NATASHA HAMILTON-HART AGAINST THE NZ HERALD
Case Number: 3402
Council Meeting: 8 May 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
- Natasha Hamilton-Hart complained a series of roughly 50 articles published by the New Zealand Herald (Herald) between 19-27 March 2023 breached Media Council Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle (4) Comment and Fact. The articles relate to the New Zealand visit of Kelly-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker. Most were Herald stories but a few on the Herald website were drawn from other NZME publications.
- Ms Keen-Minshull’s views on women’s rights and transgender rights have sparked debate and protest in every country she has visited. The week before coming to New Zealand Ms Keen- Minshull held an event in Melbourne. A neo-Nazi group turned up and made Nazi salutes, sparking criticism from event organisers and counter-protestors alike.
- Ahead of Ms Keen-Minshull’s visit to New Zealand, Immigration New Zealand reviewed her case but decided she was not a sufficient threat to security that Immigration Minister Michael Wood needed to stop her entering the country. A coalition of Rainbow support groups appealed to the High Court, but it upheld the decision.
- Ms Keen-Minshull visited New Zealand to lead Let Women Speak events in Auckland and Wellington on the weekend of 25-26 March 2023, prompting intense public debate. She left the Auckland event at Albert Park without speaking, having been drowned out and surrounded by counter-protestors. One poured tomato juice over her. The Wellington event was cancelled
- While the Council can take complaints about a series of articles it is unusual to consider as many as 50. We have, however, decided to in this case because of the number of complaints we received about the coverage of Ms Keen-Minshull and the complainant’s focus on a single event.
- Natasha Hamilton-Hart’s concern focuses on reports by the New Zealand Herald between 19 -27 March 2023. She says the Herald ran 53 reports in that time (though by the Council’s count several of those referred to letters to the editor). In her complaint she specifically refers to a 19 March article about Ms Keen-Minshull’s Melbourne rally, a 27 March editorial, opinion pieces and quotes from a range of articles.
- Most of the complainant’s concerns are considered under Media Council Principle (1) which requires journalists to be “bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance”, with fair voice given to opposition views. Balance can be judged over on a number of stories, as in this case.
- The complainant says news reports repeatedly referred to Ms Keen-Minshull as an “anti-trans activist” when she is in fact a women’s rights advocate consistently speaking up for women and their right to single sex spaces, sports and services.
- She rejects as misleading the Herald’s defence that Ms Keen-Minshull has called herself a TERF, saying in context it is clearly a slur meant to denigrate Ms Keen-Minshull and Ms Keen-Minshull has only accepted it as a form of “ironic resistance”, in the same way some gay and lesbian people have claimed the term “queer” as a form of resistance against those who used it as an insult.
- The groups who organised her speaking events do not oppose trans rights or removing civil rights from trans people. Some, for example, support unisex “third spaces”. Ms Hamilton-Hart acknowledges there are currently complex conflicts between those advocating for women’s and trans rights but it is reductive to describe advocacy for women as anti-trans. She compares it to calling feminists “anti-men” or gay people as “anti-heterosexual”. She adds, the claim that “trans women are not women” is a “foundational claim” and a “simple statement of biological fact”. Women are a distinct sex with specific needs and rights, which need not be in conflict with trans rights. Arguing women have rights in law distinct from trans people does not deny those trans people their political or civil rights and so is not anti-trans.
- The March 19 article says, “Supporters of Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker, were seen to be giving Nazi salutes and abusing LGBT counter-protestors in Melbourne”. The complainant says this is inaccurate. Those giving Nazi salutes were clearly separate from the Let Women Speak attendees and the Nazi group was publicly denounced by the event organiser and Ms Keen-Minshull.
- The March coverage in the Herald gave Ms Keen-Minshull or others supportive of Let Women Speak “minimal space” compared to the column inches given to her opponents. Balance was not achieved.
- That imbalance was on display in the opinion pieces the Herald chose to run. Numerous columns were hostile to Let Women Speak and Ms Keen-Minshull but in the 10-27 March period not a single opinion piece was published from someone who believes women are entitled to single sex spaces, sports and services.
- The one-sided coverage extended to descriptions of Let Women Speak as “vile”, “hateful”, “anti- trans” and “harmful”. It also suggested the group was in collusion with Nazis and white supremacists. This fed hysteria and gave license to those who ultimately shut down the events.
