MARK HANNA AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Case Number: 2747
Council Meeting: JANUARY 2019
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Ruling Categories: Discrimination
1. Eddie Clark and Mark Hanna have lodged separate complaints against the New Zealand Herald about its publication both in the print edition and online of a column by Rachel Stewart. Both complainants are of the view that there was a breach of Media Council Principle 7 (discrimination and diversity), and Mr Clark also complains of breaches of Principles 4 (comment and fact) and 5 (columns, blogs, opinions and letters)
2, The Media Council upholds the complaint under Principle 4 but not the complaint under Principle 7.
3. On November 28, 2018, the New Zealand Herald published, in print and online, an opinion piece by Rachel Stewart (in her regular column) titled “TERF a derogatory term to shut down debate”. In it the writer voiced concerns about a proposed legislative change to permit individuals to change the details of their sex as registered at birth, and specifically objected to the term TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) to describe her stance on the issue. The item is written in forthright and colloquial language
4. After concerns had been raised about the accuracy of the column, the New Zealand Herald corrected a factual mis-statement. It also published, on November 29, 2018, an article by Louisa Wall MP responding to Ms Stewart’s arguments and expressing opposing views.
5. Mr Hanna’s complaint is of a breach of Media Council Principle 7. He describes the column as “horrendously transphobic” and lacking in respect for transgender people. He lays particular emphasis on the constant “misgendering” (using an inappropriate gender description for transgender individuals) and on the nature of which he describes as a false disclaimer at the end of the column where Ms Stewart expresses support for the human rights and respect due to transgender people.
6. Mr Clark’s complaint about a breach of Principle 7 is similar to that of Mr Hanna, with the addition of concerns about anti-semitism. He is of the view that the column includes an implication that all trans women prison inmates will be rapists and that the mention of a conspiracy between George Soros, Warren Buffet and Big Pharma is an example of a “well known anti-semitic dogwhistle”.
7. Mr Clark also complains that there is no factual basis for the conspiracy assertions. Specifically he is concerned about the passage referring to the funding of American transgender groups by Warren Buffett and George Soros and continuing “Why? Because investors want to help normalise the altering of basic human biology, and Big Pharma stands to make a fortune. It’s already started.”
8. The initial response to both complaints came in the form of identical letters from David Rowe, senior newsroom editor.The letters focussed on the potential for the column to cause offence and referred to the general rule that readers of the media have no right not to be offended. He included a statement that the reference to the funding of transgender groups and to Big Pharma was “posited as a theory” in answer to the question of who stands to gain from the advancement of “the trans train”.
9. In response to the complaints to the Media Council, Mr Rowe provided further and more detailed arguments. He said that it is important that views such as Ms Stewart’s be allowed to be heard, given that legislative change is proposed and that there has been limited coverage of dissenting voices. While he accepts that the language used by Ms Stewart is confronting, he argues that it is “expressing personal views that reflect her own fears. Unacceptable as they may seem to many readers, some of her concerns are shared by others. Given that these opinions relate to an impending law change, I believe it is relevant and in the public interest to express them.”
10. In response to the complaint under Principle 4, Mr Rowe says “it is a matter of public record that Buffett and Soros have funded . . . transgender groups in the United States. While it could be argued Stewart is drawing a long bow to the potential gains made by pharmaceutical companies, exploring such a theory is not in itself a breach of Media Council principles and I believe there is sufficient information available online and elsewhere for readers to make up their own minds.” He rejects the view that the mention of George Soros in this context amounts to anti-semitism, noting that there is no mention of his ethnic or religious background, and certainly no gratuitous emphasis
11. In summarising his views, Mr Rowe states “it is better, I believe, that views such as those expressed here by Stewart can be discussed and debated in the open”. He also notes that since publishing Ms Stewart’s column, theHerald has welcomed a response from Louisa Wall and a piece from ActionStation providing views from trans people.
