STEPHAN FERRIS AGAINST GAY EXPRESS
Stephan Ferris complained that a story published in the Gay Express, “NZAF Denounce Visiting Bareback Porn Star” [New Zealand Aids Foundation], breached Press Council Principles 1 Accuracy Fairness and Balance, 4 Comment and Fact, 6 Headlines and Captions, 7 Discrimination and Diversity, 10 Conflicts of Interest, 11 Photographs and Graphics, 12 Corrections.
On April 29, Gay Express ran a story on Stephan Ferris, a gay porn star who goes by the name of Blue Bailey, who was in New Zealand to film a documentary on a drug known as PrEp (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), taken by people who are HIV negative, but who have a higher than average risk of contracting an HIV infection. PrEp is not available in New Zealand.
The story was headlined “NZAF Denounce Visiting Bareback Porn Star”; the standfirst stated: “Controversial US bareback porn star Blue Bailey, who is currently in New Zealand shooting a documentary on PreEp, has drawn the ire of the NZAF”. The story was illustrated by two images, one of the complainant holding a “Love Your Condom” banner, the other posing for the Gay Express photographer.
The story covered the complainant’s reason for visiting New Zealand and detailed his appearance at an event where he was photographed with the banner. It described in graphic detail his role in the controversial 2014 porn movie Viral Loads, in which he “was a bareback bottom”. The article said the film had shocked many safe-sex advocates.
The complainant, who is HIV positive, dismissed criticism of the unsafe sex in his film, Viral Loads, saying he “doesn’t view porn as sex education”.
The story also quoted New Zealand Aids Foundation (NZAF) chief executive Shaun Robinson, who described the complainant’s Viral Loads film as “completely irresponsible”.
He said that for the complainant “to say the porn industry has no responsibility for promoting a safe-sex message is immoral”.
In a follow-up in the Gay Express a week later responding to the controversy that followed the NZAF’s comments in the April 29 story, Shaun Robinson confirmed that NZAF is actively lobbying for a PrEp trial in New Zealand, and was hopeful they would have it off the ground within 12 months.
The complainant said he was given to understand that he was being interviewed and photographed for an article concerning a documentary he was filming on a medical intervention for HIV transmission known as PrEp.
He said at no time was he contacted after the interview to respond to comments made by Shaun Robinson. He said, “In the interests of fair journalistic practice, a headline which denounces an individual warrants the opportunity to comment further or at the very least the right of reply in the same forum.”
He said the publication should have disclosed that NZAF is the fourth largest advertiser with Gay Express, suggested a “clear potential for bias based on the controversial nature of the topic”.
In his earlier correspondence with Gay Express he questioned the paper’s right to use the image showing him holding the “Love Your Condom” sign. He accused the Express of having used the image to obtain comment “and in particular ‘condemnation’” without having given him the opportunity to comment on its meaning or purpose.
The complainant said he did not solicit the article in Gay Express.
The director of Gay Express Richard Todd stated the complainant had approached Gay Express and another website to get publicity for his visit.
He said the “Love Your Condom” image had been sourced from the Facebook page of the organisation which held an event the complainant had attended, and was therefore in the public domain and not subject to copyright. The newspaper sourced the image after Shaun Robinson, CEO of NZAF, had questioned why a proponent of condom-less sex would hold up such a sign.
He said the complainant was asked in the interview how he responds to criticism of unsafe sex in the porn industry and the message it may send. His response, that he didn’t view porn as sex education, was countered by Robinson’s assertion that “for porn to be presenting the norm of condom-less sex being safe and ok is completely contradicting what the gay community around the world has spent 30 years trying to build up, which is a culture of safety”.
Mr Todd denied editorial bias, arguing that as the only publication and a leading website geared to the gay community it was obvious that the NZAF would use it to promote their safe-sex message. All safe-sex promotion with Gay Express was in the form of paid display advertising, he said, not advertorial comment.
He believed the article was balanced, and said given the controversial nature of the content, it was important that it included a comment from the NZAF, which receives taxpayer funding to promote the safe-sex message in New Zealand.
The issue of unprotected, or condom-less, gay sex, and the consequent risk of HIV infection, is highly controversial, as the number of comments on the Gay Express website following publication of the story indicates.
The complainant has accused Gay Express of breaching a total of seven Press Council principles, which we will deal with individually.
Principle 1, Accuracy Fairness and Balance. At the time he was interviewed, the complainant believed the article would focus on him and his reasons for being in New Zealand, but the journalist rightly sought comment from the NZAF to balance the extreme views he expressed on the subject of condom-less sex. Shaun Robinson’s response was highly critical of the porn star’s sexual practices; however given that the issues of safe sex and protection of the community from HIV infection are the NZAF’s primary concerns, we do not consider the strong language to be out of place as it was clearly his honestly held opinion. The newspaper was not under any obligation to offer the complainant the right of reply, as the NZAF comments provided context and balance to a story which would otherwise have delivered a very one-sided point of view on an important health issue.
Principle 4 Comment and Fact. The Gay Express story is largely made up of quotes from Ferris/Bailey and Robinson. There is no breach of principle 4.
Principle 6 Headlines and Captions. The headline to this story “NZAF Denounce Visiting Bareback Porn Star” does err on the side of sensationalism but it does accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report. To denounce is to “speak out against, accuse or condemn”. NZAF’s Shaun Robinson’s final quote, “To say the porn industry has no responsibility for promoting a safe sex message is immoral,” does all of that.
Principle 7 Discrimination and Diversity. The narrative at the beginning of the story sets the scene for the quotes that follow, and while the language is at times colourful, it deals with matters pertaining to gay sex, which is entirely appropriate in a publication whose target audience is the gay community.
Principle 10 Conflicts of Interest. Gay Express is the only New Zealand publication (it also has a website) that targets the gay community, and as such receives advertising revenue from the NZAF. All NZAF safe-sex advertising material is in the form of paid advertising, not advertorial. There is no reason however why the journalist should not go to the government-funded agency for a quote on safe-sex practices to balance a story where condom-less sex was espoused, particularly in light of the fact that PrEp is not currently available in New Zealand as an alternative measure to prevent HIV transmission.
Principle 11 Photographs and Graphics. The photograph in question was sourced from a public Facebook page, and was therefore in the public domain. There is no breach of principle 11.
Principle 12 Corrections. There was no complaint of factual inaccuracy, therefore no requirement for a correction.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.