IPSO Ruling on Rod Liddle’s Sun comment piece on Emily Brothers

00572-15 Trans Media Watch v The Sun

Summary of Complaint

  1. Trans Media Watch, acting with the consent of Emily Brothers, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun had breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) and Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in columns published on 11 December 2014 and 15 January 2015.
  2. Trans Media Watch complained as a representative group affected by the alleged breach of the Code.
  3. The 11 December column reported that Emily Brothers was standing for election as an MP in the following terms:

Emily Brothers is hoping to become Labour’s first blind transgendered MP. She’ll be standing at the next election in the constituency of Sutton and Cheam. Thing is though: being blind, how did she know she was the wrong sex?

  1. The complainant said the comment suggested that there were limitations to the understanding blind people could have of themselves and called into question Ms Brothers’ gender identity; it was therefore a pejorative and prejudicial reference to her disability and gender.
  2. The newspaper accepted that the comment was tasteless, but denied that it was prejudicial or pejorative. It did not accept that the columnist had criticised Ms Brothers or suggested anything negative or stereotypical about her blindness or gender identity; rather, it had been a clumsy attempt to seek humour regarding the existence of those conditions.
  3. Nonetheless, it said it regretted any distress the article had caused her. Following publication of the article, it issued an apology from the columnist. It also offered her a column – without restrictions – in which to respond; this was published on 15 December 2014. The Editor also asked Mr Liddle to apologise in print and the following apology was published in his 15 January 2015 column and online:

I made a poor joke in bad taste in this column a few weeks back. Well, ok, I suppose I do that every week. But this one was particularly lame … a poor joke by any standards even, even if it wasn’t meant maliciously. So I apologised to Ms Brothers and said that if I lived in Sutton, where she’s standing, I’d vote for her. And I apologise to her again now, in this column. I’d also like to add that having found out more about her I wouldn’t vote for her even if she was standing against Nick Clegg, George Galloway and [Firstname] Ole Ole Biscuit Barrell from the Silly Party.

  1. The newspaper reviewed its editorial processes in response to the complaint and instituted a new policy that all copy relating to transgender matters would be approved by its managing editor before publication. The issues raised by the columnist’s remark had been incorporated into training sessions.
  2. The newspaper argued that any breach of the Code had been remedied by these measures, and that it would be disproportionate for IPSO to uphold the complaint.
  3. The complainant denied that the apology published was adequate. It had been made on behalf of the columnist, not the newspaper, and did not include acceptance that the Code had been breached.
  4. The complainant also said that the wording of the apology had deliberately included reference to Ms Brothers’ former name, by incorrectly reproducing the name of a candidate from a Monty Python sketch; instead of “Tarquin” Ole Ole Biscuit Barrell from the Silly Party, Ms Brothers’ former name had been used. The complainant said that it was vanishingly unlikely that this was a genuine coincidence and as such argued it was a deliberate attempt to humiliate Ms Brothers. It represented a further breach of Clause 12 (Discrimination) and Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Code.
  5. The newspaper denied that the reference had been deliberate. It said that it had received an adamant assurance from the columnist that he had not known Ms Brothers’ former name prior to the complaint being made; neither had anybody else at the newspaper. The newspaper said it was unable to find any reference to Ms Brothers’ name online, and the columnist had referenced the sketch – originally aired in 1970 – without checking it, because he did not believe it was necessary to do so. It was a silly name, plucked from a faulty memory. Having become aware of the concern, the newspaper amended the reference to read “Tarquin Ole Ole Biscuit Barrell of the Silly Party” online.

Relevant Code Provisions

  1. Clause 12 (Discrimination)

(i)        The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

Clause 3 (Privacy)

  • Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

Findings of the Committee

  1. The first column’s crude suggestion that Ms Brothers could only have become aware of her gender by seeing its physical manifestations was plainly wrong. It belittled Ms Brothers, her gender identity and her disability, mocking her for no reason other these perceived “differences”. The comment did not contain any specific pejorative term, but its meaning was pejorative in relation to characteristics specifically protected by Clause 12.
  2. Regardless of the columnist’s intentions, this was not a matter of taste; it was discriminatory and therefore unacceptable under the terms of the Code.
  3. The Committee welcomed steps the newspaper had previously taken to engage with members of the transgender community in an effort to improve editorial standards and the steps it had taken in response to the complaint, particularly the change in policy it had introduced to ensure more effective oversight of material relating to transgender issues. Nonetheless, the complainant was clearly entitled – particularly where the newspaper had denied any breach of the Editors’ Code – to ask the Committee to adjudicate on the matter and record its finding that the publication failed to comply with its obligations under the Code.
  4. The Committee did not accept that the apology published was a genuine attempt to remedy the breach or a sincere expression of regret; the columnist had used it as an opportunity for a further attempt at humour at Ms Brothers’ expense. However, the Committee was not satisfied that it had sufficient evidence to conclude that the inclusion of Ms Brothers’ former first name, which was not uncommon, in the apology, was deliberate. The further complaints under Clause 12 and Clause 3 on this point were not upheld.

Conclusions

  1. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

  1. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee has the power to require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is to be determined by IPSO. It may also inform the publication that further remedial action is required to ensure that the requirements of the Code are met.
  2. The Committee required the newspaper to publish the Committee’s ruling upholding the complaint. The adjudication should be published in full on the same page as the column in a forthcoming edition, and on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the adjudication published on its homepage for a period of no less than 48 hours. The headline should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance.
  3. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows:

Following a column published in The Sun on 11 December 2014, Trans Media Watch, acting with the consent of Emily Brothers, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun had discriminated against Ms Brothers and breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice by publishing a prejudicial and pejorative reference to her disability and gender.

IPSO established a breach of the Code and required The Sun to publish this decision as a remedy.

Noting that Emily Brothers, who is blind and transgender, was standing for election as an MP, the columnist asked “being blind, how did she know she was the wrong sex”.

The complainant said the comment made the discriminatory suggestion that there were limitations to the understanding blind people could have of themselves and called into question Ms Brothers’ gender identity.

The newspaper accepted that the comment was tasteless, but denied that it was prejudicial or pejorative. It did not accept that the columnist had criticised Ms Brothers or suggested anything negative or stereotypical about her blindness or gender identity; rather it had been a clumsy attempt at humour.

Nonetheless, it regretted any distress the article had caused Ms Brothers, and published an apology by the columnist. It outlined changes it had made to its editorial processes in response to the complaint.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee ruled that the column belittled Ms Brothers, her gender identity and her disability, mocking her for no other reason than these perceived “differences”. Regardless of the columnist’s intentions, this was not a matter of taste; it was discriminatory and unacceptable under the Code.

The apology published by the newspaper did not remedy this breach of the Code, and IPSO therefore upheld the complaint.

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