“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.

“A virus has spread, using technology to systematically tear at the social fabric”

Danah Boyd recently gave a talk at the Digital Public Library of America conference. It’s chilling stuff and chimes with my own thoughts about the internet: what we once thought would be a powerful, enlightening force for good has been weaponised and by people who want to tear our world apart.

What’s at stake right now is not simply about hate speech vs. free speech or the role of state-sponsored bots in political activity. It’s much more basic. It’s about purposefully and intentionally seeding doubt to fragment society.

This is something we see again and again in everything from climate change and vaccination to whether minorities should be granted human rights.

The agendas differ: sometimes it’s corporations trying to undermine legislation that might affect their profitability; sometimes it’s religious fundamentalists; sometimes it’s racists; sometimes it’s disaster capitalists.

But what these various bad actors have in common is their attempts to create an “other side” when there is no other side, a “debate” when the facts are unequivocal. They do this not because there’s uncertainty, disagreement or division, but because they want to create uncertainty and disagreement and division. They want people to disbelieve the facts, disbelieve the scientific consensus, disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes.

This line jumped out at me.

Journalists often get caught up in telling “both sides,” but the creation of sides is a political project.

Don’t be a baby

I used the term “man babies” on Radio Scotland this morning and pretty much immediately I received a private Facebook message demanding an explanation of the term.

I’m not going to reply for two reasons.

One, I don’t think the listener is asking in good faith, because it was perfectly clear what I meant. I was talking about LGBT characters in popular culture and said that there was a small but vocal group of man babies on the internet who threw their toys out of their prams whenever films, games or comic books featured characters who weren’t straight, cisgender white guys.

And two, if I reply to a stranger’s private Facebook message that gives them access to my account and the ability to call my mobile phone at any time of the day or night. No chance.

But I think it’s worth writing about, because it’s something that’s a real pain online.

Man babies are a tiny, vocal minority of emotionally stunted men who lose their shit if something in the world is not made specifically and solely for them. They are not all men, most men or many men. But despite their small numbers they make a lot of noise.

A man baby is Piers Morgan getting irate over the existence of vegan sausage rolls. It’s film fans attempting to sabotage the Rotten Tomatoes rating for Captain Marvel because the hero doesn’t have a penis, or for Black Panther because the hero isn’t white. It’s men whingeing “but when’s International MEN’S Day?” on International Women’s Day (it’s 19 November) or “but when’s STRAIGHT pride?” (it’s every day) in response to a pride parade. It’s men complaining that other groups are “shoving X down other people’s throats” by simply existing or having their existence reflected in popular culture.

The baby bit is deliberate, and specific. Man babies are not people who disagree with me, who have opinions. They are supposed adults who act like babies.

I’ve helped bring up two babies, so I’ve some experience of this. It takes a while before babies can handle the huge emotions that run through them. It takes time for them to develop empathy and understand that the world does not exist solely for their benefit and that that the world does not exist solely to respond to their demands, no matter how loudly they express them.

They typically develop that understanding at around two years of age, but sometimes it takes longer. At the time of writing, Piers Morgan is 54.

Man babies may use bigger words, but the sentiment no more mature. It’s: “Waaaaaah!”

Vegans want their own sausage rolls! “Waaaaaah!”

A superhero is black, or a woman! “Waaaaaah!”

An LGBT character isn’t played for laughs or killed off horribly! “Waaaaaah!”

A video game has a girl hero! “Waaaaaah!”

A man baby is somebody who looks at the world and sees it as a beautiful cake made only for them. Nobody is allowed even the smallest piece.

It’s not their cake! It’s my cake! My special cake, made just for me! I don’t want to share it! It’s mine! Miiiiiiine! Miiiiiiiiiiiiine!

That’s what a man baby is. If you’re contacting me on social media to clarify or debate it, you probably are one.

Katherine O’Donnell could change UK media

This case could be very significant. Former Times night editor Katherine O’Donnell’s employment tribunal raises an interesting question: does the content that newspapers publish fall under their duty of care to their employees?

