SIMON HARTMAN AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 3325

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Discrimination and Diversity

Ruling Categories:

Overview

Simon Mr Hartman complains an article headlined Kathleen Stock: the professor who lost her career amid toxic gender debate published by RNZ on May 14, 2022 is unfair to transgender people. He complains under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle (4) Comment and Fact; and Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity. The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

The article is a write-up of a radio interview by Saturday Morning host Kim Hill with British philosopher Kathleen Stock. It appeared on the RNZ website on the Radio pages. The page includes audio of the interview, a link to RNZ’s transgender podcast Let’s Be TRANSparent, plus links to several ‘related stories’ on transgender issues and places where readers can get mental health support.

Ms Stock was a professor at the University of Sussex when in 2021 a student group started a campaign to have her fired due to her views on gender self-identification. They said her position “excludes and endangers trans people”. Kathleen Stock quit her job claiming bullying and a “horrible time for me and my family”.

Ms Stock supports the rights of trans people to live their lives free from fear and discrimination but is a prominent “gender-critical” feminist and “gender non-confirming lesbian” who opposes gender self-identification. She said in the radio interview that in her view people can’t change their sex and the idea that a person’s gender identity is an expression of their inner self is harmful.

The Complaint

The Media Council does not handle complaints about live radio and the complainant is clear his concern is about the online article. That article, he says, is unfair to trans people.
  • What is the source for Ms Stock’s claim that puberty-blockers can cause physical harm?
  • How can RNZ report Ms Stock has been “de-platformed” when her case has been widely covered, including on RNZ, she was not fired and had support from her university.
  • Who is the “we” arguing that it’s a human right for a man identifying as a woman to be allowed into women’s bathrooms?
  • Ms Stock’s claim that in the areas of sexual abuse and sport, it is not a minor issue for women when a man identifies as a man. RNZ seems to be implying “trans people are sexual abusers”.
  • Why was there no counterpoint to Kathleen Stock’s strong claim that gender identity based on a person’s “inner state” is harmful.

Further, the complainant suggests RNZ should have interviewed trans people for this story. Mr Hartman is concerned the story reports a Swedish hospital involved in transgender healthcare that stopped prescribing puberty blockers out of concern they do medical harm when the claim is not attributed to Ms Stock and the source story linked to it does not mention “medical harm”.

Finally, Mr Hartman is unimpressed by RNZ’s response to his initial complaint before he approached the Council. It ignores the sexual abuse issue and tries to defend the article by quoting the radio interview, which is not the subject of his complaint. RNZ also points to the link to the Let’s Be TRANSparent podcast, but Mr Hartman asks “does a different producer at RNZ creating a series give it licence to publish unchallenged and potentially damaging views ever after?”


The Response

RNZ received “more than one complaint” about the initial radio interview and although Mr Hartman’s concern was clearly with the article, the initial response he received was a catch-all letter to those who had complained about the interview. It judged the interview against BSA standards, which do not apply to print articles.

RNZ attached that same letter in its response to the Council and inasmuch as the BSA and Council standards overlap it argues that Kathleen Stock has the right to express her opinion, as it was serious analysis offered without malice. Her view that it’s harmful for someone to say their gender identity is an aspect of their “inner state” is an example of a controversial opinion, but one she has a right to express as part of a serious discussion on a serious topic.

In its response to Mr Hartman’s complaint, RNZ does not address his specific questions as it says they were “in the nature of feedback or an attempt to continue the debate” rather than allege breaches of Council principles.

At the heart of the complaint is free speech and none of the issues raised by the complainant rise to the threshold where Ms Stock’s right to free speech should be restricted. Given Ms Stock’s “standing and expertise” in this area, it’s reasonable for RNZ to report her “professional opinions”.

When it comes to Mr Hartman’s concern about Kathleen Stock’s views on puberty blockers, they are honestly held opinions.

