Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Graham Adams: Don’t ask us — we just work here

One of the most depressing features of journalism in New Zealand is that if you want to follow simmering debates of national interest you often have to look somewhere else than the mainstream media.

If you want to follow the mātauranga Māori debate closely, for instance, the most consistent coverage has been provided by Jerry Coyne, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolution from the University of Chicago, who has written at least a dozen lengthy posts on the topic over the past year on his blog Why Evolution Is True.

Professor Coyne has covered all facets of that debate in depth — from the Listener letter signed by seven eminent professors a year ago to the plans to insert mātauranga Māori throughout our science and research sector proposed in a government Green Paper.

In New Zealand, there have been critical articles on the topic published by the Free Speech Union and The Platform, but coverage of both sides of the debate has been sparse to the point of non-existence in the mainstream media.

Similarly, if you want to follow the barrage of Written Questions lodged in Parliament concerning accusations of nepotism made against Nanaia Mahuta, you need to follow the pseudonymous Thomas Cranmer on Twitter.

Over the past four months, Cranmer has analysed the relevant documents and collated the questions and answers put to government ministers by MPs — including David Seymour, Simon Court, Paul Goldsmith and Simeon Brown — to build a detailed picture of family contracts.

Despite Cranmer having set out all the details with accompanying documents, mainstream journalists have almost totally ignored the evidence and the serious questions raised by them. The couple of times Mahuta has been asked timidly about the accusations of nepotism by mainstream journalists, she has simply brushed them aside.

A leak in the dam appeared on Tuesday with a detailed article by Kate MacNamara in the NZ Herald about a contract (worth $72,299 including GST) that was awarded by the Crown housing agency to a company co-owned by Gannin Ormsby, Mahuta’s husband, in a period when she had associate ministerial responsibility for housing.

MacNamara’s story was behind a paywall. It’s yet to be seen whether Mahuta — or Ardern, who is ultimately responsible for managing her ministers’ conflicts of interest — will come under the sort of pressure from other journalists that the allegations appear to warrant.

However, the avoidance behaviour of local journalists has been most evident recently in the wake of the decision to close London’s Tavistock Clinic — the UK’s only gender-identity clinic for children and young people.

Worldwide, discussion around the contentious issue of puberty blockers prescribed for gender-transitioning children and whether they and other young people are being rushed into drug treatment without adequate assessment and counselling has been intense.

But if you want to read about the debate in detail, you’ll either have to go to niche gender-critical websites or to the Times of London, or The Australian, or the Guardian, or the New York Times… just about anywhere except the mainstream media in New Zealand.

The problem with outsourcing such news to international commentators, of course, is that no matter how many overseas news sites cover the developments, none is going to provide detailed information about New Zealand’s situation.

To the surprise of many, that question was raised in an article on Newsroom last week. Written by a public health policy researcher, Dr Sarah Donovan, her column asked the perfectly reasonable question of why there has been virtually no local coverage of the interim report by Dr Hilary Cass, former president of Britain’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, into Tavistock’s practices and its closure.

Dr Cass found the huge rise in the numbers of those seeking help from Tavistock had swamped staff and put them “under pressure to adopt an unquestioning affirmative approach” — which can defined as supporting and affirming an individual’s view of their gender identity when it differs from that observed at birth.

She recommended Tavistock be replaced by regional centres that are better connected with the mainstream mental-health system.

In a later letter to the NHS England, she explained that “the most significant knowledge gaps [in the evidence for paediatric transition] are in relation to treatment with puberty blockers, and the lack of clarity about whether the rationale for prescription is as an initial part of a transition pathway, or as a ‘pause’ to allow more time for decision-making.”

Dr Donovan — a public health expert at the University of Otago Wellington and parent who says she has guided children through a gender-questioning phase — wrote: “There has been no coverage locally in mainstream media. Should New Zealand families have to fish around to learn about these newsworthy international developments by chance?”

She ended her column with: “How does the New Zealand model of child and teen gender services compare with the [British] NHS model now being urgently overhauled? What a great piece of local investigative journalism that would make.”

Dr Donovan will no doubt be waiting for a long time for a such a piece of “local investigative journalism” to appear if she is relying on the mainstream media.

The obvious question arises: why are our journalists and editors — with the notable exception of Newsroom’s editors Tim Murphy and Mark Jennings — so much more cautious than many of their peers in nations such as Australia, England and the US, among others?

Of course, open discussion of trans issues in many countries has been heavily restricted by a long-term strategy — dubbed “No Debate” — that pillories anyone who even raises the topic as a bigot, a transphobe or, worse, accuses them of helping to push trans people towards suicide.

Those who are even slightly critical are in danger of being de-platformed and perhaps losing their jobs and careers.