O’Donnell alleges multiple counts of illegal behaviour towards her after she transitioned to female, and her claims lift the rock to show a “boy’s club” of entrenched sexism, bordering on misogyny. But the case also introduces something that hasn’t previously been tested. Buzzfeed:

O’Donnell and her lawyer… allege that it wasn’t just what happened in the newsroom but also what those inside it published in the newspaper about trans people that constituted a hostile, transphobic place to work.

If O’Donnell wins, newspapers and other media outlets would have to reconsider their reporting of all minorities – not just gender and sexual minorities such as LGBT people, but anybody with a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Content that bullies and demonises groups would be considered workplace bullying.

Should O’Donnell be successful, therefore, it would mean a newsroom’s output could be deemed an internal, employment issue too. News outlets may in future have to consider how their coverage of trans people and other minority groups could be in breach of employment laws that protect members of these communities on their own staff from discrimination and bullying.

That doesn’t mean the titles couldn’t report accurately on minority groups or feature a range of opinion. But it could mean that the more vicious stuff would have to stop. It would be a welcome development in a climate where the press regulator IPSO won’t even rule that an invented quote was never said by anybody.

I’ve been following O’Donnell on Twitter for a long time and she strikes me as a newspaperwoman of the old school, someone who really cares about her profession but who’s been treated despicably by her employer. The Times may come to regret that.

“The gravitas of a tuck shop queue”

Many newspapers have based their digital strategy on lazy clickbait: contrarianism, hyperbole and trivia. There’s just one problem with that. It’s a road to nowhere.

Writing in The Irish Times, former Sunday Independent editor Anne Harris describes the new media operations of Ireland’s beleaguered Independent News & Media group.

A decision was made to prioritise digital, and the strategy was called digital first. This could have worked out fine were the right decisions made. But digital first was profoundly flawed.

INM opted for click-based journalism, thereby bringing it downmarket. The idea of click-based journalism is already redundant. And you don’t need to be a marketing genius to know that when you bring a product downmarket it is almost impossible to bring it back up. Added to that, the market is always reluctant to pay for what was once given free.

As Harris rightly points out, if your plan is to get people to pay for your journalism via a paywall you need to give them content worth paying for.

…journalistic quality is the sine qua non of a paywall, and that will prove extremely difficult to achieve in an organisation that has not prioritised talent for some years.

(The title of this post comes from a Twitter user describing Scots newspapers’ social media feeds.)

“Basic facts have not been apparent in much of the media coverage”

Writing in Bella Caledonia, Caitlin Logan describes the current backlash against trans people as evidence of widespread media failure.

In Scotland, the conversation on trans rights started out as distinctly civil in comparison to our counterparts in England. Women’s organisations stood alongside LGBT campaigners in explaining why trans people can and should be included in their joint efforts for a more equal, safer and socially just Scotland. MSPs from across the political spectrum were photographed with ‘Equal Recognition’ campaign signs, demonstrating their support for reforms which seemed a fairly simple extension of progress which had already taken place with limited fanfare.

It was as the public – media-driven – debate in England intensified that the Scottish media began to follow suit.

… the news media has always been driven by competition to be the “most interesting”, but I fear that its decline in the digital age has spawned a whole new impetus to shock, to incite debate, and even to anger.

…We are now witnessing, on multiple different issues, the political and personal consequences of a media strategy centred more on generating heat than shedding light, coupled with a disregard for clarifying whether the controversial opinions it platforms are even based in fact.

It’s hard to express just how draining this poison is. Writer and activist Julia Serano is as sick of it as the rest of us are.

We are now living through the biggest anti-#trans backlash since the 1970s. it’s been going on since at least 2016. it’s not just Republicans or evangelicals – it’s coming from numerous fronts. & most cis people seem entirely oblivious to it…

…anyway, my point is, these cis people – often people very close to me – seem surprised that lots of people are still very much anti-trans. because they (the haters) have all since learned to couch their bigotry via buzz words about “biological sex” & “women’s safety” and “the science is still out on that” & so on.

