MEGAN BOWRA-DEAN AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2634

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] The complaint is in relation to an article published by Stuff on October 2. The article was originally published inThe Telegraph, UK. Ms Bowra-Dean alleges that two NZ Press Council principles have been breached:

  • Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
  • Principle 4: Comment and Fact

[2] The Stuff article focused on Professor Miroslav Djordjevic’s professional experience as a genital reconstructive surgeon and his observation of the trend of requests for the reversal of gender re-assignment surgery.

[3] The article also contains commentary on a master’s thesis research proposal by a psychotherapist who specialises in working with transgender people which would have focused on “detransitioning” but was declined by Bath Spa University ethics committee.

The Complaint

[4] The complaint is based on a Stuff article with the original headline: More transgender people asking for reversal surgery.This headline was later updated to: Serbian doctor tells of transgender reversals.

[5] The article appeared in the Life & Style section of Stuff dated October 2.

[6] The article focuses primarily on the professional experience of genital reconstructive surgeon Professor Miroslav Djordjevic and the trend in requests he observed for the reversal of gender reassignment surgery.

[7] Ms Bowra-Dean complains that Principle 1 has been breached as the article does not provideBalance, “There is no voice given to anyone dissenting to the opinions presented in the article and facts have been selectively quoted to reinforce the overall bias of it. This is unacceptable for a sensitive issue of this nature.”

[8] There is a further allegation of a second NZ Press Council Principle breach. Ms Bowra-Dean has complained that reference in the article about a “powerful transgender lobby” group is presented as fact rather than opinion. The comment is in relation to a master’s thesis research proposal by a psychotherapist who specialises in working with transgender people to research “detransitioning”. The full sentence reads, “But after submitting the more detailed proposal to Bath Spa [university], he discovered he had been referred to the university ethics committee, which rejected it over fears of criticism that might be directed towards the university.Not least on social media from the powerful transgender lobby.”

[9] A second alleged breach of Principle 4 concerns the closing sentence of the article, again, Ms Bowra-Dean is suggesting that opinion is being presented as fact. The final sentence of the article reads, “These are profoundly life-changing matters around which he [Professor Miroslav Djordjevic] like many in his industry feels far better debate is required to promote new understanding. But at the moment, it seems, that debate is simply being shut down.” Ms Bowra-Dean does not agree with the view that debate is simply being shut down, “There is no evidence to suggest the silencing of these opinions. The very fact that they are being published uncritically by multiple publications of the mainstream media suggests the very opposite.”

The Response

[10] In a response to the complainant, editor of Stuff, Patrick Crewdson, acknowledged that the article had been re-published on Stuff,” notwithstanding the limits of syndication agreements, we acknowledge that Stuff bears ultimate responsibility for the stories we select for publication on our platform, so our reply is written in that context.”

[11] Mr Crewdson has set the context of the article as being ”an interview with Professor Miroslav Djordjevic, a Professor of Urology and Surgery at the School of Medicine in University of Belgrade, Serbia.”

[12] Mr Crewdson further adds that the article “follows the recent publication of a number of stories in international media after a UK university rejected a research proposal from a psychotherapist, James Caspian, who specialises in therapy for transgender people. Among the reasons reportedly given was that his research could be seen as ‘politically incorrect’ and could provoke a social media backlash.”

[13] In direct response to Ms Bowra-Dean’s complaint about bias, Mr Crewdson was unsure “what she believes the article is biased towards or against.” Mr Crewdson added further comment, “In a follow up email to Stuff’s Chief News Director Keith Lynch Ms Bowra-Dean wrote that the article is “framed entirely in negative language with unrelated scare-mongering about trans youth and anecdotal stories about WPATH’s surgical standards supposedly not being applied.”

[14] Mr Crewdson states that Stuff does not agree that the story is biased, “It does not misinform or mislead readers. The story does not purport to be an exhaustive look at transgender issues.”

[15] Mr Crewdson posits that the story “instead explores a one particular topic – reversal surgery and the ethical standards applied before surgery goes ahead.” It is suggested that the article “does not take a position opposing transgender surgery.” Mr Crewdson states, “By reporting the concerns of Prof Djordjevic about the evaluation conducted and support available before transition surgery and his views of the reversal process, based on his experience, the story is neither scare-mongering nor presenting a negative picture of transgender transitioning.”

[16] In response to Ms Bowra-Dean’s comments about a lack of balance, Mr Crewdson suggests, “The story’s tone is primarily cautious, and “an alternative voice” would appear, in this case, to simply challenge Professor Djordjevic’s assertions that strict ethical guidelines should be applied before patients undergo life changing surgery and a better understanding of the issue would be beneficial.”

[17] Further, Mr Crewdson does not agree that an alternative view would have provided balance within the article, “This is a case where an attempt to inject ‘balance’ could easily result in a false equivalence between an expert’s experience and an alternative view included simply for the sake of contradiction.”

[18] In concluding remarks relating to the alleged breach of NZ Press Council Principle 1, Mr Crewdson has suggested that the “broad issue” of transgender surgery “is without doubt a long-running one, one where it would be impossible to cover every side.”

[19] Mr Crewdson addressed the complaint by Ms Bowra-Dean that the article breaches Principle 4, Comment and Fact, with specific reference to two sentences within the article, “Not least on social media from the powerful transgender lobby” and “But at the moment, it seems, that debate is simply being shut down”.

[20] Mr Crewdson has responded to the first sentence highlighted by Ms Bowra-Dean namely “Not least on social media from the powerful transgender lobby” remarking, “It is clear the sentence Megan Bowra-Dean has singled out simply reflects [Mr James] Caspian’s view, not the author’s opinion.”


[21] In response to the second sentence highlighted by Ms Bowra-Dean, “But at the moment, it seems, that debate is simply being shut down”, Mr Crewdson does not agree with Ms Bowra-Dean instead he suggests that the author of the article “…is not offering an opinion. He is simply offering context and closing analysis. He sums up the feelings of Professor Djordjevic and the decision by Bath Spa University on James Caspian’s research.”

The Decision

[22] The complainant has alleged that an article published by Stuff on October 2 breaches NZ Press Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; and Principle 4: Comment and Fact.

[23] Principle 1 as it relates to this complaint sets out that “Publications should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. However, exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and…where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.

[24] The second title for the article “Serbian doctor tells of transgender reversals” more accurately reflected the stories content. In line with the provision for an exception under Principle 1 as stated above, this topic is a long-running issue but moreover the article focused on the professional experience of a genital reconstructive surgeon and his lived experience of requests to reverse gender re-assignment procedures. The Council does not uphold the alleged breach of Principle 1 – Balance. Not upheld.

[25] The complainant also alleges that Principle 4 – Comment and Fact has been breached. This principle refers to the clear distinction being drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. Ms Bowra-Dean is not referring to the article in its entirety, but to the two specific sentences within the article as highlighted above. In a commendably sensitive response from Stuff, Mr Crewdson has advised that the first alleged breach is a comment attributable to the psychotherapist referred to within the article and the second alleged breach is a summary and closing analysis of the story. In the Council’s view this does not breach Principle 4.

More care could have been exercised in relation to the alleged second breach of Principle 4, with attribution of the comment to Professor Djordjevic however the Council notes it is not unusual that a feature piece should end with such a conclusion.

The Council would like to emphasise that the responsibility for this article sits with Stuff as it was published on their website.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, JohnRoughan, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.