Despite the fact Dr Donovan’s article was entirely respectful, the reaction was swift. Critical social media posts included a tweet by a Stuff columnist and senior lecturer at the Otago Business School, Morgan Godfery, who described it as a “transphobic piece”.

Yet Dr Donovan did nothing more dramatic than mention that it is extremely difficult to find media coverage for questions such as why New Zealand’s Ministry of Health has a statement on its website at odds with the guidance on Britain’s NHS page.

The MOH asserts: “Blockers are a safe and fully reversible medicine that may be used from early puberty through to later adolescence to help ease distress and allow time to fully explore gender health options.”

In contrast, the NHS guidance says: “Little is known about the long-term side effects of hormone or puberty blockers in children with gender dysphoria. Although the Gender Identity Development Service advises this is a physically reversible treatment if stopped, it is not known what the psychological effects may be. It’s also not known whether hormone blockers affect the development of the teenage brain or children’s bones.”

These are two very different assessments (although it should be noted that a “rebuttal” piece by teacher and writer John Palethorpe — published on Newsroom in response to Dr Donovan’s article — claimed they were eminently reconcilable, especially if further ministry documents were read).

There are other highly pertinent questions about gender transitioning in New Zealand that the media has yet to cover in depth, including:

How much national data is collected in New Zealand on the numbers of children on puberty blockers or their outcomes?

Is a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria required before treatment or do professional assessments generally confirm the patient’s own appraisal of their true gender?

What proportion of children who seek help for gender dysphoria are put on puberty blockers?

Are mental health problems a bar to seeking treatment? Or is it assumed that any mental health problem will be solved by transitioning?

In the wake of the closure of the Tavistock clinic came the arresting news that UK law firm Pogust Goodhead is inviting patients to join a group-action lawsuit against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. It was reported to be expecting as many as a thousand claimants to join the action in the next six months, by which time it expected the first steps of the legal action would be lodged in the High Court.

In response, The Australian reported the views of University of Queensland law professor Patrick Parkinson, who has experience in litigation around puberty blockers in Britain. He said the prospects of similar legal action in Australia were “very likely”.

He added: “I think Australian gender clinics — apart from Sydney — are probably less conservative and less cautious than the Tavistock was.”

The Australian also reported that compensation law firm Gerard Malouf & Partners is exploring the feasibility of a similar class-action lawsuit in Australia for negligence.

The question immediately arises of whether New Zealand practice is also less conservative and less cautious than the Tavistock has been — and how vulnerable doctors and gender clinics here might be to legal action, now or in the future.

It is not clear, of course, whether similar action is even possible in New Zealand given that ACC restricts the way claims for compensation for personal injury can be made.

But would it be possible to avoid the ACC barrier to personal injury action and sue the Ministry of Health for its endorsement of what may, in some cases, turn out to have been harmful practices?

These are questions being bandied around on social media by lawyers and are all highly pertinent topics to be investigated in the wake of the Tavistock closure. But just as with mātauranga Māori and questions around government contracts being awarded to Nanaia Mahuta’s close family members, it is highly likely the mainstream media — for reasons best known to itself — will be very slow to investigate in detail.

It’s true that in Australia, the state-funded broadcaster ABC has failed to cover the Tavistock’s closure too. But a Media Watch episode last week — broadcast by the ABC, no less — posted a segment taking the broadcaster to task for its editorial failure. It noted the broadcaster’s silence was “strange because the ABC has many positive stories on trans issues”.

The silence from New Zealand’s mainstream media about the dramatic turn of events with Tavistock is every bit as strange given the number of positive stories on trans issues it has run as well.

Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by and is published here with kind permission.


Nicholastwig said...

Thank you very much Graham - I will quickly follow up Jerry Coyne, having read his initial response at the time of the Listener brouhaha - but not since, although I comb through YouTube and have read about the Tavistock clinic. I hear the odd critical reference to NZ on Sky News Australia, but have been puzzled by so little reference to our situation in the wider news. I have even written to Douglas Murray, following his War on the West, to ask why he has made almost no mention of NZ even though I'll bet he is onto us - haven't heard back - he's not afraid of racism.
Written to all my former favs in RNZ and told them I've noticed how much they don't say and don't bother tuning in these days. With you and Karl and Chris and Sean - and many others we are largely able to keep up, but the government is getting pretty shameless isn't it? Is anyone ready to break besides Sharma do you think? I had been so hopeful of the Taxpayers' Union application to the Court for a ruling on te tiriti until I gathered that the NZ judiciary may be woke. No! Really?
There are far too many erudite and strong and principled people in this country for this to go on. Ulp!

Anonymous said...

if you wish to put an end to this nonsense, all you have to do is stop funding it. in countries where people have to use personal finances to take care of transgender surgeries because govt doesn't care and insurance treats it on par with cosmetic surgery, more sanity prevails.