Logan:

The media is not merely a mirror, reflecting society back at itself – it is part of society, and to ignore its own power in shaping the social and political dynamics it reports on is a dereliction of duty which can no longer stand.

Young woman, know your place

Greta Thunberg, the young woman at the centre of the current climate change protests, has been vilified by the usual suspects on social media.

Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, reliably wrong about everything all the time and editor of a magazine funded at least in part by the climate change-denying Koch brothers, mocked her voice (she has Aspergers and is speaking a second language).

Toby Young retweeted an article accusing her of privilege (he’s the son of a baron, a man whose academic career was saved by a phone call from his father and whose media career seems to be built entirely on connections because, God knows, it wasn’t built on writing talent).

Douglas Carswell, a political lightweight, attacked her as the “Child messiah” head of a cult.

What’s notable about the attacks is that the vast majority of them are not about what she said; they’re about who she is: a young, articulate woman.

Jane McCallion, writer and editor:

The reaction of the likes of Toby Young and others on the right in particular to Greta Thunberg reminds me of how the same general group of people reacted to Malala Yousafazi. Young politically active women whom they see as uppity and in need of being put in their place.

Through any attempt to take down a young woman or girl who is making herself heard on an important issue there runs a deep vein of misogyny that shouldn’t be underestimated or overlooked.

The reaction underlines something that’s a real problem in the UK media and political establishments: they’re dominated by the voices of mediocre, reactionary men. They’re not clutching their pearls because she says something they disagree with; they’re doing it because she has the temerity to say anything at all.

There’s something rotten in the SNP

Between 2017 and 2018, the Scottish Government consulted on proposed reforms to the gender recognition process to make life slightly less shitty for trans and non-binary people. The public response was overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed changes, with women’s groups dealing with some of the most vulnerable women in society offering very clear and public support.

For no good reason, without evidence and often with complete and utter lack of understanding of existing and proposed legislation, some SNP MSPs now claim that the changes will redefine the meaning of sex in law and harm women. It’s the culmination of an ongoing campaign of anti-trans scaremongering in the Scotsman, which publishes a letter from those MSPs today.

Stephen Paton on Twitter:

This morning, several SNP MSPs signed a letter calling for further debate on trans equality. Meanwhile, Holyrood held an event last night that gave MSPs the chance to speak candidly with trans people – and not a single one of the signatories came.

Rhiannon Spear of the TIE Campaign for inclusive education:

Great thread from @Cmacf76 here.

I note that not one of the MSPs in the letter attended an event in the ScotParl last night to hear from trans folk + to have their questions answered. 🤷 #ComeOutForTransEquality https://twitter.com/Cmacf76/status/1120952836723023872

Laura Waddell, writer and publisher:

Here are the public responses to the GRA consultation. I highly recommend having a browse, particularly of organisations who provide services and work with children and women. Anyone framing this as a ‘war on woman’ does everyone a disservice. https://www2.gov.scot/Topics/Justice/law/17867/gender-recognition-review/review-of-gender-recognition-act-2004-list-of-orga/published-responses-from-organisations

…Politicians who’ve waded into the GRA discussion in recent months have encouraged ‘debate’ to turn nastier than it was before by framing it disingenuously as a ‘war on women.’ But the completely *bizarre* timing suggests there are other things at play too.

The Equality Network:

To the 15 @theSNP politicians who signed that letter in the Scotsman today: Trans people don’t want to change the definitions of male and female; they simply want to be recognised, and treated with dignity, as the sex they are.
#equalrecognition

Duncan Hothersall, Labour activist:

I point out that those offering support for the changes include Engender, Scottish Women’s Aid, Close the Gap, Rape Crisis Scotland, Zero Tolerance and Equate Scotland, and those opposing include Christian Concern, the Free Church of Scotland and the Christian Institute.

Of all the pernicious lies told about this subject, among the worst is that “nobody knew this was happening”. Support for this reform of the GRA was explicitly declared in 2016 party manifestos from SNP, Labour, Greens and Lib Dems, and the 2018 consultation engaged very widely.

