The Importance of Trust in the Media

On Friday evening, after I had delivered a TEDx talk in Corsham, I found that I was listening to myself on Radio 4’s Today in Parliament. The programme had decided to summarise recent events in the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into freedom of speech and no platforming in universities – something you may have already noticed I have opinions on.

What was interesting was the section that the BBC chose to broadcast. They didn’t broadcast what I said about no platforming: “it is simply to deny a platform to someone, but a lot of the reporting of no-platforming does not fit that definition.

They didn’t broadcast my explanation that there was no right to be heard – “These people tend to be demanding a right to be heard. There is no such right, because then you end up in absurd positions. Do you force people to open their front doors and be harangued in their living rooms?

They didn’t broadcast what I thought was a very spirited explanation of exactly why the press was now positioning themselves as the ultimate defenders of free speech – “I would start by trying to place this in context, from the Leveson inquiry and report. There has been a lot of defensiveness by the press to try to find reasons why certain pieces of legislation or policy should or should not be implemented. As part of that, I suspect there is a natural tendency to seek out groups that are seen as vulnerable, that do not have ready access to the press and that do not have a ready right of reply, in order to make scapegoats of those groups, to some extent.

In pieces representing trans people, we saw a clear direction of travel. Directly after the Leveson report was produced, in defiance of what was in it, the press outed a trans teacher. Sadly, she took her own life three months afterwards. That was the point at which the press stopped and started to change their approach to reporting trans issues. We then had silence for a year, pretty much. Then we had a whole series of supportive outings, which again you could read as in defiance of Leveson. Then you started to have this “special snowflake”-tarred, “not a real woman” debate. It has just become more and more heated.

I suspect that the Government’s intention to launch a consultation on the Gender Recognition Act has provided another hook for a lot of this heated coverage. It is interesting that pretty much all discussion of what the Government may or may not propose is invariably mixed up with all sorts of other things that are nothing to do with the legislation that is being reviewed.

I think that there is an asymmetry of debate. It goes back to before this.

But they chose to broadcast the bit which makes trans people out to be vulnerable victims, without the context that I then put it in – which was the educational detriment you faced if you perceived your learning environment to be unsafe.

Well, on the grounds of free speech, I guess the media have the right to do that.

On Sunday we had yet another hatchet job on trans people and those working with us in the Sunday Times. This time they’d interviewed one of the leading clinicians in the Tavistock and Portman clinic. Near the start of the piece was this alarming statement: “Bernadette Wren, consultant clinical psychologist at the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) clinic in London, said some schools were moving too fast in allowing young girls to be treated as male pupils and vice versa — simply at the child’s request.

She said schools were rushing to allow pupils to change their names, uniforms and gender pronouns as soon as they “got a whisper that a child might be querying their identity” and this was not in every child’s best interests.

This was followed, towards the end, with the direct quote from Wren: “If a school just gets a whisper of a child who may be querying their gender and within minutes they are doing everything to make sure that child is regarded as a member of the opposite sex right from the word go — that may not be the best for that child.”

That is a far cry from saying that schools ARE doing that, which is the clear statement from the start of the piece – simply that Wren thinks schools should not. In order to stand their claim up, the Sunday Times needs to find schools that Wren thinks are moving too fast on the basis of a “whisper” – otherwise it’s simply conjecture which cannot be substantiated from the statement she actually made. (Also, notice that the quotes are slightly different each time they are stated. It’s unlikely she would have said the same thing twice almost word for word, so one of them must be inaccurate.)

A third example. Yesterday I was sitting in the room when my father-in-law switched the television on to watch the BBC News at 6pm. After the first main sentence, he switched it off again. His verdict – the BBC were fabricating a story so it couldn’t be news; it wasn’t a report on the day’s events.

Last week the Sunday Times published a clarification on an earlier piece they had written about Mermaids. However, almost straightaway the journalist involved was on Twitter stating that his position had been justified. From the official clarification that Mermaids had not been banned from communicating with a child, he drew the conclusion (again) that they had been – which was one of the core problems with his original piece.

My TEDx talk was about changing the media, and the steps the original core of Trans Media Watch took to undertake that. But I think we have a real problem when inaccuracies are not corrected, corrections are ignored, and gross distortions regularly published. Where exactly is that chilling effect that Leveson was supposed to have had?

Media is fundamentally important in a democracy. Without an effective media we cannot rely on effective scrutiny of those in power. But the media needs to act in a responsible manner. We need to be able to rely on, to trust, what they produce. I am coming across more and more instances where the media, broadcast as well as print, is losing that trust.

Broken TrustAs a business person, I know how important trust is. Without trust, you lose customers. Losing customers means losing income, which means reduction in profits, loss of future investment opportunities and, before long, a downward spiral. It’s far, far easier to lose a reputation than it is to gain it.

For those who suggest that social media is the answer, there are now numerous examples of how social media simply reinforces the narrative that you wish to hear. Last week Facebook announced changes to ensure that those social media bubbles are challenged by promoting more “trustworthy” news sources.

It’s time for transparency and accountability of media organisations. It’s time to stop the avoidance strategies that such organisations use as their complaints mechanisms.

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One comment

  1. […] managers of a corporate defence exercise. Statements from BBC presenters about things happening – which didn’t actually happen – are defended on the grounds of context. Truth is, once again, a […]

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