The Broadcasting Complaints Commission
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R. M Hargreaves Secretary
COMPLAINT FROM THE LONDON CHURCH OF CHRIST
The Broadcasting Complaints Commission have considered a complaint of unfairness from the London Church of Christ about a July 1993 edition of BBC2’s Newsnight which took a detailed and critical look at the church.
Overall, the Commission did not uphold the complaint.
*** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ***
Complaint from the London Church of Christ – Newsnight, BBC2, 16 July 1993
On 16 July 1993, BBC2 broadcast an edition of Newsnight which included a detailed and critical look at the Church of Christ. The London Church of Christ, founded in 1982 by an American mission, complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission that the item had been unfair to them. They said that it had been generally biased and unbalanced and had been primarily devoted to condemning the Church. Contributions from numerous interviewees “for the prosecution” had been used, compared with a contribution from just one interviewee in defence of the Church. The item had been particularly unfair in the following respects:
1. The BBC claimed that the item had investigated the Church of Christ’s worldwide policies and teachings. In fact, the London Church had been the primary topic. This had been clearly indicated in the BBC’s letters to Mr Kip McKean, the founder and leader of the Worldwide Church of Christ, and in the commentary which had described the London Church as “Britain’s fastest growing and most dangerous cult”. Given the item’s distinctly critical slant, it had been unfair not have to included an interview from anyone from the London Church and, moreover, not to have given them the opportunity to rebut the serious accusations made against them. The programme-makers had spoken by telephone to the London Church’s Administrator, Mr John Partington, but had declined his offer to be interviewed about any outstanding queries even though Dr Al Baird, the world sector leader whom they had interviewed, had not been able to answer many of the questions put to him. Dr Baird had, in fact, urged them to speak to the London Church.
2. At the hearing before the Commission, the London Church said that the item had insinuated that they had acted dishonestly. The commentary had said that that the “…Church has at times been less than truthful…in 1989 it had to return £150,000 to the Inland Revenue, for taxes it failed to pay on leaders’ wages, and benefits”. There was no dispute that £141,040 had been paid to the Inland Revenue in relation to outstanding tax and National Insurance for the years 1983/84 to 1987/88. However, there had been no intention on the Church’s part to deceive or mislead. Indeed, they had not incurred extra liabilities or penalties which the Inland Revenue could have imposed had they found dishonesty or wilful default. The London Church had, in fact, been professionally advised throughout the 1983-88 period by a firm of chartered accountants. Their accounts prior to 1992 might have lacked clarity and precision, but no-one had claimed that they gave a “full, fair and accurate picture of the Church’s financial affairs”. Indeed, the regulating bodies did not require such high standards: at the time, the Charities Commission had required only that “the statement of the account is correct”. Furthermore, there had been nothing sinister in the repayment of the back tax by the parent American Churches.
The programme had also unfairly made references to “infiltration of universities by use of ten different names by the London Church of Christ”. In fact, they had used only the names the South London Church of Christ, the Central London Church of Christ and the International School of Evangelism (which trained evangelists to go overseas). Student members of the London Church occasionally set up their own socities for Bible study independently of the Church, and there had been one unfortunate incident whereby an over-sealous student had tried to form a society called the Historic Literature Society, having been refused permission by his university to set up a bible society on the grounds that he was a member of the Central London Church of Christ. The incident had not been repeated. At the hearing, the London Church said there had been no intention to deceive in using different names: the names had simply arisen following the growth of the Church. Each part of the Church needed to establish its own sense of identity.
3. The item’s commentary had erroneously said “…the Church presents itself as willing to give generously to the poor. But the financial accounts show…the money going to benolvent causes is tiny, just one per cent in 1990”. In fact, all the money collected for the relief of poverty was used for that purpose. The item had failed to distinguish between the finances of the American Churches and those of the London Church and had failed to take into account the LOVE offering. Monies collected for the LOVE offering, an international third-world poor-relief fund, were banked separately and were not, therefore, shown in the London Church’s accounts. For the year ended December 1990, the London Church had donated £79,008.52 to the LOVE offering and £11,465.00 had gone towards United Kingdom benevolvence and assistance. Thus £90,473.52 had been spent on relief of poverty and that represented over seven per cent of the London Church’s income.
