JIM SCHOFIELD AGAINST NEWSHUB

Case Number: 3103

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2021

Verdict: Upheld in Part with Dissent

Publication: Discovery TV3 Newshub

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Comment and Fact
Discrimination
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. On 17 July 2021 Newshub published a news article headlined Hundreds gather in Wellington to support trans people ahead of controversial Speak Up for Women event. The article included the sentence: “Speak Up for Women has denied being anti-trans but maintains that trans women are not women – a distinctly anti-trans sentiment.” The complaint is made against a background of long running public controversy both in New Zealand and internationally, and strongly held views on both sides on transgender issues, including whether gender at birth can be changed.

2. Recent amendments have been proposed to a bill before parliament, which would allow trans people to change the sex recorded on their birth certificate by statutory declaration, rather than having to go to the Family Court; these proposals appear to be currently delayed. The High Court ruled on 24 July 2021 that the decision of the Palmerston North City Council to cancel a booking for Speak Up for Women (SUFW) to hold a meeting in its library to discuss the proposed amendments was a “serious failure” to recognise the right of SUFW to freedom of speech and assembly; that the SUFW could not “rationally be described as a hate group”; and awarded costs in favour of SUFW.

3. The complaint is upheld under Principle 4 Comment and Fact by a majority of the Media Council 7:4, because it states a conclusion which is a matter of opinion in a sentence in a news story.It confuses comment and fact. The complaint is not upheld under the other Principles cited.

The Complaint

4. Jim Schofield complains the article fails to meet Media Council Principles on a number of counts: it is opinion presented as fact; it lacks accuracy, fairness and balance as it fails to cover the views of SUFW, although it covered the views of pro trans people; it is plainly wrong in fact because a biological female cannot become a biological male and vice versa; it fails to mention the recent high court ruling that found SUFW were not a hate group and that they should be allowed to meet and discuss their views at public facilities in New Zealand; is discriminatory as it uses the abusive term TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) to describe SUFW people, which in the past has resulted in death threats against supporters of TERF views; and it breaches the headline principle as it biases the reader against SUFW.

The Response

5. The Three Standards Committee of Newshub reviewed the complaint and said, in its view, the article did not breach any Media Council Standards.Newshub “takes the view trans-women and trans-men are women and men. Speak up for Women’s claim they are not anti-trans but that trans-women are not women, is in fact anti-trans”.Newshub says the article is editorial content not opinion; that the headline fairly reflects the content of the article; the reference to SUFW members being described as TERFs is factual and gives context to the reason for the protest; the focus of the article was about the protest against the SUFW event and Newshub is satisfied appropriate supporting views were sought and presented on that focus.Newshub notes that other balancing articles have been published by Newshub, covering the high court action and the Leader of the Opposition’s recently expressed support for freedom of speech and for SUFW to be able to speak out on their views.


The Decision

Discussion, Decision and Dissent

6. The Council has considered the complaint against its principles. In relation to headlines the article fairly conveys a key element of the piece, as required by the principle. The article is not discriminatory simply because it reports the use of the term TERF. The complaints under principles relating to headlines and discrimination are therefore not upheld.

7. On the Principle of accuracy, fairness and balance, the article was largely a factual one about a protest outside Wellington Town Hall and was focused on that; balancing opinions are not always required as part of a news report. In this case, however, the views of pro transgender people and groups were included without balancing comment from SUFW. In its broader coverage of the ongoing controversy about transgender issues,Newshub has published balancing articles covering the support from the Leader of the Opposition for SUFW’s right to free speech; and the high court’s upholding of SUFW’s right to freedom of speech and assembly and rejection of SUFW being described as a hate group. These related articles were linked to in this report.

8. The Council considered carefully whether there was sufficient evidence to supportNewshub’s contention that reporting on SUFW views in the article was not required because the article was a news report focused on the pro trans protest; and because the issue is a long running one. In the Council’s viewNewshub came close to receiving an uphold decision on the Principle of accuracy, fairness and balance. But the story was a news article about a protest; and on balance it was defensible that comment reported byNewshub focused on that angle. Following considerable debate, the Council did not uphold the complaint on balance.

9. The Council also carefully considered and robustly debated the issues around the following sentence in theNewshub article: “Speak Up for Women has denied being anti-trans but maintains that trans women are not women – a distinctly anti-trans sentiment.” We note that a spokeswoman for SUFW was reported in aNewshub article of 23 August 2021 as explaining: “We don’t accept that talking about women’s rights is synonymous with being anti-trans. You can be positive about trans inclusion and improving the rights of transgender people and still want to protect women’s rights, and that’s the position our group takes”. The Council notes that this is a particularly strongly felt and controversial debate, and that there appear to be a wide range of scientific, medical and public opinions on the issues.

10. The Newshub Standards Committee says that Newshub considers trans people to be women or men, as they identify. On that basis their response effectively claims that they have a defence of truth or fact for their statement, presented as fact in the news report complained of, that SUFW is anti-trans because it holds the opinion that trans women are not women.

11. The Council’s Principle 4 on Comment and Fact states: “A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.”

12. The preamble to the Media Council’s Principles states in part “Distinctions between fact, on the one hand, and conjecture, opinion or comment on the other hand, must be maintained. This does not prevent rigorous analysis. Nor does it interfere with a publication’s right to adopt a forthright stance or to advocate on any issues.”

13. Newshub is entitled to adopt an opinion on this issue, but it should be clear when it is doing so. In this case an opinion was simply dropped into a news story as though it was an uncontested fact, with no indication that an opinion was being expressed.

14. The majority of the Council takes the view that stating that the position of SUFW is an anti-trans sentiment in a report giving news, when it has been denied that the position is anti-trans by those who hold it, is clearly opinion stated as fact; and is therefore a breach of Principle 4. The story is set out as a straightforward news report and if the sentence in question had been attributed to someone else and presented as their opinion this would have been compliant with the Principle. We emphasise that we do not take a position on the issue of whether a person who says that trans women are not women is or is not adopting a distinctly anti-trans sentiment.

15. A majority of the Council upholds the complaint that the article breached the Council’s Principle 4 Comment and Fact.

Dissent

16. Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson and Sandy Gill dissented and would not have upheld the complaint under Principle 4.They are of the view that those representing trans women have made it very clear that being a woman is an essential and integral part of a trans woman’s identity. It follows that to say a trans woman is not a woman, as SUFW does, is to deny that identity and devalue trans women. In reporting SUFW’s stance as anti-trans,Newshub may be reporting its own opinion, but it is also reporting the strongly-held beliefs of those most affected by SUFW’s stance. This is hardly a matter of opinion. At the very least, various shades of opinion on transgender issues are so widely canvassed that it is problematic to determine whether the statement was ‘opinion’ or simply descriptive of a general opinion about SUFW.Newshub has also shown that it has published balancing comment across its reporting on this long running controversial issue.

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

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