The head of the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne gender clinic said the Australian newspaper published disinformation and attempted to destroy her professional reputation over its coverage of the treatment of transgender children.
In 2019, the Australian newspaper began focusing on trans and gender diverse children around the time the Victorian parliament was debating legislation to allow people to change their gender on their driving licence. The newspaper wrote dozens of articles and opinion pieces, with much of the focus on the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne gender clinic, the leading centre for treating trans and gender-diverse children in Australia.
The head of the clinic, Associate Prof Michelle Telfer, did not engage publicly with the coverage at the time, but has now spoken out in a submission to the Senate’s media diversity inquiry about its impact on her work, and on the clinic.
Telfer told the inquiry that between August 2019 and July 2020, the Australian published 45 articles and opinion pieces referencing her, with her name appearing 80 times, as well as 282 references to the work of her clinic. She said the articles contained “false, inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced information” that questioned her credibility, integrity and honesty.
“I was portrayed as someone who was harming children,” she said.
“It created a narrative that did not reflect reality. In my opinion, it was not news, it was disinformation. Its effect was to create fear and anxiety, to exacerbate the stigma, discrimination and prejudice that exists against trans children and young people in our society,” she said.
Telfer said the reporting “attempted to destroy my professional reputation” as well as undermine the trust patients and families had in treating clinicians, causing concern for families who were yet to seek support and medical care.
Some of the tactics employed by the Australian, Telfer said, “generated fear and anxiety of trans children and young people, often portraying them as victims, with their doctors portrayed as dishonest, manipulative or incompetent”.
As Guardian Australia has previously reported, many of the “experts” quoted had no experience in clinical care of trans children, with some linked to conservative lobby groups. Telfer said in the 45 articles examined, not one trans child was interviewed, and prejudicial language and derogatory terms were used, including using incorrect pronouns.
She said material presented as fact was often inaccurate, misleading or indistinguishable from opinion. She said the coverage has been known to cause distress, and was not in the public interest.
“The Australian continues to publish articles without apparent consideration to the facts, or to the harm it causes to the individuals and the families who suffer as a consequence,” she said.
Guardian Australia has sought comment from the Australian’s editor-in-chief, Chris Dore.
Telfer said she was grateful the Victorian government and federal health minister Greg Hunt had sought advice on facts, and made decisions based on peer-reviewed evidence in response to the Australian’s coverage, including its campaign for a federal review into the treatment of trans children.
“It is for this reason that I have faith that our health and political systems can overcome the powerful media influences that have the potential to cause great harm to Australian society,” she said.
“This will be vital for fairness, for inclusiveness, for our democracy and for the country’s future.”
The Senate inquiry, which was established in response to former prime minster Kevin Rudd’s call for a royal commission into the Murdoch media empire, has received over 750 submissions since it was established.