FERN HICKSON AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3422
Council Meeting: 25 September 2023
Decision: No Grounds to Proceed
Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Te Reo and reporting on Te Ao Maori
- Fern Hickson complained about an article published by Stuff on April 7, 2023, headlined Motivation behind broadcaster’s* 'define a woman' question challenged.
- The story referred to a question to Prime Minister Chris Hipkins in which an internet radio broadcaster asked him to define a woman. The same question has been put to other politicians here and overseas to test their views or put them on the spot on politically sensitive transgender issues.
- The article referred to a debate in Britain where the Government was considering a Bill to allow trans people to be excluded from single sex spaces. It also reported comment from Gender Minorities Aotearoa spokesperson Ahi Wi-Hongi who said the broadcaster was trying to stir things up about trans people and that “you’ve got to look at [his] motivation. Has he ever been interested in the rights of women?” Wi-Hongi also commented that anti-trans rhetoric diminished indigenous culture and that historically Māori culture had included more genders than just male and female.
- The article also reported that AUT associate professor Khylee Quince agreed the broadcaster’s motivation was anti-trans. She said it was a loaded question, where the broadcaster was being deliberately provocative and not wanting to engage in debate in good faith.
- Comment was also sought from the broadcaster who said, “My response is that Khylee Quince is entitled to that opinion and her freedom of speech and I just ask questions, mate”.
- Ms Hickson said the article reported speculative ideas about the broadcaster’s motivation and there was no evidence to present it as fact.
- She also said Stuff was publishing propaganda when it presented unproven beliefs about transgenderism in traditional Māori society as if they are settled ideas held by all Maoridom. Stuff should have asked for other perspectives on this issue, should have checked historical claims for accuracy before publishing them, and provided space for anyone with a different point of view.
- Stuff responded saying the story was removed from its website within 12 hours following complaints and a legal process.
- The article was a news story reporting the views of people with relevant perspectives and did not need to be labelled as opinion.
- It noted Ms Hickson’s point that differing views were held by many people on the topic of gender identity. It was not possible to canvass all views on complex societal issues in a single news story and Stuff tried to cover a broad range of views over time on ongoing topics such as gender issues. It also noted the Media Council view that balance in relation to long running issues "is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report."
- Stuff asked the Council to use its discretion and decline the complaint as the story was no longer on Stuff's website.
- The Media Council does not accept Stuff’s view that it should decline the complaint because the story was taken down. It was published, Ms Hickson was entitled to complain about it, and it is a matter the Council can consider. However, the short period of time that it was published before it was taken down is relevant in considering the complaint on its merits.
- Mr* was a well-known broadcaster who uses his internet platform to express his views and other people are entitled to comment on what he says and does. Indeed, the broadcaster said Khylee Quince was entitled to her opinion and freedom of speech.
- Clearly, comment on his motivation is a matter of opinion. He might not agree with that opinion, but it is not a matter that needs to be established as fact as Ms Hickson suggests.
- The article mentioned that the “What is a woman?” question had been commented on by Britain’s Opposition Leader Keir Starmer and it also reported the British Government’s quashing of the Scottish pro-trans Bill. To that extent it was not one-sided.
- As for beliefs about transgenderism in traditional Māori society, this is also matter of opinion on which some evidence was reported in this article. Ms Hickson’s argument that transgenderism was not present in pre-colonial Māori society, is a differing opinion for which she also cites support. It is not the Media Council’s role to determine the facts on issues of historical debate.
- As for balance this story was about the broadcaster’s alleged motivation and he was given the opportunity to respond on that point. Comment about transgenderism in pre-colonial Māori society was a side issue. There is no requirement to seek out differing opinions to every point raised in every article.
- The Media Council understands there are a wide range of views and levels of expertise in Te Ao Māori about takatapui and transgenderism and people have a right to express their views. Stuff’s commitment to cover a broad range of views on ongoing issues over time is an approach the Council would expect of any publisher striving to show its coverage is balanced.
- It should be noted the broadcaster has not communicated to the Media Council about the article. Althogh Stuff advised the story was taken down following a legal process, we have no information on who was involved and what, if any, legal dispute there might have been over the article.
- The Council considers the article to be straight forward reporting of comment, albeit on a subject that some people have strong opinions on. There is no clear argument to show any Media Council’s Principles were breached. The fact that it was taken down in less than 12 hours is also a defusing factor under principle 12 of the Media Council principles.
- Decision: There were insufficient grounds to proceed.