12. The issue of transgender rights in the context of proposed legislative changes underlies the column published by theNew Zealand Herald and these complaints about it.It is an issue that can be expected to attract opposing views that reflect strongly held convictions, and it is the function of free media in a democratic country to provide a platform for the expression of such views and for the debate about them. Provision of such a platform does not, and should not be taken to mean that the publication adopts or agrees with all the views expressed.To enable full and effective debate, there should be only the most essential restrictions on the right of the media to publish material relevant to the debate, even if some of it is offensive, or disrespectful, or includes views that are extreme by many people’s standards. In this context the Media Council accepts Mr Rowe’s submission that the publication of the column should not be taken as an endorsement either of Ms Stewart’s views or of the language she used to express them.
13. The debate on transgender rights falls squarely within Principle 7 which provides that issues of (among other things) sexual orientation are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. What publications may not do is to place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.
14. Mr Clark has compared this case to one where the Media Council found a breach of Principle 7 in an column written by Duncan Garner about immigration. However there is a major difference between the two cases.The Duncan Garner article was about immigration and the consequences of uncontrolled population growth. The writer chose to illustrate it with remarks about certain ethnic groups that do not contribute greatly to the numbers of immigrants into New Zealand. His arguments were not advanced or aided in any way by the remarks and the Media Council could only find that they amounted to gratuitous emphasis on those ethnic groups.In the present case the whole subject matter of the debate is the nature of the transgender community and the rights that should be accorded by law to transgender people. Ms Stewart certainly expresses views and uses language that many would find unacceptable, disrespectful and offensive, but the passages to which the complainants object are relevant to the discussion of transgender rights and to issues that the proposed legislation will have to address. They do not amount to gratuitous emphasis.
15. Mr Clark also complains that the mention of George Soros amounts to anti-semitism in the context of the column. While he is probably correct in saying that Mr Soros is often a target for anti-semitism, the Media Council does not find that the mere mention of his name in connection with “Big Pharma” (and without any mention of his ethnicity or religion) is gratuitous emphasis as prohibited by Principle 7.
Principles 4 and 5
16. Principles 4 and 5 apply to the publication of opinion pieces and similar material that is not news reporting. Principle 4 requires a clear distinction between factual information and comment or opinion and also that material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate. Principle 5 repeats the requirement for a foundation of fact, but as its main focus is on other matters, the Media Council has considered the complaint under Principle 4.
- 17. Mr Rowe claims that Ms Stewart’s statements about the reasons for the funding of transgender groups in the United States are no more than the exploration of a theory and should not be taken as statements of fact.Neither he nor Ms Stewart have offered any evidence in support of the idea that major pharmaceutical companies and those who invest in them have a commercial interest in helping “normalise the altering of basic human biology” and in particular they have offered no evidence that “It’s already started”. While it is just possible to accept that Ms Stewart’s explanation of the motives of companies and investors is the exploration of a theory and not a statement of fact, the words “It’s already started” can only be taken as a statement of fact, for which no evidence whatsoever has been offered. There is undoubtedly, as Mr Rowe has submitted, a great deal of information online and elsewhere, but much of it is dubious and unreliable.Readers should be able to rely on mainstream media for accuracy.
- 18. The Media Council upholds Mr Clark’s complaint under Principle 4 but not his and Mr Hanna’s complaints under principle 7.
- 19. As a general comment, the Media Council is concerned about the practice of indiscriminately sending identical standard form letters to all complainants when an item attracts a large number of comments or complaints. There is a danger that, as in this case, such letters focus on the majority and avoid or minimise the genuine concerns voiced by other complainants. Undoubtedly many readers, including Mr Hanna and Mr Clark, were offended by Ms Stewart’s column and it was right to recognise the offence caused, but the complaints under consideration are not about feelings of offence. They are about perceived breaches of the Media Council Principles. There is a place for standard letters and standard form paragraphs in addressing a large number of concerned readers, but care must be taken to identify minority cases where additional or different issues are raised and to ensure that all responses actually address the issues that have been raised by each complainant.
Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown,
Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tracy Watkins and Tim Watkin.