RNZ argues that in long-running debates such as that around gender and trans issues, it is not obliged to provide “every angle… in one particular article”. In the earlier response it says RNZ has over time presented numerous “interviews, reports and analysis” from a wide range of viewpoints on transgender issues and will continue to do so. It points specifically to its Let’s Be TRANSparent podcast, as an example of such issues being covered from a different perspective.


The Discussion

RNZ clearly received numerous complaints about the Kathleen Stock interview and resulting coverage and given the number of complaints media are subject to at this time it’s understandable it sought a catch-all approach. However that is not an excuse to reply to a complaint about a print article with arguments defending a radio interview. The initial response was disrespectful of the complaint and dismissive of the issues raised.

Mr Hartman raises reasonable questions, although his concerns are mostly with words spoken by Ms Stock rather than those written by RNZ. For example, it is Ms Stock who says she was “deplatformed” as a result of the campaign against her and the word is shown to be a quote.

The source of the claims about puberty blockers and the Swedish hospital, for example, is clearly Ms Stock herself, who has written and researched extensively on the issue. As an expert source and respected, if controversial, academic it is reasonable for a publisher to respect her expertise in these matters and place weight on her expertise. RNZ is not required to fact-check every claim. Contrary to the complaint, they are presented as Ms Stock’s analysis not as “factual reporting”.

Unhelpfully, RNZ has ignored Mr Hartman’s concern about the line written by the reporter, saying that Ms Stock says the social consequences for women are not minor when men identify as women, “especially in relation to sexual abuse and sport”. Mr Hartman argues this presents all trans men as abusers. However it can more reasonably be read that Kathleen Stock believes some trans men present a threat to women as abusers just as some trans men may present a sporting threat to women they compete against.

RNZ is correct that Ms Stock has the right to free speech and the question is whether this article breaches Council principles. In this case, is the article fair to trans people and is it balanced? Is it in breach of Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance?

While Mr Hartman, and likely others, will find Ms Stock’s view distasteful, they are clearly her own opinions based on academic research. Given her lived experience she is well placed to contribute to the ongoing debate on trans issues. There is nothing gratuitous about the discussion of transgender issues; indeed it is at the heart of Ms Stock’s resignation and is the point of the interview, so Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity has not been breached.

While Mr Hartman questions Kathleen Stock’s concerns about abuse, bathrooms and puberty blockers, it is not unfair for her to share her views and research. The story is an accurate report of the radio interview.

Mr Hartman is most concerned that the article does not contain “counterpoints” to Kathleen Stock’s views. Indeed, the story as it stands alone is a single source story with only one opinion.

RNZ and other interview-based broadcasters routinely turn single interviews like this into articles and in doing so they run a risk. Stripped of an interviewer’s often challenging questions they often lack balance and therefore rely on balance coming from other stories and reporters. Given the extensive coverage of a case such as this, it would have been easy to offer some balance, using comments in other stories about Ms Stock.

While the complainant refers to the piece as a “news article” it is not labelled news and it sits in the Radio section of the RNZ website, not the News section. In his final comment he suggests it should be labelled opinion, but it is not written by Kathleen Stock and so is not an opinion piece. Principle 4 – Comment and Fact does therefore not apply.

It might loosely be categorised as a feature, however that implies a level of research not on display here, hence the risk inherent in these stories. In fact, it is merely a write-up of a radio interview and its placement on the Radio pages, the large audio bar and the second line beginning, “She told Kim Hill…” makes that clear to readers.

Having said all that, when reporting on long-running issues such as the transgender debate – even when they are news reports – media are not expected to balance every view in every story. Balance can be achieved over time.

RNZ has for years presented numerous interviews, articles and series that offer differing, balancing views on the issue and address the complainant’s concerns. Some of them are linked to from the Kathleen Stock article page.

The complaint is not upheld under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle (4) Comment and Fact; or Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity.

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (chair), Hank Schouten; Rosemary Barraclough; Tim Watkin; Scott Inglis; Ben France-Hudson; Judi Jones; Marie Shroff; Alison Thom; Richard Pamatatau.




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