The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by The Daily Telegraph on 13 September 2017 by The Daily Telegraph headed in print “An identity crisis” and online “WHAT MADNESS CAN JUSTIFY MUTILATING OUR CHILDREN” and a Podcast on 16 April 2018 titled “Ryan T. Anderson joins Miranda Devine live on gender identity”, included as a link in the online article.
The article referred to a “pernicious social fad for transgenderism in children which has been embraced by an activist subset of the medical profession” and stated that “new laws in Victoria can punish therapists who oppose transitioning children” and “hundreds of children who say they are trapped in the body of the opposite sex are being referred to gender clinics in Australia, with numbers tripling in the past three years at one Sydney clinic.” It included comments by a named University Professor, who it described as “one of the few pediatricians courageous enough to speak out against this fashion for ‘child surgical abuse’”. It quoted the Professor saying that “Prepubertal children have no idea about sexuality and choices of procreation afterwards” and “We’re messing with their limbic system and expecting them to make this great evaluation.”
The article went on to say: “Yet there is no medical evidence to justify the epidemic of transgender kids. No evidence that changing sex will reduce the incidence of self-harm or suicide or lessen the impact of other associated mental states such as depression or autism.” The article concluded: “When they grow up, surely these children have grounds for a class action against the hospitals and drug companies which have mounted such a monstrous assault on their developing bodies.”
The podcast was referred to as an interview with Ryan T. Anderson to “discuss recent attempts in Australia and the United States to introduce gender theory into anti-bullying programs”. The introduction said: “Children are being given puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones and having their breasts removed at the age of 14 and 15 with the permission of the Family Court. Yet there is little medical evidence to justify this experimentation on children, no evidence that these hormones are safe to be used on kids, no evidence of any reduction in self-harm or suicide.”
Following a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article and podcast complied with its Standards of Practice. In particular, the Council sought comment on the statement that there is “no evidence” that “cross-sex hormones are safe to be used on kids, no evidence of any reduction in self-harm or suicide” or “that changing sex will reduce the incidence of self-harm or suicide”. The Council referred the publication to a number of articles identified by the complainant, including one entitled “Endocrine Treatment of Transsexual Persons: An Endocrine Society Clinical Practice Guideline” (2009).
In addition the Council sought comment on whether the article’s statement that “new laws in Victoria can punish therapists who oppose transitioning their children”, given the provisions of the new Victorian Health Complaints Act, and on the descriptions of medical procedures as “mutilation” and “child surgical abuse” and a “monstrous assault on their developing bodies” were a breach of the Council’s Standards.
The publication said the article and the content of the podcast were clearly identified as opinion and the author was entitled to express her opinion concerning the medical practices administered to children and adolescents in gender clinics. It said that in making comments, particularly those concerning there being “no evidence” of the matters referred to, the author relied on interviews with medical experts in the field, widespread reading of the scientific literature and anecdotal evidence of parents and people who regret childhood hormone or surgical interventions, as well as the experiences of a transgender friend of the author. The publication identified a number of medical articles as relevant.
The publication said the Victorian Health Complaints Act is designed to prevent conversion therapy of sexual minorities and to provide for a complaints process about health service provision.
It said the columnist was entitled to express her views on the appropriateness of how sections of the medical profession are treating children who they believe are transgender and to express her view that it is wrong for a child as young as 15 years to be receiving medically unnecessary double mastectomies.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principle 1), and presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4). The Standards of Practice also require that publications take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or to a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The Council notes that the article and the podcast contain expressions of the author’s opinion. However, the Council considers they also contain material presented as facts, including the statement in the article that there is “No evidence that changing sex will reduce the incidence of self-harm or suicide or lessen the impact of other associated mental states such as depression or autism” and in the podcast that there is “no evidence that these hormones are safe to be used on kids, no evidence of any reduction in self-harm or suicide”.
The Council accepts that it is open to an author to question the appropriateness of particular medical treatments and procedures. There may be conflicting evidence in support of, or opposition to, such treatments which the Council will not be in a position to resolve. However the statements that there was “no evidence” was not qualified in any way, such as asserting that there was no reliable evidence. The Council notes that the publication did not rely on any particular article as supporting a statement that there was “no evidence”. The Council considers that, given the existence of medical guidelines which recommend various treatments and procedures to assist transitioning children and adolescents, the statement that there was “no evidence” was made in such absolute terms that it was inaccurate and misleading. The Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure these statements were accurate and not misleading.
Accordingly, the Council finds that the publication breached General Principles 1 and 3 in these respects. This conclusion does not amount to a finding on the appropriateness of the medical treatments available.
As to the new laws in Victoria, the Council considers that the broad term ‘therapists’ could include persons who, if providing a general health service, may fall under the remit of the new Victorian Health Complaints Act and therefore be subject to penalties under the Act. The Council is satisfied on the material available to it that the statement “... new laws in Victoria can punish therapists who oppose transitioning children …” is not inaccurate or misleading. Accordingly, the Council does not consider that General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in this respect.
As the publication was not approached for a correction or right of reply, the Council considers there was no breach of General Principles 2 and 4.
The Council accepts that the columnist’s descriptions of medical procedures as “mutilation”, “child surgical abuse” and a “monstrous assault on their developing bodies” were likely to cause offence and distress amongst those undergoing such treatment and amongst their families, and were also likely to cause or exacerbate prejudice. However, the Council considers there is public interest in vigorous public debate about the issue, even when an argument is expressed in very strong terms, as is the case here. The Council considers that to the extent there was substantial offence, distress and prejudice, it was justified in the public interest. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was not breached.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
General Principle 1 – Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
General Principle 2 – Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
General Principle 3 – Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
General Principle 4 – Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
General Principle 6 - Avoid causing or contributing materiality to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.