The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article by Daily Mail Australia on 10 January 2017, headed “Transgender woman, 24, accused of bludgeoning two innocent people with an axe at 7-Eleven was born as a boy named Karl – but had a sex change two years ago in Thailand to become Evie”. It also included sub-headlines that “[i]n 2015, Ms Amati had a sex change operation” and that “[s]he travelled to Thailand for the op after years of identifying as transgender”.
The article reported on a transgender woman arrested and charged in relation to a “terrifying axe attack” in Sydney. It reported that she “grew up… in an Italian family” and identified the Australian capital city and high school she had attended. It said she moved to Sydney in 2010, identifying her university and degree, and published a series of photographs and comments from her Facebook account dating back to that year. It said she “deleted all the photos of herself from when she was as a man” from Facebook with an exception, which it published, identifying the event at which it was taken.
It published the woman’s comments in 2012 about having “wanted to be a girl for a while now”, which it said was “met with enthusiastic support from her friends and family”. It cited a transgender person who inspired her having “discussed composing a ‘coming out’ email to colleagues” at her place of employment, which was identified along with her role she worked in up to the day of the attack. It reported her subsequent social media post that she “gained approval to start hormone replacement therapy”. It included photographs of her “playing as a woman” in a band in 2013 and 2014 and as “Karl” in 2011.
The article said the woman “travelled to Thailand in January 2015 for a sex change” operation and “was accompanied on the trip by her girlfriend”, who was identified by name, including photographs of them together. It also included a photograph from the girlfriend’s Facebook account, which also included the woman’s “mother, sister…and an unidentified man, along with herself”. The article contrasted the “happy, idyllic scenes of self-affirmation and family love” and the circumstances of the alleged crime.
The article reported that when the woman first appeared in court, she requested supplies of an oestrogen booster and a testosterone suppressor, “both used in male to female transitions”. The article was later updated to note that the woman’s lawyer since attributed the attack to a “combination of sex change drugs and antidepressants”; that it “was widely speculated on social media that the transgender drugs may have contributed to the attack, especially when combined with the antidepressants she also requested”; and that “[t]here was wide public concern about whether [she] would be housed in a male or female prison…before it was known if she was pre- or post-sex change operation”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether, given the significant coverage of the woman’s transgender status and transition history and the coverage of family and friends not involved in the alleged crime, it took reasonable steps to ensure fairness and balance as required by General Principle 3; 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; and to avoid identifying relatives or friends of people accused of a crime unless such references are necessary for the full, fair and accurate reporting of the crime or subsequent legal proceedings, according to Privacy Principle 7.
The publication said it was aware prior to publication of suggestions that the woman’s transition may have influenced the alleged attack, which was carried out around the second anniversary of the surgery, and that this was a factor in deciding to include details of the surgery in the article. It also said after the woman requested transgender drugs, speculation arose about whether these may have contributed to the attack, and referred to its later report that the woman’s lawyers had raised a defence based on the effect of the drugs, so the article was updated to reflect this.
It said all the information in the article about her transgender background had been made publicly available by the woman on Facebook and the article reported on her transition in a positive way, including comments from supportive family and friends.
As to publishing the Facebook posts of the woman’s girlfriend, the names of the girlfriend and sister, and photographs of them as well as her mother and an unidentified man, the publication said these had been publicly available on Facebook for two years and it had tried to contact the woman’s girlfriend before publication for comment, but had been unsuccessful.
The Council is satisfied that the woman’s transgender status was suggested by her request in court to be supplied with certain drugs. The factual material published about the woman’s background appears to have been obtained from her public Facebook page and there is no suggestion it was not presented in an accurate manner. While the Council is concerned about the many prominent references to the woman’s transgender status, especially in the headline and sub-headlines, the Council is satisfied that on the material available to it that reasonable steps were taken by the publication to report the factual material with fairness and balance. Accordingly, the Council concludes there was no breach of General Principle 3.
In considering whether the publication took reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress prejudice or a risk to health or safety, the Council considers it is appropriate to take into account the nature of the alleged crime as reported, that the woman had requested transgender related and anti-depressant drugs, and that the personal background material was made available publicly by the woman on Facebook. While the Council is concerned about the extensive material in the article about her transgender status, given the nature of the alleged crime and information about the drugs being taken by the woman, the Council does not consider the publication breached General Principle 6 in this respect. Notwithstanding this, the Council considers that the Australian community may be at an early stage of understanding the appropriate approach to reporting transgender issues, and there is a need for caution and sensitivity in reporting on such matters.
However, the publication included photographs of and the full name of her partner, as well as some of her personal Facebook comments. It also named the woman’s sister and included photographs of her as well as their mother an unidentified man with them. It was not necessary to include this level of detail and in any case, the faces of the woman’s friends and family could have been pixelated in the photographs. There was no sufficient public interest that justified doing otherwise. Accordingly, the Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or risk to health or safety, and General Principle 6 was breached in this respect. For the same reasons, Privacy Principle 7 was also breached.
This adjudication applies the following Standards of Practice of the Council:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Privacy Principle 7: Sensitive personal information
In accordance with Principle 6 of the Council's Statement of General Principles, media organisations should take reasonable steps 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. Members of the public caught up in newsworthy events should not be exploited. A victim or bereaved person has the right to refuse or terminate an interview or photographic session at any time. Unless otherwise restricted by law or court order, open court hearings are matters of public record and can be reported by the press. Such reports need to be fair and balanced. They should not identify relatives or friends of people accused or convicted of crime unless the reference to them is necessary for the full, fair and accurate reporting of the crime or subsequent legal proceedings.