An NUJ response to anti-transgender bigotry in the media

Francis Sedgemore, Tuesday 22 January 2013 at 11:28 UTC

The Equality Council of the National Union of Journalists reacted with alarm to the publication in the Observer of an article by Julie Burchill which contains an explicit and gratuitously offensive attack on transgender women. Following a lengthy email discussion among its geographically-dispersed members, of which I am one, the NUJ Equality Council agreed on the following statement as a first response to the Burchill row. There may be more to come.

NUJ Equality Council statement on Julie Burchill article

The NUJ Equality Council considers that opinion pieces such as the article by Julie Burchill published in the 13 January 2013 edition of the Observer can cause considerable harm to the social groups and individuals featured. Free speech imperatives and a desire to explore contentious issues does not justify publishing unnecessarily provocative, gratuitously offensive and bigoted material.

“The NUJ is all too aware that transphobic reporting is not a rare occurrence in some parts of the media,” said union general secretary Michelle Stanistreet. “Thankfully our members are aware of their responsibility towards ethical journalism, highlighted in the code of conduct to which all members sign up when they join.”

Between 1996 and 2011 more than 120 complaints concerning transphobia in the media were made to the Press Complaints Commission. A survey in 2011 conducted by the media monitoring body TransMediaWatch found that one in five transgender people were frightened by such reporting, and a third said that it made them feel excluded from society. A fifth reported verbal abuse, which they attributed to negative media coverage.

Transgender people deserve media reporting that is considered, fair and balanced. The NUJ Equality Council highlights the stance taken by the union at the Leveson Inquiry in support of ethical journalism and the right of third parties to complain to editors and press regulators. The union calls for staff journalists to have a conscience clause in their employment contracts that would allow them to refuse work in breach of agreed ethical guidelines.

Journalists working for organisations within which the NUJ is represented are in our view more likely to produce material that meets our ethical standards. Workplace union organisation provides a forum for debate among journalists and their editorial managers, and a space for discussing and resolving the practical challenges involved in journalism. Journalists who are members of the NUJ are bound by our code of conduct, as are their editors.

The successor to the discredited Press Complaints Commission must act in accordance with the letter and spirit of equalities legislation when handling complaints concerning discriminatory reporting and commentary. The NUJ reaffirms its submission to the Leveson Inquiry on the need for third party complaints, and calls on the Government and newspaper industry to accept that an independent regulator will command far more public confidence and respect if it is prepared to consider such complaints.

There follows a personal addendum to the Equality Council statement. The views expressed are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the NUJ Equality Council…

What we do next is a subject for further discussion within the Equality Council, the union’s Ethics Council and the National Executive Council.

A number of people have asked me about the status of Julie Burchill vis-à-vis the NUJ. The language used in Burchill’s article is covered by point #9 of the NUJ Code of Conduct. Now I cannot confirm whether Burchill is a member of the NUJ, and the problem is that data protection laws forbid union officers from divulging such information to the Equality Council. From what I understand, disciplinary action against an NUJ member must be taken by their branch, or a national officer of the union with access to the membership list.

The Burchill affair has raised a number of questions about press ethics and media coverage of vulnerable and often persecuted individuals and communities. Public attitudes toward transgender people have improved over time, but there is a long way to go. Whatever our personal views on the matter, we journalists have a responsibility to cover transgender issues in a manner that is considered, fair and balanced, and does not foment hatred.

In this respect the senior staff at the Observer failed miserably. Editor John Mulholland has acknowledged his personal failure and apologised for publishing the offending article by Burchill. However, Mulholland then compounded the problem by removing the piece from the Guardian website, together with the comments of several thousand readers. For the Observer editor to dismiss criticism of his action as “irrelevant” and “noise” is an insult to those who took time to comment, whatever their personal perspectives on the matter.

Finally, I note that newspaper proprietors and senior editors’ luncheon club known as the Press Complaints Commission has decided to investigate Julie Burchill and the Observer following the receipt of around 800 complaints from readers. As a rule the PCC refuses to handle third-party complaints, and in any case its judgements have little if any impact.