The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article on news.com.au on 10 January 2017, headed “Woman accused of terrifying 7-Eleven axe attack is transgender unionist once known as Karl”.
The article reported on a transgender woman arrested and charged in relation to a “terrifying axe attack” in Sydney. It reported on the woman’s life before transitioning, including that she was from a large Italian-Australian family from a capital city, had formerly been known as “Karl”, played drums in a punk rock band, on where and what she had studied and where she worked. The article included Facebook posts she made in 2012 about her transition, welcoming approval to start hormone replacement therapy and referring to a transgender person who had inspired her. The article also reported on her request to the bail court following arrest for access to two hormonal drugs, and that she would have access to healthcare while in custody.
It included a video and several still images of the “axe attack captured on CCTV” and photographs of the post-crime scene, in addition to six photographs of her apparently taken from Facebook, in most of which she was playing in a band and some containing captions relating to her transgender status.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether, given the significant coverage of her transgender status, it took reasonable steps to ensure reasonable fairness and balance as required by General Principle 3, and to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest, as required by General Principle 6.
The publication said the article was a profile piece on the woman, not a report on the attack itself, offering an explanation of significant details in her life. The publication said the attack itself had occurred four days before the article and had already been the subject of extensive media coverage. It said it had obtained images of the alleged crime and crime scene from security services, and its reporter had attended the bail court and learned for the first time that the woman was transgender. It obtained all of the information about the woman’s background from her Facebook page, which was open for the public to view.
The publication said it was not trying in any way to suggest the accused’s transgender status had caused the attack of which she was accused and nothing in the article implies this. It said it would not have been possible to report on the woman’s background accurately without referring to her transgender status, and it was not gratuitous. It said the article accurately detailed a broad range of facts about the woman as obtainable from the publicly available information on the woman’s Facebook page. There may have been more information in the article about her transgender status than other aspects of her life, but that reflected the greater amount of information available about that aspect. It was also reasonable to contrast the woman’s positive transition in 2012 with the crime for which she now stands accused.
The publication said that references to the accused’s hormone therapy drugs were gathered from public submissions of the accused in open court, and there was a strong public interest in ensuring due administration of justice was seen to be done.
No material has been drawn to the Council’s attention to suggest that the factual material published about the woman’s background was not obtained from her public Facebook page or was not substantially accurate.
The Council acknowledges that in preparing an article of this kind, the publication may well have more material relating to one part of a person’s life than another and it may be reasonable for the article to reflect this. On the material available to it, the Council considers that the publication took reasonable steps to ensure that the article presented factual material with reasonable fairness and balance in accordance with General Principle 3.
The Council considers that the article does not suggest the woman’s transgender status caused the alleged attack, nor did it make any derogatory comments or stereotypical generalisations about transgender people.
It did include some repeated references to the woman’s former name and her journey through transition, however the Council accepts these had been publicly and extensively revealed on the woman’s own Facebook page. It also included some repeated references to the accused woman’s request for hormone therapy drugs, though this request was made in open court at her bail hearing, and there is a public interest in reporting about the provision of appropriate health care to accused persons.
The Council considers the publication took reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or risk to health or safety. The public interest also justified reporting on her request for hormone therapy drugs. Accordingly, General Principle 6 was not breached in this respect.
While the General Principles were not breached in this instance, the Council notes that the Australian community is in the early stages of understanding the appropriate approach to respectfully and intelligently reporting on transgender issues, and accordingly acknowledges the need for caution and sensitivity in reporting on such issues.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.