Cry Freedom

Yes, I know I’ve been quiet.  I’ve been busy!  And I figured folk would be getting a bit bored about problems with same-sex marriage.  Life has a habit of pulling you in different directions, and the last three months have been very busy with the company I run.  Despite all that, I was stunned to find myself at number 13 on the Independent on Sunday’s Pink List 2013 with my TMW colleague Jennie Kermode.  I won’t deny that the recognition is nice, but the target is never to appear on a list, but to make sure society improves.  And I was extremely happy that our former colleague-in-arms, Paris Lees, topped the list.

Back to TMW work – I’ve just completed a basic analysis of UK television broadcasts that reference trans and/or intersex people from the last 5 months, ending on 30 September.  For source material, I took the logs on the TransgenderZone forum (beware, it has tons of advertising and popups).  A more detailed report is linked as a pdf here…Broadcasters Statistical Analysis – Apr to Sep 2013

In summary, the broadcasters vary wildly in how they deal with trans and intersex issues.  Some of this is due to the types of programmes broadcast.  Comedy is highlighted as the main problem area.

The raw figures: 240 programmes were included; some programmes had trans as the sole focus of the programme, others had only a passing reference to trans or intersex.  Of these 240, 101 (42%) could be deemed as problematic, and 75 (31%) acceptable.  Broken down by broadcaster, Channel 4 had the lowest proportion of acceptable broadcasts – 14% (9 out of 65), with the BBC running them a close second – 15% (11 out of 74).  Channel 5 came top with 71% (17 out of 24) broadcasts treating trans and intersex issues responsibly.  These figures exclude Coronation Street and Big Brother, both of which would boost ITV’s and Channel 5’s “acceptable broadcast” figures.

This places both Channel 4 and the BBC in some difficulty, as both organisations have funded project work through Trans Media Watch and All About Trans, and both made public commitments to improve trans-related broadcasting.  For them to appear at the bottom of the heap is alarming and, should time permit, I want to do another analysis to compare the current position to that of 1, 2 and 3 years ago.

The key problem area is comedy.  This counted for 150 of the 240 episodes.  Here 86 (or 58%) of broadcasts were deemed problematic, with only 16 (11%) acceptable.  In fact 85% of the total problematic coverage can be accounted for by comedy – and that doesn’t include jokes made in programmes classified as lifestyle or current affairs.  The assumption might be that comedy is just throwaway remarks – but again the analysis indicates that a good proportion of problematic comedy lingers on the subject.  Not quite so much the occasional pointy stick or pebble thrown our way, more like a sustained onslaught of pointy sticks and stones.  Comedy will have a far higher audience than worthy documentaries or current affairs programmes.  And comedy gives a vocabulary to those who go on to abuse trans and intersex people.

Sadly for the broadcasters, comedy is going to be a tough nut to crack.  This is largely down to the power that comics and their agents now hold.  When TMW first approached Channel 4, we were told of the restrictions that were often placed in contracts or licences to broadcast programmes featuring comedians.  Very often the broadcaster is faced with the decision to broadcast or not broadcast – editing is only allowed if the broadcast would break the law.  The issue here is that hate crime legislation hasn’t really caught up with equalities legislation – so while racist jokes or jokes about religion may fall foul of various hate crime legislation, no such protection exists for other minority and marginalised groups.  The Law Commission is completing its recommendations on extending hate crime legislation right now and, yes, TMW has made a submission.  I was even asked to be a panellist at a consultation event.

An obstacle placed often in our way is the perceived paramount status of freedom of speech.  Except here, also, the picture is more complex than it first seems.  When the media talk about freedom of speech, they actually mean the freedom to publish or broadcast.  Yet we’ve seen the lack of any effective right of reply – the classic example being the Burchill article, where the Observer censored comments on the piece which quoted it because they fell foul of the moderation policy – so there was certainly freedom to publish but the freedom to reply was restricted.  Discussions with people regularly identify that news coverage in particular now rarely focuses on news, but majors instead on celebrity gossip or opinion.  Yet trust is insidious – people rarely question what they’re presented with until someone else raises questions.  It’s easier not to be sceptical or to have to engage an analytical brain.  Don’t get me wrong – I think that freedom of speech is important to have a fully functioning democracy, but the current position is largely freedom for a few people to shout through megaphones, bullying others into silence.  That’s not freedom of speech in my books.

There is little doubt that the relevant people in both Channel 4 and the BBC are taking this study seriously.  Its primary purpose was to provide ammunition for those inside these organisations to persuade management that change is needed.  I was told by one media executive recently that the debate about whether trans and intersex people should be treated fairly had been pretty much comprehensively won – the issue was now being framed in terms of strategy to ensure that actually happens.

So while it doesn’t provide any real or immediate comfort to those who have to face the consequences of problematic broadcasts daily, there are signs that the underlying ethos is being challenged and change has a good chance of occurring.


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