The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article in the Herald Sun on 21 May 2018, headed "BAN THE BOOKS Councils’ gender war to hit kinders, libraries” on the front page, continuing on page two, headed “Favourite children’s tales face gender ban”. The article was also published online, headed “Councils could ban children’s books, toys and characters for not meeting gender test”.
The opening paragraph read “Victorian councils are auditing libraries, schools and kindergartens and urging a ban on the terms ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ in a bid to teach kids as young as three to have ‘gender equitable relationships’.” The article referred to Melbourne City Council being “among a number of local authorities responding to radical new research” by the Australian National University (ANU) which suggests that educators “AVOID classifying kids by gender, and boys and girls-only activities; AVOID comments defining what females or males do, or should do; and AVOID using the terms ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, and ‘minimise the extent to which gender is labelled’”. The article proceeded to discuss the research and said that under “the new guidelines, children’s favourites including Thomas the Tank Engine, Noddy and Winnie the Pooh could be banned for not meeting gender tests”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether in reporting that Councils could ban children’s books, the publication took reasonable steps to ensure factual material was accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1), reasonably fair and balanced and opinions were not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or an omission of key facts (General Principle 3), and whether adequate remedial action and a fair opportunity for response was provided (General Principles 2 and 4). The Council also noted a statement by the Municipal Association of Victoria published on 21 May 2018 in response to the article, which says in part: “There will be no book or toy bans”.
The publication said the ban on the terms ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ is clearly enunciated in the ANU research, which advises early childhood practitioners to avoid distinction on the basis of gender. The publication said the Darebin City Council material referred to in the article contains a library assessment tool which educators use to undertake an assessment of books in their collection. This says a centre’s book collection is to be regularly reviewed to ensure it contains books that depict a range of different stories and experiences beyond gender stereotypical narratives and refers to the need to examine all books in the centre and undertake a library audit.
The publication said that this material provided an example of what could be introduced if the local councils followed their own guidelines based on the ANU research. The print headline “BAN THE BOOKS” summarised an action that is open to local councils but did not state that the local councils have actually introduced that course of action. The publication said it did not seek comment from the Municipal Association of Victoria because it went directly to three major local councils in Victoria to seek a response. The publication declined to provide to the Press Council its correspondence with those local councils, but said that the story quoted two of those councils, and the third did not respond to the publication’s questions. The publication also said that in conjunction with the article, the publication published a separate online article, titled “Gender ban on children’s books, toys, characters: good or bad?” which debated the merits of such a gender ban.
The Press Council notes that the article reported on the ANU research and responses by some local councils to it. These included material from Darebin City Council which recommended that educators apply a “gender lens” to books to ensure “a range of different stories and experiences” and material from Manningham City Council which the article reports “checks books for gender modelling and diversity”. However, the Press Council also notes a statement by the Municipal Association of Victoria, published on the day the article appeared and in response to the article, said: “There will be no book or toy bans”. Additionally, the Press Council notes that the publication did not refer the Press Council to any instance where banning of books was proceeding.
The Press Council considers that the headline “BAN THE BOOKS Councils’ gender war to hit kinders, libraries” on the front page, the headline on page two “Favourite children’s tales face gender ban”, and the article itself went beyond implying that a ban of books was possible and implied the councils were proceeding to ban books. The Council considers the information available to the publication was not sufficiently clear to justify the implication that banning of books was proceeding. The publication informed the Press Council that it contacted three local councils prior to publication of the article and the Press Council notes that two local councils were quoted in the article. It may be that the communications with these three local councils could have been a basis for the implication that banning of books was proceeding. However, as the publication declined to release the content of such communications, the Press Council was not able to consider it.
The Press Council concludes that the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure the article was accurate and not misleading and was presented with fairness and balance. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principles 1 and 3. In the absence of a request for correction or response, the Press Council does not consider the publication breached General Principles 2 and 4.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
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.