FERN HICKSON AGAINST RNZ (2)
Case Number: 3421
Council Meeting: 7 August 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: Radio NZ
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
- RNZ published an article on April 10, 2023, headlined Police urge rainbow community to report threats, violence in wake of Posie Parker visit. Fern Hickson complained under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle (4) Comment and Fact; Principle (9) Subterfuge and Principle (12) Corrections. The complaint was not upheld.
- The story reported police were urging any members of the trans or rainbow community who were being threatened in the wake of the visit by British anti-trans activist Posie Parker to contact them. It included comment from analysts monitoring online extremists reporting there had been a marked increase in online hatred directed at the trans community. The headline was amended the next day to read Police urge anyone including the rainbow community to report threats, violence. The first sentence was also changed to read “Police are urging anyone including members of the trans or rainbow community who are being threatened to contact them.”
- Fern Hickson complained that the story breached Media Council Principle (9) Subterfuge, claiming this was a manufactured article. A reporter approached police to ask what people being threatened online should do and was told they should contact the police. The reporter then wrote the story to appear as if the police had proactively asked members of the rainbow community to report threats. This was done to bolster the rest of the story which was describing a reported recent rise in online threats. The effect of this manufactured story was to reinforce the idea that rainbow people are the main or only ones receiving online threats.
- Referring to Principle (12) Corrections, she said that sometime after its first publication the headline and first sentence were changed. This was done to cover up the way the article had been manufactured to support the narrative that rainbow people were particularly abused. No acknowledgement of the correction was made.
- Under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Ms Hickson said the article only discussed online hatred towards the trans community and no mention was made of the physical violence meted out to some women at the Let the Women Speak rally. No mention was made of the threatening behaviour of the mob of trans activists who overwhelmed the women attending the event and no mention was made of threatening and abusive placards at the rally or of online hatred directed at women simply for saying “woman” means “adult human female.”
- RNZ only mentioned one side of the online hatred because it wanted listeners to believe that transgender people are uniquely persecuted when the rainbow community itself served up plenty of threats and abuse.
- Under Principle (4) Comment and Fact, Ms Hickson said comments attributed to the police - that violence or threatening behaviour towards people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, faith, disability and age is not acceptable – was a misrepresentation of the Human Rights Act. Gender identity was not one of the grounds listed under the Act and it was RNZ’s duty to ensure the law was quoted correctly in its reporting.
- Ms Hickson also said no evidence was supplied to support the opinion of Disinformation Project researcher Sanjana Hattotuwa that “The vitriol directed at the trans community could be described as genocidal.” No comment was made about the online hate directed at Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull and her supporters and the reality of the violence unleashed on them at the rally.
- “This manufactured report is misleading and biased and exacerbates some serious division in our democracy. RNZ should correct the misinformation and report from both sides of the transgender debate. RNZ should censure violence or threatening behaviour towards those who don’t hold gender identity beliefs just as strongly as it has censured threats towards those who claim they can literally change their sex.”
- RNZ said the story was prompted by the receipt of credible information that plans to disrupt an event in Christchurch supportive of the trans community was circulating on social media and that a number of people were considering taking action against some transgender people. It was in this context that RNZ approached the police.
- After some readers took it to suggest it only applied to the transgender community the headline and first sentence was amended to emphasise the general nature of the advice given by the police.
- The story was initially published on Easter Monday and the changes were made at 12.30pm the following day, the first available opportunity on the first working day after it was published. RNZ considered this to be timely.
- RNZ denied its reporting of increased online hatred directed at the trans community was subterfuge or that it had manufactured the story.
- The inference that transgender people were the only ones receiving online threats was not an implication contained in the story.
- RNZ said the purpose of the story was to report the threats received by the transgender community. The suggestion that they were uniquely persecuted was not an implication contained in the story. It did not exclude the possibility or reality of anti-trans activists receiving threats.
- Whether the police misrepresented the Human Rights Act was not something for which RNZ could be held responsible.
- While the complainant might not like Dr Hattotuwa’s statements, RNZ had a responsibility to report in the public interest the views of people in positions of authority and influence.
- RNZ rejected the notion that the story “exacerbates some serious division in our democracy.”
- This is one of many complaints received by the Media Council relating to coverage of transgender issues and the controversy surrounding the visit of anti-trans activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull.
- The subject is complex and, as seen recently, a matter of heated and contentious debate as it touches on issues of human rights, personal safety, and deeply held cultural, religious and personal beliefs relating to sexuality and gender.
- It is not the Media Council’s role to become involved in that debate. Its role is limited to considering complaints relating to journalistic ethics and standards.
- This complainant has cited four of the Council’s principles, the most important of which is Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.
- It appears the reporter who wrote this article approached the subject solely from one perspective – that threats were being made to members of the transgender community – and sought comment from the police and the Disinformation Project.
- Picking up on information that somebody might be at risk and seeking comment from the police and others with knowledge of what might be behind it is standard reporting. It was not “manufacturing news” and nor did it involve subterfuge, which suggests information was obtained by dishonest means.
- However, it appears no consideration was given to the possibility that threats might also have been made against anti-trans activists. This was just over two weeks after Ms Keen-Minshull, and her supporters were forced to abandon their rally in the face of protests and there was a fair chance threats might be coming from protagonists on both sides.
- There is no indication that any anti-trans people were approached for comment. It also seems the Disinformation Project were not asked if they had detected any threats to anti-trans people. As a result, the story, as originally published, appeared to be one-sided and it drew 27 complaints.
- RNZ reacted promptly the next working day and amended the story to show the threats may not be directed solely at the rainbow community.
- The Media Council is pleased to see editors make corrections swiftly. In this case it was a day later before two small amendments were made to the headline and story.
- We acknowledge the fact that the story was published on a public holiday when the number of staff available to handle complaints would be limited and that this might have delayed its response. However, the fix was limited with minor changes rather than the insertion of more balancing information.
- The Media Council also notes that RNZ also did not adopt the practice adopted by many publishers of footnoting stories to acknowledge corrections and saying what changes were made and why. For the sake of transparency footnotes should routinely be added to explain how and why stories are amended.
- Clearly the Media Council has some concerns about the handling of this story. That made it a close call as to whether or not the complaint should be upheld, but on balance the Council found it did not breach its principles.
- Decision: The complaint was not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were Marie Shroff (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Ben France-Hudson, Judi Jones, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom