JAN RIVERS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2930

Council Meeting: JULY 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Jan Rivers initially complained about an article headed JK Rowling, Harry Potter author, accused of making anti-transgender tweets and published by Stuff on June 7, 2020. After some research, she expanded the complaint to include a further five articles about JK Rowling and her views on issues to do with sexuality and gender identity. . Two of these articles were published on December 20, 2019 and the other three on June 7, 8 and 9, 2020. She considers the articles breached Principles 1 (accuracy fairness and balance), 6 (headlines and captions), and 7 (discrimination and diversity) of the Media Council principles.

2. Although the complaints about the December 2019 articles were made after the expiry of the usual time frame for making a complaint, the Media Council has accepted them under paragraph 2(b) of its complaints procedure. This paragraph provides that a complaint arising from a series of articles may be considered if it is made within one calendar month of the earlier of the date from which the substance of the complaint would have been reasonably apparent to the complainant, or the publication of the last article in the series.

3. The Media Council does not uphold the complaints.

4. Ms Rivers, accompanied by a support person, exercised her right to address the Media Council in person. She was advised that no new material could be introduced, and spoke on that basis for about ten minutes, largely on the background to the complaint but also on the Stuff response to the complaint. She then answered questions.The editor of Stuff was invited to attend in person but declined the invitation.

Background

5. The June 7 article concerned reactions to a series of tweets posted by Ms Rowling which some commentators criticised as transphobic. The tweets included comment on the use of the term “people who menstruate” rather than “women” in a report on the social problems created by Covid 19, and “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased”. Probably the main point she made was that it is“nonsense” to say that women like her “hate trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences”. Attached to the article was a photograph with the caption “The Harry Potter author received backlash for her transphobic tweets.”

6. The June 8 article, which was headed JK Rowling faces backlash from fans over tweets considered transphobic begins by providing some context for the earlier article by explaining the report on which Ms Rowling was commenting. It includes four paragraphs that largely consist of Ms Rowling’s expression of her views, interspersed with the (mostly tweeted) reaction of five individuals from the entertainment industry with opposing views and of an LGBTQ organisation. The final paragraph is a further comment from Ms Rowling.

7. The June 9 article begins with a somewhat ambiguous comment from actress Katie Leung but consists mostly of quotations from Ms Rowling, expanding on her views.Finally, the Jun 11 article, which is headedHarry Potter author JK Rowling reveals she is a ‘sexual assault survivor’, consists mostly of excerpts from an essay written by Ms Rowling in reaction to the criticisms that had been made of her but begins with a brief explanation of the background.

8. The December articles concern similar comments made by Ms Rowling after reports that a researcher at the Centre for Global Development had lost an appeal against her dismissal “for stating that people cannot change their biological sex.”

9. After receiving Ms Rivers’ original complaint, Stuff changed the caption on the June 7 photograph to “The Harry Potter author has been criticised over some recent tweets.” It also added more of Ms Rowling’s comments to the article.

The Complaint

10. Ms Rivers summarises her complaint as about Stuff’s consistent failure over time to address women’s concerns about intrusions into their sex-based rights. She acknowledges the changes made by Stuff to the June 7 article but says her substantive complaint has not been addressed. She has supplied a detailed analysis of the six articles in the context of the Media Council principles, along with an extensive commentary on issues of media freedom.

11. Principle 1

Ms Rivers submits that in all the articles there are accusations of transphobia without any supporting evidence or argument. Ms Rowling’s concerns are not explored in any depth and only “selective and verbatim quotes” throw any light on them. The reporting is inaccurate, prejudiced and unbalanced towards Ms Rowling and by implication towards those who share her views. There is no mention of “the other kinds of violence and threats to women” and in particular of the use of accusations of transphobia to intimidate women.

12. Principle 6

Five of the six headlines link Ms Rowling with anti-transgender views when there is no evidence in the articles to support such a link. One caption refers to Ms Rowling’s “transphobic tweets” when there is no evidence of transphobia in the related article. The caption was later changed, but this was several days after publication.

13. Principle 7

All the articles have “crossed the boundary” of discrimination against Ms Rowling as a woman in a number of ways. This is particularly the case in the June 11 article where there is a focus on the part of Ms Rowling’s blog that deals with her sexual assault and domestic violence; a very small part of the total content and one that only sets the scene for the following material. In addition, placing the words “sexual assault survivor” in quotation marks in the headline appears to cast doubt on her claim.

14. None of the articles makes the point that Ms Rowling is speaking about discrimination against women, and is not attacking transgender people. Nor is there any mention of support for Ms Rowling’s views, while multiple sources are quoted in support of the allegations of transphobia. This “gives the impression that she is an outlier in her beliefs and statements.”

15. In her final written submission to the Media Council, Ms Rivers again emphasises that she seeks balanced coverage over time and notes that Stuff has offered no explanation for the “extraordinary treatment of [Ms Rowling’s] essay” where her account of sexual abuse and violence is presented as the story when it is only a small part of the easy.

The Response

16. Clio Francis, Chief News Director of Stuff, initially responded to Ms Rivers’ complaint about the June 7 article, stating that the issue of whether or not something is transphobic is subjective, and that some members of the LGBT community had found Ms Rowling’s remarks offensive. The article included both the criticism of Ms Rowling's tweets and her response to the criticism. Ms Francis disagreed with the assertion that the reporting was inaccurate, prejudicial and unbalanced. The story was written as a news report, not an opinion piece and any comment in it was in the form of attributed quotes or embedded tweets.

17. After Ms Rivers’ complaint was made to the Media Council, a further response was received from Patrick Crewdson, Stuff Editor in Chief. He summarised the issues in the complaint by saying:

“Ms Rivers complains that

  • Stuff has reported that some statements by the famous author, JK Rowling, have been criticised as transphobic
  • Rivers’ view is that those statements were in defence of women’s rights and were not transphobic
  • She argues Stuff has not sufficiently reflected that view

Stuff’s position is

  • Rivers confuses Stuff reporting on criticism made against Rowling, for Stuff itself alleging Rowling is transphobic
  • Rowling’s comments were newsworthy. Stuff has reported them accurately.

As a famous and powerful writer, Rowling is her own best advocate, and a lack of supporters being quoted in the stories does not render them unbalanced.”

18. He provided a summary of Stuff’s position by saying “…the stories Stuff published on JK Rowling’s contentious tweets reported her comments accurately, achieved balance between Rowling’s comments and responses from critics, were straight news reports that did not merge comment and fact, and certainly do not constitute discrimination against women or any other group.”

19. The December articles, like the June articles, covered newsworthy comments made on two separate but thematically similar incidents and were not part of any sort of co-ordinated campaign.

The Decision

20. Submissions made by Ms Rivers go well beyond the content of her complaint. While the Media Council has not considered them in any detail except as they do relate to the complaint, it acknowledges the research and analysis that has gone into them and finds them useful as background.

21. It is also noted that Ms Rivers complains about “Stuff’s consistent failure over time to address women’s concerns about intrusions into their sex-based rights”. This sort of broadly based concern, which is largely a matter of perception, and is effectively a complaint of a failure to be proactive, does not fall within the remit of the Media Council.

Principle 1

22. In determining the issues under principle 1, it is important to understand that the articles in question are news reports, not expressions of the opinion of the publication or its reporters.The articles certainly report on matters of opinion, but without endorsing or adopting the opinions. The question as regards accuracy, therefore, is whether the opinions were accurately reported, not whether they were based on accurate facts. The media are free, for example to report on proceedings at a convention of flat-earthers, but such a report is not an endorsement of their beliefs. As there is no question of inaccurate reporting, the Media Council cannot find a breach of this part of Principle 1.