4. The item had included the unsubstantiated allegation by Mr Ayman Akshar, a former member of the London Church, that he had seen “…some of the funds of the poor contribution being put in a drawer…and some of the leaders just helping themselves and off they go with no record of accountability”. There was no truth in the latter allegation which, to their knowledge, had never been made before. Mr Akshar had previously expressed various concerns to various people and the Church had always endeavoured to attend to them. However, his letter to the Church leaders had not specifically mentioned the serious allegation of misappropriation of the poor fund and the March 1993 programme Beam & DaSilva had suggested only that monies had not been accounted for properly and could, theoretically, have been open to abuse. The London Church had mounted an internal investigation and had found no evidence to support the allegation. Moreover, the Church Treasurer at the time, and two others who would have been familiar with the procedure for banking the money, had confirmed that the poor contribution had been banked properly. The London Church had strict financial procedures and policies which were set out in regularly-reviewed Policy and Administrative manuals. At the hearing, the Church said that the poor contribution was collected weekly from a number of zones and was recorded by two people and “signed off” by two people before being put in the office. No loss of money had been noted at the time.
5. The item’s commentary had wrongly alleged that “…detailed records of members’ sins are actually kept on computer by the Church’s leaders”. In fact, the item had inaccurately described the contents of a list obtained from the American Church. The list did not record members’ “sins”: it simply noted personal data about the struggles members faced on their paths to Christ and had been designed to aid pastoral care. For their part, the London Church kept no such records (other than the normal administrative information which was kept in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1984) but because the whole programme had been framed by constant references to them, it had appeared as if they also listed members’ sins. It was true that sins were discussed but this was done to help one another rather than to record information for cynical reasons.
6. At the hearing, the London Church said that the item had referred to members being “broken both emotinally and financially” and of being left “spiritually raped”. It had included the Reverend Graham Baldwin’s erroneous allegation that the Church practised mind control, sleep deprivation and restriction of people’s diets. In fact, the Church had been neither intentionally nor knowingly involved in such practices. The only occasions when members were expected to lose sleep were on organised prayer nights. Fasting was sometimes encouraged so as to focus on God spiritually but it did not amount to an orchestrated restriction on diet. On the question of “mind control”, it was a fact that many non-christians readily viewed any committed fundamental faith as almost necessarily teh product of mind control. However, the London Church had no desire and no right to control the minds of others and, indeed, their members all made their own decisions.
The BBC’s response
The BBC said that they had investigated the Church of Christ as a worldwide organisation with an active subsidiary in London. It had been the programme-makers’ intention to look at the global movement using the London Church as the most relevant illustration for a British audience. Several weeks had been spent researching the item and they had been careful to interview relevant and highly-qualified experts.
The BBC made the following statements in answer to the specific complaints:
1. The item had investigated the Church of Christ’s worldwide policies and teachings and the programme-makers had, therefore, interviewed the most authorative church figure possible. London was only one regional office of an international organisation and one which continued to answer to the American Church. They had approached the Church’s leader, Mr McKean, but he had offered Dr Baird as a spokesman. Dr Baird had been able to answer most of the questions put to him and it had been agreed the the programme-makers would contact the London Church to discuss the remaining areas. The British leader, Mr Fred Scott, had been unwilling to answer the criticsms brought against the Church. Indeed, the London Church leaders had been evasive throughout. Newsnight had not regarded Mr Partington as having sufficient authority to discuss the church’s worldwide teachings and policies. However, they had put the outstanding allegationa to him and had made efforts to pursue them with him. His brief comments in reply, given by telephone (only the day before the broadcast), had been included as appropriate in the item.
2. Mr Partington had admitted that the London Church’s £150,000 payment in 1989 to the Inland Revenue had been paid in respect of taxes which they had failed to pay, and that the tax returns for that period had, therefore, been false. The most favourable interpretation of the non-payment was that the London Church’s accounting practices had been lax. Mr Pesh Framjee ACA, a Charity accounts specialist consulted by the BBC, had told them that the only correspondence presented by the London Church from their accountants at that time had related only to three American evangelists and had not indicated that the Church had been advised that it should not pay tax on the income of its British employees’ income. Mr Framjee had also said that the accounts had not given a fair, full and accurate picture of the Church’s financial affairs. He had found them at best confusing and at worst misleading: for example, he had found it surprising that the £161,645 back tax liability had not been identified in the 1990 accounts, particularly as far more insignificant amounts had been separately and clearly identified. The BBC said that the back tax issue had been one meriting investigation in the public interest: the unpaid tax debt had been sizeable and it had appeared from their accounts that the Church had used its charitable funds to pay the back tax.
