And Health Ministry communications staff mislead the media.
A September 2022 story on Stuff written by journalist Rachel Thomas has been found to lack balance. In ‘Puberty blockers still considered safe and reversible, health Ministry says‘ published on Sep 25 2022 Thomas sought commentary from the Ministry of Health, (who misled her) as well as a statement from PATHA, (the Professional Association of Transgender Health Aotearoa) and Gender Minorities Aotearoa. As a result the journalist described how, despite having removed the advice that blockers were safe and reversible, the Ministry had not in fact changed its view even though they had told the journalist that the advice was being changed “in a way that gives the opportunity to review and assess emerging information”.
The innaccuracy in the article was caused in part because Ministry’s communications advisors underplayed the organisation’s concerns about the medication. Prior to Thomas’s article being published Dr Tim Jelleyman, Chief Clinical Advisor, Child and Youth Health had already responded to at least one anonymised external party (see page 15) saying
The Ministry of Health are in the process of making guidance on their website clearer. Updated guidance will be better aligned with the current limits of the available evidence. Additional work on an evidence brief is planned to support this over the next few months.
as well as communicating to the Ministry’s communications staff (see page 29) saying that
This is a work in progress, and we could say that the Ministry of Health has received indication that the statement ‘safe and reversible’ needs looking into. Other jurisdictions such as Sweden and UK have also been grappling with this question recently. We have also discussed with Medsafe team who support the approach with the adjusted wording and further due diligence on the matter. There is a specific plan to look at the evidence and produce an Evidence Brief. As this will take some time to complete, probably not until first part of 2023, then in the meantime the MoH has taken the precaution of adjusting the webpage information while the background for any position is formally updated.
However the Communications advisors did not use the suggested wording and instead used older documentation and downplayed Dr Jelleyman’s advice. They gave Thomas information that was almost entirely at odds with his assessment. (see page 45) On 22 September Communications Advisor Blair Cunningham wrote to Thomas saying:
We endorse the PATHA guidelines, which do state: “Puberty blockers are considered to be fully reversible and allow the adolescent time prior to making a decision on starting hormone therapy”
The information in the letter also endorsed the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) new version of the Standards of Care for the Health of Transgender and Gender Diverse People, Version 8 (SOC‐8) using WPATH”s own assessment of their guidelines as being
“based on the best available scientific evidence and expert professional consensus in transgender health”.
The two statements cannot both be true! Thus the advice that communications advisors provided to Thomas, as well as in responses to Ruth Hill from Radio New Zealand and Bernard Lane from Gender Clinic News, was in direct contrast to the senior clinician’s suggested approach and the background information provided by Dr Jelleyman only days before.
In its deliberations the Media Council said they did not have the capacity to consider other evidence that was presented as part of the complaint even though the Council’s principles allow for this consideration. A spreadsheet analysed Stuff’s coverage over three years and showed only stories that were almost entirely uncritically positive about gender medicine for children. None contained any detail of the emerging uncertainties overseas.
However during this time not only have have multiple countries changed tack but the only gender clinic in England and Wales is being closed down in a scandal that is still unfolding.
Reviews in the UK by NICE and Oxford University, and in Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Australia, have shown the evidence for using puberty blockers is poor. Evidence shows their use is associated with harms such as thinning bones and unknown but likely impacts on mental development. Even in the Netherlands where the health guidance on using blockers was developed research has shown children who received these medicines are doing very poorly compared with their peers as young adults. This is the same model of healthcare that is used in an adapted form in New Zealand,
The Media Council also refused to include in their deliberations information from an Official Information Act response (page 42) that showed Thomas sought to be reassured that blockers were safe – surely an odd stance for a journalist – and that groups, who she labelled as TERFS (a derogatory term), anti-trans and right wing, were wrong. The OIA also showed she was aware that puberty blockers held dangers for children prescribed them – information that she did not reveal in her article. Her communications to the Ministry hardly indicate a curious journalistic mind open to new evidence.
Broad failure over time
Thomas’ decision not to provide balance was endorsed by Dominion Post editor Anna Fifield who wrote in response to the complaint that “just as media used to approach climate change deniers for stories on climate change, accepted science offers a more useful approach for readers” apparently using Stuff’s ethical statement as cover and thus ignoring all of the science based reviews that had found poor evidence for their use.
Of the 22 stories over 3 years that mention the issue none cover the emerging problems here with puberty blockers that are becoming evident overseas. Anna Fifield’s response to me showed some shocking reasoning for a news service. Anna not only defended the imbalance, she also equated gender dysphoria with being transgender and needing medical treatment; believed that a biologically accurate definition of man and woman is so offensive that it precludes those who use it from any consideration; and believes that some children are ‘born in the wrong body’. Stuff regards one small data point in the long emerging overseas story – the partial overturning of the Keira Bell case whch allowed clinicians to prescribe so long as their was parental agreement – as being indicative that it is both legally permissible and therefore desirable to prescribe puberty blockers. So determined is Stuff to present a ‘nothing to see here’ narrative that they have recently published a syndicated story from NewsRoom by Marc Daalder that has – because of manifest inaccuracies – already had to be corrected on three separate occassions and still contains serious errors.
In the mandated announcement of the decision against it Stuff says the story quoted the Ministry, PATHA guidelines and Gender Minorities Aotearoa, but there is no reference in the story to any substantive opinions which query reversibility and long-term safety.
In summary the Ministry of Health staff communications staff have misled journalists about the side effects and safety of puberty blokers – a serious matter of public interest – even as a senior medical advisor in the same organisation was presenting different information both to them, and to organisations who had raised concerns about their use. Stuff New Zealand has entirely lacked curiousity about the emerging situation overseas in it’s coverage of the medicines over several years . This has happened even though country after country has decided to put their formerly liberal use of puberty blockers in gender confused children into reverse. Thomas was explicitly supported by Stuff’s ‘ethical’ policy in no-platforming views from groups sceptical about the use of puberty blockers – describing them as anti-trans and conservative and assessing their perpsective unworthy of consideration.