The Australian Communications and Media Authority has found that Channel Seven Sydney Pty Ltd breached factual accuracy clauses of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice 2010 in a story and promotion broadcast by ATN Sydney on the Today Tonight program.

The segment, ‘Death of a Believer’, reported on the death, after suffering from a stroke, of a female member of a Christian organisation called the ‘Bruderhof’. The story portrayed that the community and the woman’s son, a doctor, had treated her with prayer and hymn singing as a substitute for medical care.

Although a Medical Tribunal inquiry – which reported shortly before the story went to air – found unsatisfactory professional conduct, it also found that the dying woman was given sympathetic and competent medical treatment in the form of palliative care and the doctor’s decision was motivated by his belief that his mother would have elected not to receive aggressive medical treatment. The Tribunal had found that his actions were not dictated by the church’s beliefs.

The ACMA also found that the licensee breached the factual accuracy clause relating to the promotion of news or current affairs by claiming, in a promo for the program, that the Bruderhof ‘prayed…instead of seeking medical help.’

In a complex investigation involving an 11 minute segment and two promos, the ACMA also found various non breaches.

Channel Seven has agreed to remove the segment from internet sites under its immediate control, to provide a link to the ACMA’s decision on its website for 3 months and to include the ACMA decision in its training materials and courses.

The ACMA found that the segment and promo inaccurately conveyed that:
• the patient was treated with prayer as a substitute for medical care; and
• the Medical Tribunal’s findings were based on the substitution of prayer and hymn singing for medical care, rather than the doctor’s decision to provide palliative care.
In making the finding that the report had inaccurately conveyed that the patient had not received medical care, the ACMA took into account a short back announcement that the licensee had made at the end of the story to the effect that the ‘Bruderhof advocate the best possible medical care for their members…’. While that back announcement was relevant to the overall impression conveyed by the story, the ACMA noted that it was brief, of a general nature and not directed at the specific inaccuracies contained in the story, and that it was insufficiently impactful or detailed to dispel the inaccuracies conveyed in the story.
One matter specifically raised by the complainants was that dramatised ‘re-enactments’ of the medical treatment given to the patient were inaccurate. The ACMA did not uphold that complaint but did note the following things about dramatisations more generally:
• They are common and well-established means of story-telling on television
• The ordinary reasonable viewer will generally understand that they cannot perfectly replicate the actual events that occurred and, as a consequence, some amount of leeway is permissible in their production
• Nevertheless, particular care must be taken to ensure that the dramatisation is accurately portrayed where it might contribute to a viewer’s understanding of the material facts.

The ACMA found that the licensee had not breached the remaining clauses investigated:

• clause 1.9.6 [provoke or perpetuate intense dislike, serious contempt or severe ridicule on the grounds of religion]
• clause 4.3.1 [fair representation of viewpoints]
• clause 4.3.6 [sensitivity in broadcasting images of or interviews with bereaved relatives]
• clause 4.3.7 [unfairly identifying a single person when commenting on the behaviour of a group]
• clause 4.3.10 [portray group of persons in a negative light by placing gratuitous emphasis on religion].
The ACMA considered that the segment, broadcast on 12 March, 2013, did not place gratuitous emphasis on religion, nor was it likely to have promoted intense dislike or serious contempt against members of the Bruderhof on the basis of their religion.

Where there has been a breach of the code, the ACMA may:
• agree to accept measures offered by the broadcaster to improve compliance (these measures can include educating staff or changing procedures to improve compliance with the rule(s))
• agree to accept an enforceable undertaking offered by the broadcaster for the purpose of securing future compliance with the rule(s)
• impose an additional licence condition.

The ACMA cannot ‘fine’ or ‘prosecute’ a broadcaster for breaching a code, or direct it to do any particular thing (such as broadcast a report of the ACMA’s findings).

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