “expert” was quoted as saying it was addictive.
On February 28, the magazine published another article headlined Is Katie Losing Suri? and a tagline, FBI Probe.
The article claimed a “war” was being played out between the parents on the education of the child at either a Catholic or Scientology school, and again referred to Holmes’ appearance among other things.
The article also said there were new allegations of child slavery in the church, which the FBI was investigating.

The Complaints
Following publication of both articles, the church’s secretary, Mike Ferriss, twice complained to the magazine.
In a letter dated February 4, he said an e-meter was not a treatment but was “purely a guide to measure the tiny amounts of energy contained in negative and painful experiences of past memories.”
The process was not addictive while the Shock Treatment tagline was also wrong. Scientologists around the world were opposed to psychiatry’s shock treatments.
Referring to the February 28 article, Mr Ferriss said the information relating to the FBI probe was false and misleading and stemmed from another magazine article that had been discredited.
In both instances, Mr Ferriss said the magazine had made no attempt to provide balance from the Church and the stories were biased and unfair.
The editor, Sarah Stuart, replied the article only referred to allegations relating to the FBI probe, which had been headline news at the time the story was written.
This was disputed by Mr Ferriss who said the FBI investigation had occurred a year before and had been discontinued. He received no reply to his complaint about the earlier article.

The Responses
In her response to the Press Council, the editor said the story was about an American celebrity mother’s concern for her daughter’s schooling and the internationally sourced material was believed to be correct. Only one sentence referred to the US investigation.
She did not believe the story was either unbalanced or overly sensational.
The Shock Treatment tagline related to the “surprise news” that Ms Holmes was receiving the treatment and the editor said she believed the e-meter process could be described as a treatment.
No comment was sought from the New Zealand church because it was written and researched overseas, reported on international celebrities, appeared in the gossip section and did not relate to the New Zealand branch. If the story had been about New Zealand members, comment would have been sought.
In his response dated May 17, Mr Ferriss reiterated that the Mother of All Meltdowns article was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced, and the magazine should check that its information was accurate rather than relying on overseas gossip magazines.
Quoting former members meant the article inherently lacked balance and discussion about Scientology in women’s gossip magazines in connection with its celebrity members did not mean the topic could be reported inaccurately, unfairly or with bias.
While the editor might not see the need to include comment from the New Zealand church, she did not explain why no balancing material had been included or even that there were other views. Such material was available.

Discussion
The Press Council has debated before (Case 2123) whether publications need to seek balance for articles about celebrities and the Church of Scientology when they have no particular relevance to New Zealand. This is the situation with both articles complained of. It would be a step too far to expect a magazine to seek local comment in such circumstances.
Both articles are also gossip and displayed as such. Gossip is not necessarily true. The articles are unlikely to be taken seriously by an objective reader, given their lack of respected, named sources and no detail from the subjects themselves.
Mr Ferriss complains of a lack of accuracy, balance and fairness and it is understandable that the Church should feel aggrieved at some of the comments made. But gossip by its very nature has a much lower threshold of credibility and, providing articles are displayed as such, the Press Council recognises that strictly applying its principles to such articles is difficult when details are often speculative and conditional.
The Press Council has said any licence in such ethical areas has its limits, and they would include glaringly wrong or inaccurate comments. But Woman’s Weekly’s details and allegations are not glaringly incorrect or inaccurate within the genre.

Decision
The complaints are not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.