Come on in, the water’s lovely

Glasgow Life has issued a statement regarding the scaremongering articles about its changing rooms policy.

You will be shocked to discover that the articles weren’t true.

Glasgow Life’s staff guidance on accessing sports facilities and services by transgender people was produced and distributed in 2015. Since then, we have had more than 20 million attendances across our sport facilities and no reports of inappropriate behaviour in regard to trans customers. Trans men and trans women have been using our facilities for many years without incident.

About those women-only gym sessions:

Contrary to reports, Glasgow Life does not run any ‘women only gym sessions’ – our gym sessions and classes are open to all, regardless of gender.

And those women-only swimming pool changing rooms:

Our venues provide a mix of changing room facilities. A significant proportion of our changing facilities are unisex and open to all, with secure, private cubicles. Where facilities have male and female changing facilities, private cubicles are provided, where possible. Our staff are happy to assist with any requests in regard to provision of private changing facilities. If anyone, at any time, feels unsure or uncomfortable in using our services, they should immediately contact a member of staff for assistance.

The Herald, The Star, The Scotsman and The Sun all ran the original scaremongering, and yet I can’t see any sign of a correction, let alone one with equal prominence, today.

Singal minded

There’s an interesting piece in The New Republic by Josephine Livingstone, who analyses the idea that debate is always a good thing. She begins by looking at a US journalist called Jesse Singal, who’s notorious in LGBT circles for what appears to be an ongoing campaign of damaging misinformation about trans people and trans teenagers in particular.

When readers get angry with him, which happens often, he sees them as curtailing a productive conversation that he has prompted in the spirit of a free and vigorous exchange of ideas.

…Singal and others who are critical of the social justice left—a group that ranges across the ideological spectrum and includes Bari Weiss, Ben Shapiro, Daphne Merkin, and Katie Roiphe—accuse the left of being footstampingly insistent on their views, to the detriment of healthy debate. In fact, it is the “debate me, coward” crowd that has made it impossible to have arguments in good faith, because they demand, unwittingly or not, to set the terms.

Livingstone rather brilliantly describes this as “vacuous fight-picking” and “a howling canyon filled with misdirected energy”, using the familiar idea that we must hear both sides of any story in order to form our own opinions.

But these people are not interested in letting people hear both sides. They want you to hear their side and only their side, and if you disagree with them they’ll shout you down and accuse you of trying to silence them.

It is telling that critics of the social justice movement are obsessed with free speech and debate: It is the one inviolable principle they can fall back on when argument on the actual issues fails.

All too often, the argument being made is based on (deliberate or accidental) misunderstanding, or straightforward bad faith: so for example many so-called debates about trans people simply ignore decades of research or dig up long-debunked talking points. Again and again demonstrably false claims are presented as incontestable fact: the number of trans people who detransition, the medicine given (or not given) to young people, the content of existing and proposed legislation.

And it’s usually asymmetric. Journalists have power that other people do not; a journalist or public figure with tens of thousands of social media followers has a disproportionate amount of power compared to the people they may write about. For example, the supposed quality press in Scotland and elsewhere consistently regurgitates the claims of extreme anti-trans activists about legal or medical issues but never asks legal experts or medical experts whether those claims are true and certainly doesn’t give trans people the right of reply.

The truth is out there, but too many journalists prefer “truthiness”: what feels true to them, not what’s actually true.

People like Singal can bang on about free speech and debate endlessly without ever conceding a) that the deck may be stacked in their favor, and b) that certain ideas may be beyond their understanding.

And this is why marginalised people can become so angry. Singal’s work, and similarly distorted reporting, has often been comprehensively demolished by people with a greater understanding and a less blinkered view of the things being written about. But they aren’t the ones given the column inches to fill.

Livingstone:

The exhaustion that comes of teaching something over and over again, only to witness people re-educated by poorly-read journalists, is profound. Exhaustion makes a person angry. Anger makes a person seem like a hyperzealot. You cannot believe that somebody is asking you to go around the same block—the very same block!—yet another time.