Decision of the Complaints Committee 00545-16 Elan-Cane v The Spectator

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00545-16 Elan-Cane v The Spectator

Summary of complaint

1. Christie Elan-Cane complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Spectator breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “It’s dangerous and wrong to tell all children they’re ‘gender fluid’”, published on 30 January 2016.

2. The article was a comment piece in which the columnist discussed gender issues and the contents of the Transgender Equality report, which was published by the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee in December 2015. The article said that in the report, the Select Committee had recommended that “people should be able to change their gender at will merely by filling in a form”, and that trans issues should be “taught in schools as part of personal, social and health education”. The columnist said that the binary distinction between genders had become categorised as a “form of bigotry”. She said that “gender is not fluid”, and predicted that children would be taught that “gender is mutable, and any differentiation in value between or attitudes is bigoted and prohibited”.

3. The columnist also noted that the Select Committee had heard evidence from the complainant. The article included the following quotation from the Select Committee report: “Christie Elan-Cane told us that the [Transgender Equality] plan was, from per [sic] point of view as a non-gendered person, ‘all plan and no action, because nothing resulted from it’”. Reflecting on this, the columnist said “yes, I also stumbled over what I thought was a typing error; but no, a footnote tells us: ‘Christie Elan-Cane asked us to use the non-gendered pronoun ‘per’”. The columnist concluded that this “supine surrender to this hijack of language, the signature motif of totalitarian political systems, tells you more than anything else what’s in store for us”.

4. The complainant expressed concern at being named, and at the criticism of the complainant’s use of a non-gender-specific pronoun. The complainant argued that the columnist’s comments had been derogatory, and were intended to incite and provoke fear. The complainant said that there was “nothing remotely sinister” about the use of the pronoun “per”, which was derived from “person”.

5. The complainant said that the article had misleadingly implied that the use of a non-gender-specific pronoun could lead to “oppression, socially engineered dysfunction and the loss of individual freedom”. The complainant did not try to “coerce others to adopt non-gender-specific pronouns that do not apply to them”.

6. The complainant considered that the article “purported to raise genuine concern about the welfare of children in the UK’s education system”, and questioned why the complainant’s evidence to the Committee had been singled out when it had not concerned schools in any way. The complainant’s identity was non-gendered; it was not “gender fluid” and the complainant was not responsible for the “promotion of gender fluidity as a life-style choice”. The complainant considered that the implication that the complainant was responsible for “coercing” children had left the complainant vulnerable to reprisal.

7. The complainant said that there was no factual basis for the columnist’s views; and the columnist’s prejudicial opinions would be read as “undisputed fact” by a readership which was generally unfamiliar with the subject. In particular, the complainant disputed the assertion that the Select Committee report had set up the “basis for state-mandated coercion”, and that the “prime target…will be children, whose young minds can be so easily manipulated”. The complainant said that the report had contained no suggestion that “gender fluidity will be actively promoted as just another lifestyle choice”. The complainant noted that the complainant was quoted in the Select Committee report as having said “being non-gendered was not a lifestyle choice”.

8. The complainant said that the publication of a 250-word letter was insufficient to resolve the complaint, and requested a published apology and a full retraction.

9. The magazine said that it would be willing to correct a factual inaccuracy, but it could not apologise for the opinions of its writers. It considered that the headline and sub-headline had clearly represented the writer’s opinion, which she had been entitled to express; it was obvious to readers that the article was not an unbiased news piece. The magazine acknowledged that some people had disagreed with the opinions expressed in the piece; it had published letters to that effect, and it offered to publish a 250-word letter from the complainant.

Relevant Code provisions

10. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii)  A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

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

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

11. The Committee recognised that it was essential for publications to approach the subject of an individual’s gender status with appropriate care and sensitivity. However, columnists are entitled to express themselves – no matter how unpopular or controversial their views might be.

12. The article had identified the complainant and quoted from the complainant’s evidence to the Select Committee. The writer had been entitled to express her opinion that the complainant’s request for the Select Committee to refer to the complainant using a non-gendered pronoun had been indicative of the “hijack of language” that might follow from the Select Committee’s recommendations. She had criticised the adoption of non-gendered language, and expressed her concern that it was part of a wider threat to individual freedom. The Committee did not consider that the writer had made a prejudicial or discriminatory reference to the complainant’s gender identity in breach of Clause 12.

13. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the article had given the significantly misleading impression that the complainant identified as “gender fluid”, and would “promote a gender fluid” lifestyle. However, as previously mentioned, the reference to the complainant concerned the writer’s view of gender-neutral language. She had stated that the complainant had requested to be referred to with a non-gendered pronoun; she had not stated or implied that the complainant had identified as “gender-fluid”, and she had not said that the complainant would promote any kind of lifestyle. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

14. The complainant had objected to the writer’s position that the Select Committee report had formed the basis for “state-mandated coercion”, and that “gender fluidity” would be promoted as a “lifestyle choice” in schools. However, the magazine had been entitled to publish the writer’s views on how the Select Committee’s recommendations would be interpreted by schools and school children. The publication had distinguished comment from fact. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld.


15. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required


Date complaint received: 03/02/2016

Date complaint concluded: 21/03/2016

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