The programme-makers had documents which demonstrated that the London Church leadership had knowingly used false names: for example, in 1991 they had issued a leaflet under the name “The South London Christian Fellowship”. Mr Alisdair Mackay, a former section leader, had confirmed that the group had been set up at the instigation of the church leaders in order to “cover up” the effects of the media investigation into their activities. At the hearing, Mr Mackay said that experience had shown that the name London Church of Christ turned people away and so they had specifically used another name. It was also clear that the names had not simply been adopted by over-zealous members for individual Bible studies. Indeed, there were documents available which showed that the Church had used various names in their efforts to lure students; and some Universities, both in Britain and the United States, had taken the unusual measure of banning the Church.
3. The item’s point had been that the amount given to the poor had been comparatively small when compared with the Church’s total income. From the information given to Church members in internal memos it appeared that the contribution to the poor in 1990 should have amounted to at least £61,000 and yet the 1990 accounts showed that only £11,465 had gone on all benevolent givings: it had thus amounted to approximately one per cent of the Church’s £1,141,426 total revenue. The LOVE offering, if indeed it was separate from the London Church’s accounts, was irrelevant to the one-per-cent figure. Furthermore Mr Framjee considered it surprising that the Charity Commissioners had not been provided with any accounts of the LOVE offering. At the hearing, the BBC said that there was no evidence to demonstrate exactly how much money had actually been collected for the LOVE offering.
4. Mr Akshar’s testimony had been included in the item to illustrate another example of the London Church’s lack of accountability. The London Church had been aware of Mr Akshar’s worries for some time: he had, over a three-year period, written and made oral approaches on several occasions to Mr Partington and other leaders about his worries over Church finances, and he had given exactly the same evidence four months before the broadcast, in Carlton Television’s programme Beam & DaSilva. The London Church leaders had clearly seen the programme, as it had been one of the reasons why Mr Akshar had been thrown out of the Church. The programme-makers had put the matter to Mr Partington and he had admitted that financial practices in the past might not have been of an acceptable standard. At the hearing, the BBC said that the London Church had claimed that they had “strict financial procedures”; but Mr Mackay, a former treasurer of the London Church, had denied the existence of any such control and his testimony had been supported by other former members. The London Church had produced statements from evangelists claiming that the poor contribution had been banked properly, but one of the evangelists had not been in the country at the relevant time, and the statements of the others were at odds with those of former members who were in a position to speak openly about the Church’s practices.
5. The BBC had been provided with a copy of a computerised “sin list” from the United States, authenticated by former Church members, giving intimate details of members’ sexual and personal lives. The item had not said that such records were kept by the London Church: the item had, at that point, been describing the activities of the Church of Christ generally. However, the programme-makers had spoken to several witnesses who had acted in the role of “disciplers” in London and they had admitted that they had found out the sins and faults of their “disciples” and passed them on to more senior leaders.
6. It was the belief of many leading experts in the field, who were extremely concerned about the effects the Church had on the lives of the young and the vulnerable, that mind control had a place in the Church. That view was held by the Reverend Graham Baldwin, former chaplain to Kings College, London and an experienced counsellor, who had studied the subject of mind control and has helped many former Church of Christ members throughout Britain.
The programme-makers had spoken to psychiatrists, counsellors, and other specialists in the field, one of whom was honorary consultant psychiatrist Dr Elizabeth Tylden, recognized as the leading medical expert in the field. She had treated eleven former members and had said that most exhibited profound personality changes which had, in her view, been a result of the Church’s use of mind-control techniques. Many former members had also been interviewed and the Church’s own literature had been studied. The expert witnesses had concluded that, given the intensity of the Church’s regime, it fell within the accepted definition of mind control.
