The Press Council has considered a complaint about an editorial headed "Our part in child abuse" in the Bairnsdale Advertiser on 8 July 2013.
The article began by saying “the hunt for child abusers is on”, referred to community concerns and current investigations relating to paedophilia and sexual abuse of children, and mentioned a threat from pornography and sexual content in popular culture. It then focussed on what it called “transgenderism” and described as “the latest manifestation of the revolution”. It gave three overseas examples of people seeking to challenge traditional gender roles involving children. The editorial ended with the comment: “Some parents will welcome the innovation. Some will not. But what adults do or think hardly matters compared with the abuse of children it implies.”
Ka Chun Tse complained about linking transgenderism with paedophilia and sexual abuse of children, particularly the description of it as “a subtle form of abuse that inflicts no physical wounds but attacks the minds of children and alters by stealth the attitudes of the adult community as well”. He said the editorial did not acknowledge the perspectives and difficulties of transgender people, including the potential impact of the editorial on those who live in small communities where the newspaper is read. Instead, it likened them to people imprisoned for sexual abuse of children.
The publication said the writer had not intended to target transgender people at a personal level. In any event, the editorial was clearly an expression of opinion and freedom of expression required that a newspaper be free to publish strong comment, even at the risk of offending some people. It said it had published several letters, some of which opposed the view adopted in the editorial.
The Council’s Standards state that “publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence”. It takes the view that this Standard is not breached unless the level of offensiveness is so high that it outweighs the very strong public interest in freedom of expression. Account must also be taken, however, of other aspects of the public interest, including freedom to live safely in the community.
The Council noted that the editorial appeared to use the term “transgenderism” to mean discouraging traditional behavioural characteristics of the genders, rather than actual changes in gender. But this limited meaning was not clear. Moreover, parts of the editorial were clearly open to be read in the way the complainant did, namely linking transgenderism with paedophilia.
Although the editorial may have caused very great offence to some people, the importance of freedom of expression is so great that the Council considers it did not clearly breach the Council’s Standards. Accordingly, the complaint is not upheld. However, on the assumption that the editorial was not intended to refer to people who are changing, or have changed, their gender, nor to link them with paedophilia, the Council urges the newspaper to publish a prominent clarification to that effect.
Note (not required for publication by the newspaper):
The complainant also cited a previous editorial, which he described as “homophophic”, but which the Council decided did not breach its Standards. He also referred to campaigns against the paper in relation to its editorials, which had been reported on other media but not in the newspaper. The Council noted these points and encouraged the newspaper to consider reporting any future developments of this kind.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies General Principle 7: “Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence”.