- Ms Hamilton-Hart argues a 27 March editorial’s description of the Auckland event as “mostly peaceful” is a “gross distortion of fact”. She says video publicly available soon after the event showed a mob broke through the barrier and “they screamed aggressively, shouted, spat at women, threw objects and liquids”. What’s more, “several women were seriously physically assaulted, many others were shoved and menaced by a throng pressing in on them from all sides”. This part of the complaint comes under Principle (4) Comment and Fact which says, “material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate”.
- In response, the Herald says Ms Hamilton-Hart’s complaint focuses on two issues: the description of Ms Keen-Minshull and her supporters as 'anti-trans'; and the 27 March editorial which described the protest as 'mostly peaceful'.
- The Herald rejects the claim that the ‘anti-trans’ label misrepresents Ms Keen-Minshull and her supporters. The Herald points out Ms Keen-Minshull has called herself a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) and sees no evidence to support a follow-up claim by Ms Hamilton-Hart that Ms Keen-Minshull is using that term ironically. Ms Keen-Minshull’s view that transgender women have no right to identify as women has been widely reported and is central to her advocacy, hence the “anti-trans” description.
- The Herald’s conclusion that the protest was “mostly peaceful” was based on information the writer had at the time, from reporters at the event. While two anti- Ms Keen-Minshull protestors have since been charged with assault (one for tipping juice over Ms Keen-Minshull, the other for punching a woman reportedly in her 70s), that was weeks after the editorial was published. The Herald had covered those charges being laid and will continue to report on them as more information comes to light. The Herald said there is still no evidence “several women were seriously physically assaulted” but “should this information stack up we will be sure to cover it”.
- In its initial response to Ms Hamilton-Hart’s initial complaint, the Herald says it is a fact that neo- Nazis attended Ms Keen-Minshull’s Melbourne event and gave salutes. “While the people giving Nazi salutes may have been supporters of Ms Keen-Minshull, it has been made clear in several stories in the Herald that Ms Keen-Minshull has distanced herself from them.”
- The Herald also rejected the complainant’s assertion the coverage was one-sided saying the paper interviewed Ms Keen-Minshull “a number of times”, had a reporter meet her at Auckland Airport, did a podcast on her views, and shared her videos and tweets.
- The Herald did not address the complainant’s concerns about its lack of balance in its opinion pieces.
- The Media Council has received numerous complaints about coverage of Ms Keen-Minshull’s visit to New Zealand. We would stress it is not our place to have views on social issues. Rather, the Council’s job is simply to apply our principles, upholding media freedom and the highest professional standards.
- By publishing 50-odd stories on Ms Keen-Minshull in a nine day period, it’s clear the Herald saw her visit and the issues it raised as a story of significant public interest. Its coverage was extensive.
- Reviewing those stories, the complainant is correct that Ms Keen-Minshull was most commonly described as an “anti-trans activist”. That term was however not used to describe the groups who organised her events, as Ms Hamilton-Hart claims. There is nothing in the reporting that misrepresents these groups.
- While Ms Keen-Minshull is described as “anti-trans” in about two-thirds of the stories, Herald reporters and contributors also described her as a “gender activist” or “British activist” on several occasions. Other descriptions included “women’s rights campaigner”, “controversial activist”, “British speaker”, “TERF” and “pint-sized female Brit”. Several articles said she was a “self- described women’s rights campaigner” or similar and some said she was “labelled as an anti-trans activist” or similar.
- While the Herald says there’s no evidence Ms Keen-Minshull ‘s self-description as a TERF is ironic, Ms Hamilton-Hart’s point that Ms Keen-Minshull has claimed the term as a form of resistance is well made. Ms Keen-Minshull has rejected the label “anti-trans” and calls herself a campaigner for women’s rights.
- Yet it is also true that Ms Keen-Minshull has repeatedly asserted that she does not recognise trans women as women. While Ms Hamilton-Hart sees this as a statement of biological fact, others see it as a denial of gender and identity. And Ms Keen-Minshull has gone further. She has said, for example, “transgender ideology is an existential threat to women”. She told RNZ’s Morning Report in an interview ahead of her Auckland event that “We are male and female. Non-binary is something I’m pretty sure nobody can actually, properly describe”. So describing Ms Keen- Minshull as “anti-trans” is literally accurate and not, as the complainant claims, “inconsistent with the substantive meaning of these words”. While the Let Women Speak movement may well cover a range of views, it is not a “misleading distortion” to report Ms Keen-Minshull’s views as hostile to trans people. Thousands of trans people worldwide have made it clear how anti/hostile they feel Ms Keen-Minshull is towards them.