Evidence considered by the Commission
The Commission had before them a letter of complaint from the London Church of Christ, a written statement in answer to the complaint from the BBC, related correspondence, a number of further written representations from the complainants, and comments in response to those representations from the BBC. A hearing was held and was attended by representatives of the Church, namely Mr John Partington (Church Administrator), Mr Andrew Agerdak (Chairman of the Trustees), and Mr Neville Lee (Vice-Chairman of the Trustees), and by their legal representatives, Mr Andrew Phillips and his assistant Ms Rosamund Smith. The hearing was also attended by the Reverend Graham Baldwin, Mr Pesh Framjee, Mr Ayman Akshar, and Mr Alisdair Mackay – all invited by the Commission to assist them at the hearing – and by the BBC’s representatives. The Commission read the transcript and viewed a video cassette recording of the programme.
THE COMMISSION’S FINDINGS:
The nub of the complaint from the London Church of Christ was that Newsnight had mounted an unfair attack on them.
The Commission note that the programme-makers had themselves recognized the need to give the London Church leadership the opportunity to respond to the specific criticisms and allegations made against them. There is notable disagreement about the extent of their efforts to obtain that response. A number of telephone calls certainly took place between the programme-makers and Mr Partington, but the exact content of these conversations is unclear. What does seem clear is that the leader of the London Church had refused to be interviewed and had not himself offered an alternative spokesman; indeed, the leadership had appeared generally content to rely on the contributions made by the American Church. Significantly, on 15 July 1993, Mr Partington – knowing by then that the Newsnight would not be filming an interview with him – did not apparently feel it necessary to do more than give them brief comments in response to the allegations which they had earlier put to him over the telephone. Given this background, the Commission are not persuaded that there was any unfairness in the item’s failure to include an interview with a spokesman for the London Church of Christ.
On the matter of the back tax, the Commission note that the London Church had relied on professional advice from a firm of chartered accountants throughout the period in question. The Commission can understand that the tax position of American Evangelists may well have been less than straightforward; but they find it difficult to understand how the London Church can have been unaware of the PAYE liability of their British employees. The Commission also share the doubts which Mr Framjee expressed at the hearing about the validity of the Church’s accounts, which had seemingly failed to disclose the Church’s known liability to back taxes. The Commission do not doubt that the Inland Revenue have imposed no extra liability or penalties on the Church in respect of back tax. However, on the evidence before them, the Commission consider that, at the very least, the Church were less open than they should have been in handling their tax responsibilities. That being so, they do not find the item’s use of the phrase “less than truthful” as either clearly inappropriate or unfair in that context.
In the Commission’s view, the evidence relating to the Church’s use of alternative names when visiting different places demonstrates a lack of openness on the Church’s part for the phrase to be fairly applicable to that aspect of their activities as well.
The Commission also finds no unfairness in the item’s treatment of the London Church’s benevolent contributions. Funds raised as part of the LOVE offering were not included in the Church’s accounts and, in the Commission’s opinion, the Church are themselves to blame for the fact that the LOVE offering was not taken into consideration in the programme-makers’ calculations. In any event, the LOVE offering was a distinct project and separate from the general funds collected by the Church, and the fact remains that in 1990 just one per cent of those general funds went towards benevolent purposes.
The Commission are satisfied that the broadcasters were justified in including in the item Mr Akshar’s allegation that he had seen Church leaders remove money from the poor contribution without any accountability. The Church argued at the hearing that no money could have gone astray because strict records had been kept of the contribution. Mr MacKay and Mr Akshar both disputed this and the Church acknowledged that they had not checked the relevant records. They said that a large amount of paperwork would have been involved and they had chosen, instead, to rely on the statements of those who denied Mr Akshar’s allegation. In the absence of any clearer evidence about exactly what records were kept at the relevant time and what they proved, the Commission consider that the system was not as rigorous as the Church now contend and allowed for the possibility of irregularities. They accordingly find no unfairness in regard to this aspect of the complaint.
Although the London Church did discuss their members’ sins as part of the “discipling” process and, according to former members they attached considerable weight to this, they did not maintain a computerised “sin list” such as the American list presented in the item. The item did not specifically state that they did so but, in the Commission’s view, the implication was there. This was marginally unfair.
As to the allegation relating to mind-control, sleep deprivation and restriction of people’s diet, there was ample evidence from the testimony of former members and from psychiatrists and other recognised authorities on the subject to justify the item’s treatment. No unfairness therefore arises in that respect.
Overall, the Commission do not uphold the complaint
Adjudication signed by
Canon Peter Pilkington
Mr A G Christopher
Mr D G Allen
Ms J Leighton