The SBS has acknowledged its reporting on the former Liberal candidate Katherine Deves in the run up to the last election breached its own Code of Practice that requires “factual material” to be “gathered and presented with due accuracy”.

This acknowledgement comes in response to a complaint that SBS World News knowingly misquoted Deves’ Twitter posts, separating her comments from their context in ways that were bound to mislead audiences as to her meaning:

“I am writing to complain about your reporting on SBS News about Kath Deves in which states (sic) that she tweeted that, “Half of all men with trans identities are sex offenders”. This badly misrepresents Deves’ comments. The next part is, “compared with less than 20% for the rest of the male estate” – ie the male prison estate, as it is referred to in England. It is extremely poor journalistic practice to take a quote out of context so that its meaning is totally misrepresented. Instead, your audience now has been misled into thinking that Ms Deves believes that half of all trans-identified people are sex offenders, which is false.”

What Deves actually wrote was this:

Deves was noting (correctly) that 20% of the total male prison population in the UK are convicted sex offenders; whereas if we look at trans-identifying males in that population, that figure rises to 50%. Without doubt, this is a striking contrast. Sadly, Deves’ point was lost on the SBS.

According to the report of Acting SBS Ombudsman, Amy Stockwell, they were thrown by the phrase “male estate”. In England, prison populations might be referred to as “the prison estate” or the “male prison estate”. But SBS couldn’t find this usage of the word “estate” in the Macquarie dictionary and wasn’t confident that their audiences could understand the unfamiliar phraseology.

So, although SBS presented a visual of the entire tweet, only the first section was highlighted and read by the voice over. The result was that:

“SBS World News audiences were directed to a part of the quote that separated it from a qualifying phrase … While the qualification may well have been opaque for everyday Australian audiences, it was an error in the report and, as such, it is a breach of the SBS Code in relation to accuracy.”

Do we believe the mistake was genuine − the work of a sloppy journalist, or a journalist who believed “everyday Australians” have poor comprehension skills? Or is this a case of journalists being so excitable or so ideologically pre-committed that they saw what they wanted to see and jumped too hastily at the chance of a good story?

Whatever the explanation, SBS’s selective quoting created the impression that Deves was making a global comment about trans-identifying males. Painting her as a “transphobe”, SBS set Deves up as a target for public outrage.

If the SBS is not alone in this misrepresentation, they certainly made journalistic hay from the storm that ensued. In a 24th April interview, an SBS journalist brought up the subject of Deves’ Twitter posts asking her:

“Do you understand, do you appreciate the harm and hurt caused by those sorts of offensive comments and are you sorry?”

With grace that can only really be appreciated with hindsight, Deves responded:

“I recognise that trying to prosecute complex, nuanced and difficult subjects should not take place on a platform that propagates offense and division and hurt”.

Clearly the “platform” Deves was referring to is Twitter, but we can confidently say in this case that SBS is also guilty of “propagating offense and division and hurt”. How hypocritical that they should ask Deves to apologise for an incorrect impression that they had helped create!

While Deves was getting death threats, the stir kept SBS journalists busy at their keyboards. On 25th April, for example, they were able to report how offended and hurt the trans community felt on hearing Deves’ (misrepresented) comments.

How ironic it seems now, to notice that the pleas of the trans community, even then, were for the media coverage to stop:

Nicky Bath, CEO of LGBTIQ+ Health (LHA), said the news coverage of this issue is not helping the trans and gender diverse community…

“Each and every time media draw attention to Ms Deves’ views on this matter, there is further harm.

“Trans and gender diverse people are not political footballs, and conversations need to be led by experts in appropriate forums with care and understanding … LHA is asking the media to work responsibly and in a more balanced way with our communities.”

The Australian public can second the motion. Will SBS please commit to accurate and responsible reporting in the future?

So far, 2GB radio seems to be the only media outlet interested in publicising the SBS’s “mea culpa”. We think Australians, Katherine Deves and the trans community all deserve better than a private letter acknowledging fault for stoking such a very public furore.

To the extent that the SBS has contributed to the “great harm” caused to the trans community, to Deves and to an important public conversation, ought they not to apologise publicly for that?

Elisabeth Taylor

Dr Elisabeth Taylor is a graduate from the University of Sydney and Commonwealth scholar with a PhD in Medieval Women’s History from Cambridge University. She now works as a researcher, writer and speaker,...