- While media organisations often seek to give people in the public eye the right to describe themselves, that is not a universal rule. The media is free to choose how it describes people as long as it does not breach Council Principles. We have seen for many years in the abortion debate, for example, arguments about whether certain campaigners are pro-life or anti-abortion. The Council does not tell editors what position to take in this matter and neither will it in when it comes to transgender issues. Many fair and accurate labels are available to describe Ms Keen- Minshull and ‘anti trans’ is one of them. We would note that, on the same grounds, we would not uphold a complaint against the description of Ms Keen-Minshull in the Herald as a “women’s rights campaigner”. That, from another point of view, is also an accurate description.
- Reviewing all the stories published during this period made it clear that there were a handful of people repeatedly quoted in opposition to Ms Keen-Minshull, sometimes in the strongest terms. They had every right to be quoted and to express their opinions. There were distinctly fewer people quoted in support of her; indeed really only the Let Women Speak organisers and JK Rowling were quoted as Ms Keen-Minshull allies.
- While more effort could have been made to give voice to a wider range of views, Ms Keen- Minshull was given significant opportunity to speak for herself. She was quoted in most of the stories that addressed her opinions and event, as opposed to the stories that covered wider issues of free speech and debates between political parties.
- On the neo-Nazis in Melbourne, it’s clear they were supporting some of Ms Keen-Minshull’s positions on trans issues, notably linking transgenderism and paedophilia. Given the event organisers and Ms Keen-Minshull herself had quickly distanced themselves from the group it would have been fairer to find another way of describing them. Indeed, this was an RNZ story published by the Herald and RNZ changed the line from “Supporters of Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker, were seen to be giving Nazi salutes…” to “Some protesters were seen to be giving Nazi salutes…”. The Herald would have been wise to do the same. However it’s undeniable the neo-Nazis were there to “support” Ms Keen-Minshull. No-one gets to choose their supporters, so while it could have been written more clearly, it is not inaccurate to call them “supporters”.
- The Herald’s description of the event at Albert Park as “mostly peaceful” was borderline, given the video of intimidating behaviour of some of the counter-protestors in pushing over barriers, surrounding and abusing Ms Keen-Minshull and even pouring juice over her. Add in the subsequent police charges and it’s understandable the word “peaceful” jars with the complainant. However for the vast majority of the people at the event and for the vast majority of the time there, it was non-violent, if loud. The description of the event as “mostly” peaceful makes clear some elements were not peaceful. Therefore the description, while debatable, cannot be said to be inaccurate under Principle (4).
- Where Ms Hamilton-Hart’s complaint is strongest, however, is her point that the Herald during this period did not publish a single opinion piece “by someone who shares the view that women [as the complainant would define them] are fully entitled to single sex spaces, services and sports”.
- By the Council’s reading Ms Hamilton-Hart is correct. A couple of articles were neutral or critical of the counter-protestors and one acknowledged “an argument that things have moved too far”. However the majority of the 15 opinion pieces published were critical of Ms Keen-Minshull, some in very strong terms.
- The Herald would reasonably be reluctant to give space to some of Ms Keen-Minshull’s views – on Islam, for example. But there are other core issues worthy of debate. It’s disappointing the Herald considered those issues of such public interest that it saw fit to run 15 related opinion pieces in nine days yet was unable or unwilling to find someone to wrestle with the issues raised by the complainant.
- The Council however is unwilling to uphold the complaint for two main reasons. First, our Principles give media time to provide balance on long-running issues. A nine day period is not sufficient time to judge the Herald as failing in this matter. The Herald has run opinion pieces of the kind the complainant is seeking in the past and we expect it will find a wider range of voices in the future.
- Second, the Council is reluctant to instruct editors on what opinions they should publish and has always set a very high bar for complaints around matters of opinion. Media independence is key to the Council’s commitment to a free press and editors must be free to exercise their judgment. Readers are always free to get their news and commentary elsewhere if they do not like that judgment. So while Ms Hamilton-Hart has given the Herald’s editors something to think about in terms of giving a wider range of views over time, the discretion to do so remains with the Herald.
- Under Principle (1) the complaint against the ‘anti-trans’ description and the balance of the Herald’s coverage is not upheld. Neither is the complaint that the Herald’s opinion pieces did not achieve balance over time and that it was inaccurate to describe the Nazi’s at Ms Keen-Minshull’s Melbourne rally as “supporters”.
- The complaint under Principle (4) that the facts in the March 27 editorial are materially inaccurate is also not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were Raynor Asher, Hank Schouten, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Katrina Bennett, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom. Council member Scott Inglis declared a conflict of interest with this complaint and did not participate in the discussion or vote.