Yesterday I, with one other, paid a visit to the Press Complaints Commission. I was asked why, as the generally accepted view is that its days are numbered. But my purpose was quite simple. I wanted to spur them into some kind of pre-emptive action, and to explain to them just some of the emotion that has been washing around the trans communities over the past week or so. I think this is important because the PCC will form the basis for whatever body (or bodies) the press decides to create to regulate itself in the future.
My colleague undertook not to write about the meeting. I gave no such undertaking.
For those not acquainted with the intricacies of the structure of the PCC (and why should you be?) it basically consists of three separate but linked bodies: the Commission, which examines complaints and makes judgements on them based on the Editors’ Code; the Secretariat, which provides administrative support to the Commission and is the main interface with the public; and the Editors’ Panel, which reviews the Editors’ Code itself. Our meeting was with the Secretariat, so they didn’t have any real power as such, but only make suggestions and recommendations.
I explained that the trans communities felt that they were effectively trying to push an uncaring press into compliance with the code from beneath. There was an increasing feeling of anger, the point being that we really shouldn’t have to be acting as the Code’s policeman. I wanted the Commission to take some action that would address the issue from above, as it were.
The reactions were interesting, although did nothing to dispel my Leveson judgement on them. I paraphrase: “But we’re a commission who handles complaints about the press – the clue is in the name”. (I’ll ignore what’s written on the back of their dwindling stock of business cards – “The PCC is an independent body, which administers the system of self-regulation for the press“.) Unless people complained, they felt they couldn’t do anything – apart from one individual (who wasn’t in the main meeting) who thought my proposal was a good one and made a lot of sense.
Last night I was contacted by two MPs on different sides of the House regarding the wording of an Early Day Motion (EDM). These are mechanisms by which the backbenchers of the House of Commons can express particular views, and can draw attention to a wide variety of issues. Some MPs swear by them, others think they’re a complete waste of space.
This evening Dr Julian Huppert (Lib Dem MP for Cambridge) tabled the following Early Day Motion, supported by Caroline Lucas (Green MP for Brighton Pavilion) and Sir Peter Bottomley (Conservative MP for Worthing West):
That this House condemns misrepresentation of transgender people in the British media; notes that some media organisations continue to misrepresent transgender people deliberately and publish their private information in spite of the findings of the Leveson report and in breach of the editors code; believes that such misrepresentation has an extremely damaging impact on those individuals who are named, on the wider transgender community and on the public’s perception of transgender people; condemns the harassment of transgender people, their families and colleagues, of which the experiences of Lucy Meadows are the latest; calls for the Press Complaints Commission to issue a public notice to editors immediately reminding them of their existing obligations under the letter and the spirit of the editors code when reporting transgender stories; further notes with concern that the reporting of Lucy Meadows reflects the wider culture of inappropriate language when it comes to stories relating to transgender people; and further calls for an immediate end to misrepresentation of transgender people in the press.
Given that the largest petition calling for the Mail to sack Richard Littlejohn now has almost 200,000 signatures – Hacked Off only managed 175,000 – it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a significant number of MPs from all sides of the House will sign this EDM sponsored from three different parties, even though the House has now risen for the Easter recess and the Conservative benches seem to have a genetic disposition against signing them – making Sir Peter Bottomley’s intervention very welcome indeed. This, combined with the parliamentary debate time Graham Jones (Labour MP for Hyndburn) appears to have secured and the comments yesterday from the Speaker, indicate that all sides of the House are taking this issue extremely seriously.
And so they should. Because it draws into sharp relief the ongoing behaviour of the British tabloid press. If we consider that the Lucy Meadows exposure first broke about three weeks after Leveson had reported – that report that condemned unnecessary outing of trans people – the way the press have reacted here is only drawing more attention to themselves in the places it matters, despite the self-censorship certain titles are, themselves, exercising. The quote I gave to the Guardian at yesterday’s vigil was that it feels like the press are sticking two fingers up at Leveson. They are behaving this way because they feel they can do so without consequence. Rightly or wrongly, they will admit no responsibility for Lucy’s death.
Increasingly people are understanding that the press is exploiting vulnerable people for its own profits, often giving nothing but damage In return to its victims. Jane Fae has written powerfully about the systemic culture of abuse and disdain she has encountered from the press this week. In marketing speak, the tabloid brands are slowly becoming toxic.
One of the discussions I had at the PCC concerned the future, not of the PCC itself but of the way the press would be regulated in the medium-term. It is not beyond the realms of doubt that Labour will be in Government one way or another after 2015. If they are, and the press don’t reform their ways, I seriously anticipate a regulatory body set up by statute to appear some time in 2017. The man from the PCC agreed, saying that the press appeared set on a course of self-destruction which he could not understand. He should know, I’m merely an amateur commentator.
Will the PCC raise to the challenge I set them yesterday and the EDM sets them this evening? Will the press realise the regulator they might end up with if they continue with their current behaviour? Will the public and Parliament continue to understand the anger that has built up over years from misrepresented communities such as the trans ones? Tune in after Easter to find out.