The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a front page article in The Daily Telegraph on 6 August 2018, headed "Army drops the ‘H’ bomb: Soldiers told words like ‘him’ or ‘her’ can be gender bullying". The article continued on page 8 headed “Identity goes MIA in gender wars”. The article was also published online, headed “Australian Defence Force guide bans soldiers from saying ‘him’ or ‘her’ to avoid LGBTI offence”.
The opening paragraph on page 8 read “Soldiers are being told they shouldn’t use terms like ‘him’, ‘her’ and even ‘they’ to avoid offending ‘LGBTI’ members in a new guide that says refusing to do so will be considered bullying.” The article said the guideline “instructs soldiers to issue apologies if they use offending language and warned they would be reported for ‘unacceptable behaviour’ if the speech was deliberate”. The article included a quote from the Defence Minister Marise Payne who said “The Department has not, and is not intending to, issue a Defence Directive on gender-neutral language.”
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether, in reporting that the Australian Defence Force ‘banned’ the use of words like ‘him’ or ‘her’ in the online article and in reporting that “Soldiers are being told they shouldn’t use terms like ‘him’ or ‘her’”, the publication took reasonable steps to ensure factual material was accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1), and that factual material was presented with reasonable fairness and balance. (General Principle 3). The Council also asked the publication to comment on whether adequate remedial action and a fair opportunity for response was provided (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council noted that the Guide stated it is important to be “mindful of respectful and disrespectful behaviours or language in relation to LGBTI members”, and “In the event that you make a mistake, the best course of action is to apologise, listen to anything [the member] wishes to say in response, and then move on with the conversation.” It also stated “All ADFA personnel need to appreciate that the deliberate use of non-inclusive language, exclusion and bullying due to gender diversity are some of the behaviours which can affect LGBTI members.” The Council also noted that a public statement was issued by the Australian Defence Force stating “Reports regarding Defence requiring the use of gender-neutral language is wrong… As was explained to the journalist prior to publishing, the Department has not, and is not intending, to issue a directive on the use of gender-neutral language”.
In response, the publication said the Guide “instructs soldiers to issue apologies if they use offending gender-specific language and warns personnel that they will be reported for ‘unacceptable behaviour’”. The publication said it can be inferred that in a command structure like the ADF, guidelines effectively are orders and discouraging something amounts to a ban.
The publication said that the article is balanced and includes the denial by the ADF that any ‘directive’ had been issued. The publication also said they included comments from a spokesperson for the ADF who is quoted in the article saying “ADFA Cadets are not being told that they should not use terms like him or her.” The publication said that a follow up article was published on 7 August 2018 which stated “The Defence Force’s director of people and strategy Justine Greig…said the language guide had become ‘mandatory training’ for ‘commanders’ and leadership within the Defence Force”.
The Council considered the Guide as a whole. The Guide runs to 22 pages. It deals with a number of matters, language being one only of the matters. The Guide is issued by the Commandant of the ADFA who states: “This guide will provide a valuable resource with general information that serves to enable ADFA staff so they are better informed when making decisions regarding the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or intersex (LGBTI) community”.
The article contains a number of extracts from the Guide. The article reflects the content of the relevant parts of the Guide. The Guide calls for respectful language in relation to LGBTI members, avoiding stereotyping, using appropriate pronouns and gender neutral language. It warns that unacceptable language will be dealt with. It does not explicitly “ban” any language.
Considering the Guide as a whole, and the article, the Council considers that the factual material in the article is not misleading and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance.
However the Council considers that the headline of the online article is likely to lead readers to believe that the ADFA has banned the use of “him”, “her” or “they” entirely rather than stating that the deliberate use of inappropriate pronouns will amount to unacceptable behaviour. The Council notes the Guide states “All ADFA personnel need to appreciate that the deliberate use of non-inclusive language, exclusion and bullying due to gender diversity are some of the behaviours which can affect LGBTI members,” but does not ban the use of such pronouns. The Council does not consider that it is accurate to say the ADF “banned” the use of such pronouns and concludes that the publication breached General Principle 1. The Council also considers that the publication failed to sufficiently remedy the misleading headline, and accordingly breached General Principle 2.
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.
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.