Saturday, 1 December 2012

Three cheers for Leveson! (Well, at least two) Now what?

The rumours that the Report of the Leveson Inquiry would be so big and heavy that you'd hurt your toes kicking it into the long grass were not wrong. If you want the paper version, it comes in four thick volumes. Don't go for that - it will cost you £250. Download the free PDF version instead. But even that comes in four 'volumes'. You can find the PDF version here: http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc1213/hc07/0780/0780.asp.

The part of the Report that describes and comments on the evidence submitted by Trans Media Watch is in Volume 2, Part F: THE CULTURE, PRACTICES AND ETHICS OF THE PRESS: THE PRESS AND THE PUBLIC.

Part F consists of a number of chapters. Chapter 6 looks at 'Criticisms of the culture, practices and ethics of the press', and is split into various sections. Section 8 deals with 'Representation of women and minorites'. The stuff particularly relevant to trans people is under the subheading of 'Transgender' and is set out in paragraphs 8.24 to 8.33.

You can see straight away that in no way does the evidence of Trans Media Watch get star billing! It's tucked away under a rather general chapter title. Nevertheless, it covers three pages of the paper and PDF versions of the Report. This is how Lord Justice Leveson sets out the evidence:


Transgender

8.24 Trans Media Watch (TMW) provided evidence to the Inquiry of disturbing and intrusive reporting of transgender and intersex issues by parts of the press.They wrote:“The media – and the tabloid press in particular – has played a powerful role in creating and sustaining a climate of prejudice against transgender people. Worse… instances in which the tabloid press has created situations in which very vulnerable people (including transgender children) are “monstered” and face public abuse or the threat of violence are not hard to find. Nor is it difficult to discover stories in which transgender people have had their privacy shamelessly invaded, personal details that could place them in grave danger revealed (either unethically or even illegally), or lies circulated about them by the press. Entirely innocent individuals have been forced out of jobs and homes, even received death threats, on the basis of coverage in the British press.Whilst an occasionally more sympathetic piece might appear, in a “human interest” setting, the tabloid press (especially) has consistently expressed almost no interest in behaving with human decency towards transgender people.”

8.25 The organisation said that the tabloid press in particular tended to fit stories about transgender issues within one of three categories: “trans as fraud”, “trans as undeserving” and “trans as deviant and deserving of parody”. To that list might be added “the outing of transgender people”. TMW provided to the Inquiry many examples of these kinds of stories. Within this report it is possible to refer to only a few, but the examples which follow are by no means aberrations.

8.26 Within the categories “trans as fraud” and “trans as undeserving” was an article published in the Daily Express and titled ‘Half Man Gets New Breasts (and guess who’s paying £78k)’. TMW said the article was not only inaccurate (the cost of gender reconstruction surgery is nowhere near as high as £78k), but it was also part of a narrative adopted by much of the tabloid press presenting transgender people as undeserving frauds using public money for illegitimate means. An article with a similar theme was exhibited from The Sun entitled ‘Operation Sex Swap: MOD paying for troops’ gender surgery’.

8.27 Within the category “trans as deviant and deserving of parody”, TMW highlighted The Sun’s ‘Tran or Woman’ quiz, where readers were provided with a series of photographs and asked to guess whether the subject was transgender or not. It further highlighted a tendency for the tabloid press to use comedic, demeaning or ridiculing language in stories about transgender people. Examples were The Sun’s use of genital-based puns in the headlines ‘Dad of two driver changes gear in sex swap’, and The Scottish Sun’s ‘Sex swap mechanic goes nuts at medics’ or the use of derogatory words such as “tranny”. In respect of the Daily Mail, TMW noted its tendency to report on transgender people as though the category were false or unreal: it frequently used inverted commas around the words ‘transgender people’, and referred to transgender women as “men” and transgender men as “women”.

8.28 The final category – the outing of transgender people – was perhaps the most disturbing, given the very damaging effect this can have on individuals. Helen Belcher of TMW told the Inquiry that The Sun’s ‘Dad of two driver changes gear in sex swap’ story was written without permission and without reference to the subject of the story. The photograph was similarly published without permission. Ms Belcher said:“The piece was rewritten so it looked as though the subject had colluded with the Sun. The first the subject knew was when the Sun published it. It caused her immense distress. It also caused her children huge distress, because they thought that she had sold her story or was behind her story in some way, and she had nothing to do with the story whatsoever. It is a pure expose. There is no public interest.”

8.29 Two further examples were referred to in TMW’s second submission. First, on 12 February 2012, The Sun had revealed the story of (allegedly) the UK’s first transgender male to give birth. Faced with an unwillingness (or inability) of transgender groups to identify the man, The Sun chose to publish a call for the public to identify the person concerned and offered a reward for information. Eventually, once identified, the individual was door-stepped by a journalist. The Sun published stories revealing his identity, and other newspapers, including the Daily Mail, published comment pieces about the “freakish” and “revolting” thought of a man giving birth.

8.30 Second, on 20 February 2012, the Daily Mail published a story about a five year old child who had been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder. There was perhaps a public interest in the story itself, but included within the story was also the child’s name, date and place of birth, birth certificate, photographs of the child and the name of the school and hospital she attended. It was unclear what form of consent was received to publish the story, but it seems inconceivable that the child’s parents would have granted consent for what followed. In several follow-up articles, the Daily Mail criticised the child’s “misguided” parents for their “nonsense” in allowing the child to be diagnosed with a disorder, criticised the school for profligate spending of resources to provide a gender neutral toilet in the child’s school, and used the child’s case (and photographs) as an example to debunk the politically correct rise of an “industry” which encourages trans-sexualism.

