Gender service doctors targeted by media smear campaign

A leading doctor has denounced a smear campaign run by a conservative media outlet against her and the adolescent gender service she leads at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.

In 2019 Associate Professor Michelle Telfer, Director of the RCH Gender Service became the target of NewsCorp’s The Australian newspaper, which ran articles almost every week devoted to discrediting the gender dysphoria treatment team, and in particular the guidelines they developed and the research study known as Trans20 they were involved with.

In a submission to a Senate inquiry into media diversity, Professor Telfer noted that the Australian published 45 articles  in a year – with more than 80 direct references to her . She described them as ‘disinformation’ and aimed at destroying her personal and professional reputation and discrediting evidence-based provision of hormone treatment for trans adolescents.

“The publications were consistently of a highly critical nature and were repetitious in their false, inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced information that questioned my credibility, integrity and honesty,” she wrote.

“I was portrayed as someone who was harming children. The personalisation of this issue was taken to an extreme with the description of the RCH Gender Service as ‘the Telfer Clinic’ on two separate occasions.”

Professor Telfer, who is Head of Department of Adolescent Medicine at RCH, said the Melbourne gender clinic had received praise from numerous reputable sources for being one of the best evidence-informed, multidisciplinary clinical gender services and research teams in the world. However, this was never mentioned by The Australian.

Instead, the unbalanced articles employed sensationalist and misleading headlines to create fear and anxiety and to exacerbate the stigma, discrimination and prejudice that existed against trans children and young people, she said.

The Australian portrayed the clinic’s doctors as dishonest, manipulative or incompetent, and sought medical opinion from others who were not qualified and whose comments were based on religious beliefs rather than evidence or clinical experience.

The articles also contained numerous falsehoods, inaccuracies and opinion dressed up as fact, she added.

“[The campaign] attempted to destroy my professional reputation and to destabilise the growing network of clinicians and researchers across the country who work to improve the health and well-being of this vulnerable group,” said Professor Telfer.

“It undermined the trust patients and families had in their treating clinicians and caused concern and trepidation for families who were yet to seek  professional support and medical care. It also sought to influence political opinion and decision making at the highest levels of government.”

Her submission noted that the Australian was continuing its campaign, “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 she was grateful that the health minister and health department were not swayed by the disinformation campaign and continued to make decisions “based on the published, peer-reviewed evidence with a view to the best interests of the children and young people at the heart of the issue.”

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