Twitterstorms, Inaccuracies and Press Ethics

The Daily Express, for example, is outside of the Press Complaints Commission’s remit.  So what do you do if they publish an inaccurate story, like the one about the costs of treating two trans prisoners approaching £100,000?  Well, you phone them up, like Jane Fae says she did.

The paper wasn’t interested in correcting things.  The editor was, apparently, too busy.  So what’s the next step?


The answer appears to be, not a lot.  According to TMW’s legal eagle, David Allen Green, there are four laws that can be applied to the press – libel, slander, breach of privacy and malicious falsehood.  Because the Express article doesn’t explicitly reference the two prisoners by name, nor can they be identified by the piece, there is no effective remedy, even if the press knowingly prints an incorrect fact.  So much for the law being sufficient.  Effectively you can only shame offending papers into submission – not easy for small, geographically dispersed minority groups.

Today there has been much discussion about press standards, especially in the tabloid reporting around Lucy Meadows’ death.  I made reference in a piece for Gay Star News about how the evidence before us appears to contradict Dominic Mohan’s evidence on oath to the Leveson Inquiry about how his paper, the Sun, was raising its game in terms of reporting trans issues – a comment that Lord Justice Leveson repeats in his report, although he wasn’t convinced that it had been raised high enough.

Trans people know all too well the vicious cycle this can create – establishing a climate of fear, which adds stress, which makes disclosure harder and the reactions worse.  Except, a lot of the time, the reactions aren’t as bad as the media would project.  My own family stood by me when I transitioned, with only one exception.  That’s not to say they found it easy – I’m sure they didn’t – but the media stereotypes were what was filling them with dread.

At the start of Section C in the Trans Media Watch submission to Leveson, the following text appears:

Despite its protestations that it merely reflects public interest and opinion, the press has a powerful role in shaping society’s terms of debate and reference.  It helps us to “define what we think about, what we see as problems and the solutions we consider”.

This is not trans-specific.  It affects every single group in society.  When you think about travellers, asylum seekers, Muslims, Conservatives, Australians – the media has shaped how you see them.  When the popular press consistently speaks with one voice, as it does so often on issues affecting trans people, prisoners, youth, teachers, benefit claimants, immigrants … it creates a mood in society.  The press drives debate like no other sector can.

Which is why being the editor of a national, or even regional, news outlet is actually a huge social responsibility.  Because not everything submitted to a paper, even regional ones, gets published.  When I was chair of my town’s choral society last year, we struggled to get any publicity at all for our concerts, despite chucking press releases at the local press like there was no tomorrow.  The press chooses itself what it prints and what it doesn’t.  Editors shape debate.  Which is why biased coverage is so insidious.

This is the freedom of the press, not to have to report only what the government wants it to, or to deny reportage to anything the government takes offence to.  But it comes with an equal and opposite responsibility – to inform, not just entertain.


The press is kicking hard against the Leveson report and its recommendations.  It’s trying hard to point an accusing finger at Hacked Off, claiming undue influence.  But when confronted with its own wrongdoing, such as today’s sad reporting around Lucy Meadows or the prisoners story, it simply doesn’t want to know.  It’s “too busy”.  Which is why we need a strong regulator – to match a strong press.

I contacted the PCC this afternoon, expressing real and sustained concern about the way pretty much all of the tabloids were treating trans stories.  Their recommendation was to phone the editors.  Well, hearing Jane’s story, I don’t think I have the time or the patience to phone half a dozen or so editors, have an angry conversation which will last between 30 seconds and 30 minutes, to achieve grudging minor amendments that don’t really address the fundamental problem.  Even though the Observer took down the Burchill piece, they still defended it to the PCC.

I’ve arranged to meet the PCC on Monday afternoon.  But I’m not hopeful of getting anywhere at all.  Although they are concerned – they seem powerless to do anything about it.  “Wringing their hands with a sense of woe” – that quote rings bells.  Not that they particularly helped themselves with Wednesday’s ruling.

The picture I’m painting is bleak.  It isn’t necessarily so.  There are loads of journalists and others in the press who have contacted TMW over the last couple of days, who are wanting to learn and wanting to “get it right”.  Trans Media Action, a project kicked off by TMW, Channel 4 and the BBC, and which TMW is still involved in, has an exciting proposal to constructively engage with media professionals.  Conversations I’ve had today with folk working for broadsheets indicate that they think the tabloid editors have judged things terribly badly here.  Lots of trans people do go about their daily business, successfully integrated into and accepted by their local communities.

The Burchill article, bad though it was, did open peoples’ eyes to the routine behaviour of the press when it came to reporting on trans issues.  The outcry over Lucy Meadows appears to be doing the same thing.  The challenge, as ever, is to co-operate where one can while maintaining principles and integrity.

This is an episode that points very squarely at the ethics the press chooses to operate under.  It has people within it who are ethical.  It appears to be run, however, by people who simply don’t care.  Actually, the Daily Mail is trying to claim the moral high ground, blaming an orchestrated Twitterstorm fanned by people with their own agendas.  In coding terms – GOTO paragraph_4.

Even in death, the tabloids still misrepresented Lucy Meadows, as they have done to countless other trans people.  That’s the real ethical problem – and weasel words aimed at trying to deflect the attention doesn’t hide it.


EDITED – 25 March 2013:  David Allen Green asked me to correct the four classifications.  I believe they are now correct.


One comment

  1. […] As I wrote earlier, the trans communities are not alone in being exploited in this way.  We’re slightly unusual in that we have some level of legal protection under the Equality Act.  Other groups, such as prisoners, travellers, asylum seekers and youth, don’t.  I imagine that what the press does to trans people, it does to other vulnerable people too.  I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect not. […]

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