“A level sufficient to qualify as a vendetta”

One of the witnesses in Katherine O’Donnell’s employment tribunal against her former employer The Times  is Christine Burns MBE. Burns played a key part in the creation of UK equality legislation, and she’s been monitoring and reporting on the press coverage of trans issues for very many years. In her submission to the tribunal, she describes the Times’ recent coverage of trans issues.

During the course of 2016 the Times and Sunday Times featured approximately half a dozen trans-related stories, led by writers such as Rod Liddle. This did not appear at the time to be a departure from business as usual. Certainly, for Liddle, the opinions voiced about trans children and adolescents (as an example) seemed to be in keeping with his brand of polemic. The level of coverage in the whole year did not raise eyebrows, except in exasperation at the one-sidedness.

That pattern changed markedly in 2017, however — and it changed uniquely for the Times.

Burns describes how the Times and Sunday Times coverage of trans issues went into overdrive, essentially demonising trans people at every opportunity.

This wasn’t business as usual. It hadn’t happened in the run-up to the introduction of the Gender Recognition Bill in 2004, or of the Equality Act in 2010. The recent focus on and demonisation of trans people appears to be a deliberate change in editorial strategy.

As Burns also points out, “the other notable factor about this tsunami of negative coverage, beginning in 2017, was the degree to which editorial standards appeared to be abandoned.”

I’m not a news journalist, but I when I wrote tech news it was drilled into me that a single-source story wasn’t good enough; “person claims thing” is not news until it’s been fact-checked and experts consulted.

Many of the people writing for these newspapers are members of the National Union of Journalists, whose code of conduct compels journalists to “strive to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” and “differentiates between fact and opinion.” It also says that a journalist “produces no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation.”

Burns agues that the two papers appeared to decide that editorial standards, that the basic journalistic principles outlined in the NUJ code of conduct, no longer applied if the stories were about trans people. The views of failed sculptors were prized above those of experts. Baseless claims were printed without fact-checking, and often rescinded after intervention by Ofcom. Anti-semitic tropes of child sacrifice and sinister Jewish lobbies made it into print.

The two titles were standing up their pieces with largely one-sided opinion from personalities with no genuine qualifications in the subject matter and an axe to grind. By comparison, clinical or legal experts in the subject matter did not feature highly and trans views appeared to be treated as suspect, driven by (hinted) ulterior motives and fit for condemnation. The paper’s line of topics seemed to reflect the talking points of a small cohort of commentators who had appeared as if from nowhere to be interviewed as authorities on a regular basis. Trans people and the charities working in this area were presented as ‘powerful’ (the implication being ‘too powerful’). Conspiracy theories about the involvement of jewish billionaires and ‘big pharma’ were aired without challenge.

…What shocked trans observers in 2017 was that editorial standards appeared to have been suspended in this sphere. This is underlined when the basis for many stories was later established to be false. False interpretation of statistics about trans prisoners and offending. Unbalanced reporting of the nature of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act, presenting only a one-sided pejorative view of the implications. False insinuation about the leadership of the trans charity Mermaids — even after the Heritage Lottery Fund had reexamined plans to award a grant to them in 2018.

The tribunal continues.



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