The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Daily Telegraph online on 11 March 2020 headed “Rian Ross Toyer in court accused of killing Mhelody Polan Bruno”.
The article reported “A Wagga man accused of choking a transgender woman to death one week before she was reportedly set to fly home has fronted court.” The article went on to report that “Emergency services were called to a Tarcutta Street unit where they found the 25-year-old transgender woman from the Philippines unresponsive.” Mr Toyer was sentenced in 2021.
In response to a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3); and to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice without sufficient public interest justification (General Principle 6). The Council noted that the complaint expressed concern that the prominent and repeated references to the victim’s transgender status were unfair and not justified by the public interest as the article established no relevance between the victim’s transgender status and the alleged crime.
The publication noted the fact that the victim identified as a transgender person was referred to in a sentencing judgment delivered on 21 March 2021, where it was noted that the victim was born male but identified as female and would be referred to in the judgment as such. The publication said given the victim’s transgender status formed part of the judgment, it was in the public interest to report this fact.
The Council notes that the victim’s transgender status was only referred to in the sentencing judgment, which was published approximately 12 months after the article was published, for the purpose of recording the victim’s correct pronoun. The Council notes that there was no evidence provided that stated or implied that, during the hearing of the matter, the victim’s transgender status was raised as a contributing factor to her manslaughter. The Council has repeatedly stated over a long period that publications should exercise great care to not place unwarranted emphasis on characteristics of individuals such as gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, nationality, country of origin, marital status, disability, illness, or age.
The Council has also stated that, beyond the strict requirements of the law, publications have a further responsibility to ensure compliance with the Standards of Practice, which may extend to moderating or not reporting particular information that has been said in open court. Given the victim’s transgender status was not a contributing factor to her manslaughter, the Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness in the absence of a public interest justification. While the Council has previously noted that there is a public interest in reporting on the serious issue of violence against transgender people, it notes that the facts of this matter did not give rise to such a public interest. Accordingly, the Council concludes General Principle 3 was breached.
Given the victim’s transgender status was not raised in Court proceedings at the time as being a contributing factor to her manslaughter, the Council considers the repeated references to that status could lead some readers to conclude that this characteristic motivated her accused to take her life and was therefore either a cause of, or a factor in, her death. This could contribute to substantial prejudice against transgender people. The Council considers that in prominently identifying the woman as transgender in the sub-headline the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial prejudice and that there was no sufficient public interest justifying it doing so. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- 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.
- 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.