8.31 The critical comments made in the follow-up pieces, although on occasion uninformed and potentially misleading, might well have been justified as fair comment on a matter of public interest. However, in the context, they were comment pieces which were directly related to an identified, photographed and vulnerable child. Each piece republished the same large photographs of the five year old as part of the article, and the impact of the reporting as a whole may well have been tremendously damaging. As TMW noted: "TMW recognises that many more children report gender variant episodes than turn out to be trans. However, when a child expresses a strong level of distress about their gender, severe psychological issues can result if left untreated. It is entirely possible that Z may decide as she grows older that she wishes to revert to being a boy. If that scenario does arise, the level of press exposure is likely to make that decision far harder to take. There is significant concern about giving someone like this so much exposure, especially when they are vulnerable. Paradoxically this is a concern that the press has also expressed, but their rush to publish seems to be paramount.”

And his conclusion on the above evidence is set out in the two closing paragraphs:

8.32 On the basis of the evidence seen by the Inquiry, it is clear that there is a marked tendency in a section of the press to fail to treat members of the transgender and intersex communities with sufficient dignity and respect; and in instances where individuals are identified either expressly or by necessary implication perpetrate breaches of clause 12 of the Code. Parts of the tabloid press continue to seek to ‘out’ transgender people notwithstanding its prohibition in the Editors’ Code. And parts of the tabloid press continue to refer to the transgender community in derogatory terms, holding transgender people up for ridicule, or denying the legitimacy of their condition. Although the Inquiry heard evidence that parts of the tabloid press had “raised [its] game in terms of transgender reporting”, the examples provided by TMW of stories from the last year demonstrate that the game needs to be raised significantly higher.

8.33 The press has shown itself quite capable of doing so: 30 years ago, an Inquiry into the culture practices and ethics of the press was likely to have seen a deluge of complaints relating to the representation of homosexuals in the press. The fact that only a very few such complaints were received by this Inquiry may reflect the press’s ability to put its own house in order. Alternatively, it may simply reflect that society had changed and the press has been forced to keep up.

(My acknowledgements to the Stationery Office. And I have omitted the numbered footnotes in the actual Report)

Then he moves on to other press misbehaviour.

Well, our poor treatment in the hands of the press has been put on public record. And it seems to me that Lord Justice Leveson has dealt with this area of press misconduct with a fair hand and an understanding mind. But it does look rather lost in such a big Report, and very much eclipsed by the evidence of celebrities and others who were made subject to shocking speculations and accusations that had no foundation.

And really, very few ordinary people are going to read the report in depth, and in context. It won't alter public perceptions of trans people one bit. Next time someone insults you in the street, try a quote from what Lord Justice Leveson has said. See what you get.

And worse, I don't think that newspaper editors are going to feel too inhibited about publishing articles that belittle or mock trans people in the future. They'll certainly do it if they can find a shadow of genuine 'public interest'. We will get subtler language that is still offensive to us, but not so obviously to non-trans people of the kind that read and enjoy tabloids, and are happy to buy them.

It all depends now on what kind of Regulation is put in place. I wasn't surprised to hear that the press had been cobbling together proposals for a rehashed PCC for months past. The writing was clearly on the wall: they had to do something. And yes, if the press proposal is 'good enough' to be adopted, David Cameron will be off the hook as regards coming up with the minimum sort of legislation that the Report has recommended. But failing that, there will be a battle royal over this in Parliament. It's a wonderful opportunity for the frustrated Liberals, and the equally frustrated Labour opposition, to hurl hot steaming poo at David Cameron, shouting that he is in the pocket of the newspaper owners. 

Cameron goes on and on about 'press freedom' as if the notion were sacred, but it's wrong to defend the traditional freedoms of the press if they abuse those freedoms and innocent people suffer as a result. The BBC, with its statutory constitution and standards, can't behave like that. But public service and the unvarnished presentation of facts are not what newspapers are about. They exist to make money from what they publish. If it won't pay, they stop printing. I would personally never buy and read a newspaper if I wanted the facts, all of them, given to me in a balanced way. Opinions, tittle-tattle and speculation are not facts. They may not even be close to the truth. And news that is not the truth is worse than no news at all.

Despite Twitter and other immediate sources of news, I'm sure that newspapers will be around for a long time yet, and it's worth cleaning them up before they finally decide the news business doesn't pay any more, and shut their doors.

2 comments:

  1. Nearly every time I have been close to an event which has been reported in the newspapers the reporting has been hard to match to reality. Surely there is a trades description act offence in the name NEWSpaper...

    Not holding breath for better reporting!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I once was asked if I minded being interviewed and photographed for a local newspaper in Manchester. As it was in Manchester and nowhere near where I lived and as I really didn't mind anyway I agreed. When the article was published the following week I discovered that they had used my photograph but the narrative was that of another girl who had been interviewed that same evening! Aside from that stupid mistake I found nothing offensive in what was printed. Perhaps that was the exception rather than the rule!
    Shirley Anne x

    ReplyDelete

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