1. The Children of God
In 1976, I was working as a humble journalist for the Barrier Miner in Broken Hill, New South Wales. The newspaper was in serious financial difficulty when Bob Bottom, a former Broken Hill journalist who had made good in Sydney, came out to discuss with the management and staff the possibility of purchasing the newspaper, and thus rescuing it from collapse.
Bob Bottom had achieved fame for his courageous investigative journalism, particularly with regard to police corruption in New South Wales. He had dared to tread on ground which had previously not been touched by Australian journalists, and he was highly respected by many (and hated by others) for it.
In a private conversation I had with Bob during that visit, the subject of the Children of God came up. This radical new religious group had not long been in Australia, from the United States. They were active on the streets of Sydney, distributing their literature, which was advocating a completely new approach to Christian evangelism. I had been personally influenced by them, and I liked a lot of what they had to say. But I was careful not to reveal this to Bob.
He looked at me in surprise when I first mentioned the group, and he said, "Haven't you heard? The word is out in Sydney not to touch them." The media grape-vine had issued a secret decree that no further coverage was to be given to this particular religious group. The exact reason for the decision and the decree was not important. The important thing was that it must be obeyed.
Journalists, who had the courage to challenge corruption at every level in society, knew better than to question the decrees that came down to them from the top of their own organisations. To do so would not only ensure dismissal from their own employer, but also from any other branches of the media that were participating in the ban.
I must admit that this was my first encounter with such systematic censorship in Australia. I had, as a reporter for a provincial newspaper, experienced the subtle political pressures that come from various individuals and small town groups to make them look better than they really were, or to keep embarrassing things out of the papers. But that sort of thing happens everywhere; and I did not see anything particularly sinister about it. I had learned to live with it. Yet here was an instance of the entire media in a huge metropolitan city issuing a decree that a certain group was no longer to be featured in any of their reports.
The Children of God were an evangelical Christian hippy movement that originated in the United States in the late 1960's. Their members survived through handouts received for literature which they produced and distributed on the streets. They spread quickly around the world, as a result of their missionary zeal and this grass roots form of evangelism and support. The group was, however, very critical of the institutional church, and it prophesied such things as the destruction of America.
They thumbed their noses in the face of the religious establishment, and their evangelistic activities embarrassed institutional churches. Almost immediately the word "cult" was whispered in religious circles. Serious examination of what they taught, or what qualified them for the cult label was rare. Little was written about them in the religious media at that time, and what was written were mostly vague negative complaints from disgruntled ex-members.
The secular media in Australia was, at first, delighted to have such a colourful new group to brighten its picture of what was happening in the otherwise boring religious world. Here was a refreshing new approach to faith and evangelism; and the Children were deluged with media interest.
But somewhere along the line, the invisible "forces that be" changed all of that. The noose was thrown around any further media coverage of the Children of God, and it was pulled tight.
Far from discouraging me, Bob Bottom's statement that they had been declared off limits to the Sydney media made me want to know more. What had this tiny group of hippies done to either frighten or offend the media moguls of Sydney into excommunicating them. Obviously, the media had the power to crucify the Children of God if they really had a case against them. They could expose them and demonise them without restraint, until no one would dare go near them. But this never happened.
Instead, the group was "excommunicated" gagged sent to Coventry. A few years later the group began to condone sex between female members and outsiders as a way of luring people into membership. A few reports surfaced with regard to this practice. However, for the most part, the teaching was not scandalous enough to merit in-depth consideration by the secular press. And the churches, which were suffering from the promiscuous behaviour of their own young people, were not in a position to pass judgment. What few reports did appear tended to have the opposite effect, in that they attracted more followers to the group.
So rather than expose the Children of God, it seemed best to those who look out for our morals to cover them, by maintaining the silence that had already begun before hard evidence came forward to support claims about their sexual eccentricities.
This is not to say that the Children of God had been forgotten by their critics. Rather, the move to further punish them continued behind the scenes, eventually reaching right around the world. Finally, between 1990 and 1993, a series of raids on their premises on several continents resulted in hundreds of their children being forcibly taken away from them, on the grounds that the parents were not fit to raise them. It is significant that the raids were carried out with a high degree of media complicity. It is also significant that all charges against them were eventually dropped.
Here in Australia, the Department of Community Services was rapped over the knuckles for having acted on false hearsay in a way that was detrimental to the best interests of the children concerned. Government investigators learned that the practice of free sex had already been banned by the group a number of years previously (due largely to the rising incidence of STD's), and their children were found to be eminently well adjusted, according to government-approved psychologists. Lawsuits totally millions of dollars are now being taken against DOCS for the raids. Nevertheless, to escape recriminations as a result of the raids, which were aimed at convincing the public that the group was a breeding ground for pedophilia, the Children of God changed their name to The Family.
In 1996, I had discussions with former ABC-TV religious affairs presenter, and Uniting Church minister, David Millikan, about the group. Millikan now regards himself as a "cult expert", and he shared with me about his involvement with the group. He had posed as a friend for a number of years, and was able to secure exclusive interviews with some highly ranked Family leaders in Australia and overseas. He managed to get material never seen by other investigators, and in September, 1996, he turned this information into a televised attack on the group on Jana Wendt's Witness program. The most ludicrous thing about the report (which was notably lacking in hard facts) was that it centered on the group's encouragment of masturbation as an alternative outlet for sexual energy. Millikan, whose own cult (The Uniting Church) was making headlines by defending homosexuality at the time, had the audacity to say that he regarded The Family as "dangerous" because of their emphasis on masturbation! He said they were "about to outrage the world again," and that they would "confirm the darkest fears of their enemies." Such unfounded sensational claims are Millikan's tools of trade.
I should explain here that I have strong disagreements with much of the "Family" teaching on sex and sexuality. In particular, I disagree with their continuing practice of "sharing" marriage partners amongst group members, and their assumption that biblical references to "love" are necessarily references to "sex". However, I have included them in this opening chapter as a high profile illustration of the type of high level cross-media censorship that exists in Australia.
The thinking Australian would argue that controversy over ideologies and philosophies are best dealt with through open debate. And criminal behaviour is best dealt with through the courts.
At the same time, boring or irrelevant issues are obviously not needed in news reports. To leave them out for legitimate editorial reasons would not be considered censorship. However, banning coverage of any person, group, or idea merely as a form of punishment, is contrary to the spirit of free speech, which is at least given lip service by the media as well as the public in Australia.
A ban which targets a group, individual, or idea represents a serious flaw in the fabric of our society. The grounds for the ban need to be open to examination, and other means of dealing with disagreements need to be considered. But, until the media is made to account for such abuse of power, injustices will continue to occur against those who are considered a threat to that power.