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‘Substantial distress’: Press watchdog rebukes The Australian for reporting on gender issues

Australia’s press watchdog has ruled News Corp’s The Australian newspaper was unfair and caused substantial distress when it published almost 50 articles over a 10-month period about gender affirming healthcare and transgender children and teenagers.

Dr Michelle Telfer, head of the department of adolescent medicine at the Royal Children’s Hospital and director of the Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service wrote to the Australian Press Council over concerns of inaccuracies and lack of impartiality in 45 news articles and opinions published in The Australian between 2019-2020.

Michelle Telfer, head of the Gender Service at the Royal Children's Hospital.

Michelle Telfer, head of the Gender Service at the Royal Children’s Hospital.Credit:Simon Schluter

The APC decided there were some inaccuracies in The Australian’s reporting and at times the reporting lacked fairness and balance. It also said the articles had a significant impact on Dr Telfer’s health and may have caused offence and prejudice. However, the APC said medical treatment was open to examination and criticism and the substance of the reports were in the public interest. In an editorial published in Friday’s newspaper, The Australian said it would “not shy away” from topics that deserved attention.

The Australian’s articles were published between August 9, 2019 and June 29, 2020. They discussed transgender children and teenagers, the safety and ethics of giving hormone treatment to young people experiencing gender dysphoria and the rates of de-transitioning in transgender young people. Almost all the pieces were written by Bernard Lane, The Australian’s roving editor, data journalist and leader writer. One article was written by Jennifer Oriel and the remaining articles in question were editorials. Leader writers are responsible for writing the anonymous editorial in mastheads.

Lane’s reporting on gender affirming healthcare received heavy criticism and calls for a boycott of subscribers to The Australian in later 2019. After Lane announced on Twitter that there was a topic head for “gender issues” on the masthead’s website, writer Benjamin Law encouraged people to unsubscribe from The Australian and promising to donate to The Gender Centre, an organisation supporting trans youth, on behalf of anyone who unsubscribed.

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Among Dr Tefler’s specific concerns were the claims that gender affirming treatment is “experimental”, and that the experts quoted did not practise extensively in the field. She also said the articles referred to discredited theories such as social contagion, inaccurate rates of transition among transgender teenagers. Dr Tefler said the articles were unfair and had significantly affected her health, and that the reporting had exacerbated the stigma and discrimination the transgender community already faces.

The Australian disputed the complaint and argued its reporting was accurate and balanced. It said it had repeatedly asked Dr Tefler for comment and went to an effort to present her views. It said its reporting was in public interest, but also a matter of “considerable debate”.

In its findings, the APC mentioned one breach of accuracy standards – related to a claim that the RANZCP had stopped relying on the ASOCTG – and said that although The Australian tried to be balanced, quoting opinions of people critical of gender affirming treatment while omitting they weren’t specialists – and linking the criticism to Dr Tefler – was unfair. It also said public interest did not justify the extent of references to Dr Telfer and would have caused her distress.

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