Channel Seven has been found in breach of the Commercial Television Code of Practice after a story aired on Today Tonight last year gave the wrong impression about the standard of medical care provided to a elderly female member of a small Christian sect, the Australian Communications and Media Authority has ruled.

The March 12 segment related to the death of Irene Maendel, who died six days after suffering a stroke in a farm near the New South Wales/Queensland border. She was treated on site by her son, qualified doctor Chris Maendel, who did not take her to hospital for treatment and who also signed her death certificate after she had died. A New South Wales medical tribunal ruling released before the segment aired found he had provided competent palliative care for his mother, driven by the belief that she would not want aggressive medical treatment. But the Today Tonight segment, ACMA ruled, gave the inaccurate impression that Chris Maendel and others “had treated [Irene Maendel] with prayer and hymn singing as a substitute for medical care”.

It was a claim repeated in the promotional material for the segment, which also drew ACMA’s ire for claiming those around Irene Maendel “prayed … instead of seeking medical help”.

The segment, removed from Seven’s websites but still available on YouTube, did give Chris Maendel a chance to respond to the allegations. He was confronted outside the Medical Tribunal and said he only that he appreciated its unbiased assessment of his actions.

Irene and Chris Maendel were part of a small, Amish-like Christian sect called the Bruderhof, which formed in America and has about 200 adherents in Australia. They live in what they describe as Christian communism, pooling their money and living as simply as they can. Irene, an American resident, had been visiting Chris when she died, and upon discovering the manner of her death another of her sons, James Maendel, informed NSW Police. This led to a coronal inquest, which found Chris Maendel had breached NSW Medical Board policy by signing his mother’s death certificate. However, the coroner did not rule that the family’s religion had been a pivotal factor in Irene’s treatment.

There was a subsequent NSW Medical Tribunal, which found Chris Maendel to be an honest and caring physician who had provided competent palliative care, a fact not mentioned by Today Tonight. The tribunal did, however, critcise him for both treating a family member and not taking his mother to the hospital, as well as several other lapses in judgement, and ruled that if he were to practise medicine in Australia again, he had to do it in a “group clinic” with three or more doctors on site whenever he treated patients, for a year.

In a statement today, Seven said it was disappointed with ACMA’s ruling, though it will fully comply with the regulator. “We note that as stated in the ACMA release the Medical Tribunal found that Dr Maendel’s treatment of his mother amounted to unsatisfactory professional conduct,” a Seven spokesman said. “Further, Dr Maendel narrowly escaped a finding of professional misconduct, with two out of the four tribunal members prepared to find his conduct failed to meet acceptable standards to such an extent to warrant the more serious finding.”

The Today Tonight segment did state that Irene Maendel received morphine, which Seven’s statement says shows the fact that she did receive some medical care. “While we respect the right of the regulator to form a view on the overall impression conveyed by the story, we took a different view.  At the end of the day a woman died and she did not receive proper medical care.  We will continue to broadcast hard hitting investigative stories in areas like public health that are of significant public interest.”

Today Tonight spent some time exploring the Bruderhof religion, and interviewed critics of it and of its current leadership. However, ACMA ruled, the segment 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”.

Today Tonight was also cleared over its use of a dramatisation of Irene Maendel’s stroke and the days following it, which complainants had said was inaccurate. ACMA did not uphold this aspect of the complaint, noting that dramatisations are “a common and well-established” means of storytelling on TV, and that “the ordinary viewer will generally understand that they cannot perfectly replicate the actual events and, as a consequence, some amount of leeway is permissible in their production”.