NUJ discuss homophobia and transphobia in the media

Yesterday’s National Union of Journalists-hosted panel discussion on homophobia and transphobia in the media, which I announced a couple of weeks ago, went well, with three very interesting presentations from the invited speakers, and various contributions from the floor.

Following a celebratory slideshow featuring several decades of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender campaigning, the meeting began with LGBT-focused trades union activist Lesley Woodburn, who spoke of her experience with the infamous Bermondsey by-election in 1983, and the need for community ownership of the media. Not ownership in the financial sense, but in terms of stakeholding and value.

Peter spoke last, and, while he referred to Bermondsey, his focus was on the rhetorical as well as physical violence of political campaigning in general. He is also concerned with false reporting, and what can be done about this. Peter gave us an example of an interaction during the Bermondsey campaign in which a constituent crossed the street to greet him warmly, but this was reported in the press as an angry member of the public giving the candidate a piece of his mind.

Another interesting point about Bermondsey is that, following a 47% approval rating for Peter in an NOP-conducted poll, the press went on a systematic offensive against him, with even the Guardian lukewarm in support of a proudly gay Labour candidate who lost the parliamentary election to a closeted homosexual who today admits to his shameful exploitation of media-led homophobic attacks on his opponent. The Press Complaints Commission failed to adjudicate on any of the complaints concerning the campaign, leading Peter to become a vociferous advocate for an independent press regulator with teeth.

Peter’s support for Brian Leveson‘s recommendations on press regulation is a little confused, in my view. I suspect that he is torn in his mind between free speech imperatives, in defence of which he has devoted his entire working life, and intense lobbying for statutory regulation of the press, or at least regulation underpinned by statute.

Peter cites the NUJ code of conduct, and the need for this to be enforced by the union. He also calls for a statutory right of reply to false reporting, and for legal aid to be granted to those without deep pockets who wish to sue for libel.

For me the highlight of the evening was Helen Belcher of TransMediaWatch. In a measured and articulate presentation Helen began with the tragic case of Lucy Meadows, who is thought to have committed suicide following media and public attention related to Richard Littlejohn’s article about her in the Daily Mail. I choose my words with care, as does Helen, who insists that no causal link can be made between Littlejohn’s writing and Meadows’ death.

Still, the Meadows case highlights the difficulties faced by transgender folk who attract media attention. They are in a difficult and traumatic enough situation as it is, and they are vulnerable. Helen reported that one in three transgender people attempts suicide, many find themselves forced to lie to physicians in order to obtain medical treatment, and some are subject to physical attack in the community, often following negative media reports.

Negative media reporting of transgender people falls into three categories, says Helen: (1) the suggestion that trans = fraud; (2) undeserving deviants; and (3) public ridicule. Such reporting contributes to the destruction of human lives, and it is downright immoral.

Helen described the work of TransMediaWatch as an attempt to “change the culture of exploitation” of transgender people. She is particularly interested in exerting a positive influence over editorial policies which may encourage reporters to monster transgender individuals who come to their attention. There is also the need to present positive life stories, with the aim of achieving the “usualisation of transgender people”.

I spoke with Helen at the end of the meeting, and thanked her for her contribution. I also contributed to the open discussion, asking Helen what we as journalists could do to combat transphobic media reporting, and deal with those of our colleagues who engage in this immoral behaviour. In her response Helen didn’t directly address the question, preferring to focus instead on the need for the transgender community and its supporters to present a positive face. Now I can understand Helen’s reluctance to engage with the practical issue raised, but it is something that NUJ members cannot avoid.

Helen emailed me today to ask whether I, as a journalist with a personal interest in the subject, being the son of a transgender woman, would be willing to help with the work of TransMediaWatch. Without hesitation I replied in the affirmative, and in turn I asked TransMediaWatch to work closely with the NUJ Equality Council.