By now, more than 800,000 Australian television viewers have watched De-Transitioning, a recently aired documentary from the Seven News Spotlight program. The feature, billed as Spotlight’s “most controversial story this year,” represented a breakthrough moment for Australian media coverage of gender clinics. Instead of showing viewers the usual parade of joyful-seeming families preaching the wonders of trans “affirmation,” Seven News spoke with thoughtful dissenting doctors, and regretful de-transitioners whose anguished rejection of womanhood had led them to the surgical removal of healthy body parts.
A similar climate of media self-censorship exists in other parts of the English-speaking world. But the situation in Australia is unusual, because the taboo against even-handed journalism on the gender file has gained institutional support from the country’s Press Council—which, by its own description, “sets standards and responds to complaints about material in Australian newspapers and magazines.”
The Press Council is a member-funded body that has no legal authority to regulate Australian news outlets or impose penalties on journalists. Nevertheless, its pronouncements are seen to carry some measure of moral authority. That authority is being squandered through its apparent determination to stigmatize dissenting views on the transgender medicalisation of childhood.
In December 2019, The Australian—the country’s well-respected national daily newspaper—reported that this “little-known transgender lobby group”—i.e., Rainbow Rights Watch—had been “responsible for almost half of all [Press Council] complaints lodged against the nation’s major media outlets.” This amounted to 165 out of 387 complaints that had been active for more than seventeen weeks.
The Press Council’s guidelines reflect the same jargony propaganda style employed by the activists whose “lived experience” the Council had sought out. Biological sex, for instance, is referred to as sex “assigned at birth.” To such extent as journalists agree to impose this usage on readers, they would only be promoting the confused belief that sex is something arbitrary and changeable. (For the activists who demand the use of this kind of terminology, that is, of course, the point.)
During my three decades spent working as an Australian journalist, I’d never previously had to defend a complaint before the Press Council. My reporting on gender issues exposed me to other “firsts” as well. For the first time in my career, I was told that asking questions about the harms associated with a particular kind of medical procedure was off limits. For the first time in my career, a medical institution flat-out refused to subject itself to accountability regarding its practices. For the first time in my career, I was besieged by activists—some moonlighting as journalists—who insisted that subjecting the truth of their slogans to scrutiny might drive fragile youth to suicide.
I received smears and death threats, as well, of the type journalists more typically face when writing about cults, criminal syndicates, or terrorist groups. One might think all of this would be of concern to a group such as the Australian Press Council, whose self-professed goal is “promoting high standards of media practice, community access to information of public interest, and freedom of expression through the media.” Instead, the Council’s guidelines encoded many of the same demands issued by those who wanted me to stop doing my job.