23. Principle 1 also requires fairness and balance and specifically requires that in articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. However an exception may apply when there are long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion. Changing social and scientific attitudes to matters of gender or sex have resulted in considerable media attention and in this context there is certainly a long-running issue.

24. The Media Council can find no unfairness or lack of balance in the June 7 article. It is a brief report of Ms Rowling’s remarks, with (as amended) four paragraphs of direct quotes from her. It included a general account of criticisms of the remarks along with three paragraphs quoting from GLAAD, a “US LGBT advocacy group”. The article appears eminently fair and balanced.However it has to be considered in the context of the other articles.

25. Ms Rivers has supplied a detailed analysis of all six articles, pointing out that, in her view at least, none of Ms Rowling’s remarks are transphobic and some are supportive of trans people. This may be so, but at no point does Stuff describe the remarks as transphobic. The focus of the articles is on the reaction to the remarks, and clearly some of those reactions were from people who considered the remarks transphobic. Reporting such reactions does not amount to unfairness or imbalance so long as opposing views are fairly represented.

26. Only one of the articles has any appearance of imbalance, and that is the June 8 article. It quotes from six persons or organisations who hold opposing views to Ms Rowling’s without mentioning any who share her views.Considered as a standalone piece, a case might be made out for imbalance.However it is not a standalone piece. It clearly references the June 7 article, and was immediately followed by two more articles, both of which accord much more space to Ms Rowling and her views than to the opposition.

27. Ms Rivers has mentioned in particular the treatment of Ms Rowling’s essay, which was the subject of the June 11 article, noting that Stuff reported and commented on only the small part of it that covered sexual abuse and violence rather than the main themes of the essay.However it was that small part of it that was news – information that had not previously been made public. The general views expressed in the essay were already publicly available and the article included a link to the essay so that interested readers could read it for themselves. The article made it clear in the introductory paragraphs that the sexual abuse revelation was a small part found at the end of the long essay.Taken in the context of the six articles, the Media Council does not find unfairness or imbalance in the omission of comment on or quotation from the remainder of the essay.

Principle 6

28. Principle 6 requires that headlines and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.

29. The original June 7 article included a caption referring to Ms Rowling’s “anti-transgender tweets”. This was not a fair reflection of the article, which was careful to avoid describing the tweets as transphobic or anti-transgender, and Stuff properly changed the caption in response to Ms Rivers’ complaint.

30. The headlines and captions to the remaining articles use terms like “tweets considered transphobic” and “criticism for transgender comments”, which accurately reflect the content of the articles.

31. Ms Rivers comments on the use of quotation marks in the headline Harry Potter author JK Rowling reveals she is a ‘sexual assault survivor’, saying they indicate some doubt about Ms Rowling’s assertion. There is no such doubt expressed in the article, and the more obvious use of the quotation marks is to indicate a direct quote from the subject of the article.

Principle 7

32. Probably the main concerns in Ms Rivers’ complaint fall under the Media Council’s principle 7. This principle provides :

Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.

33. The interpretation of the principles has evolved over time, and Ms Rivers’ complaint has been accepted under the “issues of gender” and “issues of sexual orientation” categories but the Media Council acknowledges that this may not be the best way to describe some of the issues in the complaint, and is not the way Ms Rivers would have chosen to describe them.

34. Despite some difficulty with the wording, the intent of Principle 7 is reasonably clear. Discussion of some issues has the potential to affect certain groups whose rights need particular protection and there is no real doubt that women and trans-gender people are among those groups.In recent years there have been changing social and scientific views on gender- and sex-related matters, and these changes are, in the public interest, legitimate subjects for discussion and reporting.What the media must not do in this context is to emphasise gender, sexual orientation etc when it is not relevant to the issue under discussion, does not add to the debate and could well harm the protected group.

35. The articles in question are straightforward reporting of the views of a prominent person on a matter of public interest, accompanied by reporting of opposing views. The Media Council can see no element of gratuitous emphasis in them.

36. The complaint is not upheld.


Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.