Decision of the Complaints Committee: 07454-18 Belcher v The Times
Summary of complaint
1. Helen Belcher complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “Suicide should never be a political weapon”, published on 20 October 2018.
2. The article was an opinion piece, in which the columnist discussed recent comments that the complainant had made regarding the media’s reporting of transgender issues. It included a statement made by the complainant, explaining her reasoning for resigning as a judge of a journalism prize, which read, “Since The Times started printing such [transphobic] pieces, starting with one by [the named columnist] in September 2017, I have heard of more trans suicides than at any other point since 2012. These have mainly been of trans teenagers”. It included a further comment made by the complainant, “I have heard reports of four trans suicides in the past few months, two in the past month. The media reporting was referenced in three of them”. The columnist characterised these comments as an accusation that her “work has caused the deaths of children”.
3. The columnist
also discussed her wider concerns regarding how activists referred to the
suicide rate of transgender people. It reported that “parents who hesitate over
medical intervention are told by some activists: ‘Better a living daughter than
a dead son’”. The columnist offered a number of factors which she said may help
to contextualise the prevalence of suicide in transgender individuals. She
asked whether it was “responsible for activists to insist that suicidal
feelings are intrinsic to the trans experience, perhaps even a sign of being
‘true’ trans?” The article also reported that a 2016 report by the Women and Equalities
Committee (WESC) recommended “far-reaching legal changes including
self-identification and an end to single-sex spaces, thus re-writing the
definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’.”
4. The article was also published online with the same headline. It was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.
5. The complainant said that the article had mischaracterised the comments she had made on her blog. She said that her statement did not assert that the columnist was solely responsible for the suicides of transgender children. She said that her concern was that the overall media coverage of transgender issues had contributed to a hostile environment for trans people. She said that the columnist was only one of many sources of this perceived hostile coverage. She said she had not alleged that any one columnist was directly responsible for the rise in suicides.
The complainant also said that there was no evidence or basis for the assertion that trans activists advise parents, “Better a living daughter than a dead son”, which she said was an invented quotation.
She said that it was inaccurate to report that trans activists insist that suicidal feelings are “intrinsic” to the trans experience, and may even be a sign of being “true” trans, as activists aim to raise awareness of the disproportionately higher rate of suicide attempts in trans teens, but never propose that this is acceptable, or an expectation. Further, she said that this reference to activists suggested that this was something she and the other named activists in the article promoted, which was not accurate.
7. She also said that the article mispresented the findings of the WESC report. She said it did not recommend an end to single-sex spaces and would not rewrite the definitions of man or woman.
8. The complainant said that the newspaper had breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) as she believed it had chosen to single her out and report her comments because she was transgender. She said that no other article published on suicide by the newspaper accused specific individuals of “weaponising suicide”.
9. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the article had accurately reported the complainant’s comments about the columnist’s work, in full. It said that the blog post had directly accused the columnist of transphobia and linked her work to an apparent increase in child suicides. Her further comments were also reported, which also referenced the columnist and child suicides. The newspaper said that these comments could be reasonably be characterised as an accusation that the columnist’s work had caused the deaths of children. Regardless, on receipt of the complaint, the newspaper offered to put the complainant’s position that she did not intend to make such an accusation, on the record.
10. It also said that the phrase, “better a living daughter than a dead son” summarised the well documented and widely advocated sentiment advanced by a number of activists, that if you do not allow your child to transition, they may take their own lives. It provided a quote from the CEO of a well-known trans activist organisation, who had said “I have my daughter, whole and alive, but if I had refused to listen then it’s very likely that I would have a dead son”, as well as a number of other, similar, publicly available comments, which it said supported the article’s summarisation. It said that the article had questioned whether the repeated linkage to suicide with gender non-conformity may be unhelpful, or even harmful. The newspaper argued that the article had explained why it believed such linking may be dangerous, referring to both the guidance issued by a well-known suicide prevention charity that “warns it is dangerous to attribute a death to a single cause” and a statement by a doctor who said that suicidal discourse was “quite unhelpful” and implied a “lack of resilience” amongst gender-diverse children. It said that this was the context in which the columnist made reference to “true trans”.
11. The newspaper said that the legal and practical implications of the Women and Equalities Committee report, referenced in the article, were not matters of consensus. It said that the practical differences between the current position, and what is proposed by the report, had been the subject of widespread debate. While it accepted that the complainant took one view of the legal implications, it provided a legal blog which analysed the legal implications, at length, and came to the view that the legal changes would be wide ranging, and would result in the end of single sex spaces. The newspaper said that the columnist was entitled to adopt this position in her opinion column on the matter. The wording of the clarification offered was:
“Following the publication of our article “Suicides should never be a political weapon” Helen Belcher has contacted us to confirm that she did not intend to suggest that Janice Turner’s work was directly responsible for child suicides. We are happy to make her position clear.”
12. The newspaper did not accept that Clause 12 was engaged. It said that the article had not included any pejorative or prejudicial reference to the complainant on the basis of her gender identity. It said its columnist was entitled to report on the publicly available comments the complainant had made, and to discuss the link to suicide the publication believed she was making.
Relevant Code Provisions
13. 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 Pres, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.
v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
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
14. The article reported, in part, on the publicly available comments the complainant had made regarding media coverage of transgender issues. The article had included the complainant’s full statement outlining her reasons for resigning as a judge at the awards, which specifically referenced the columnist. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that she had not intended to make this suggestion, the claim that the columnist had been accused of being responsible for the deaths of children was clearly presented as the columnist’s interpretation of the comments made by the complainant and by the other individual named, which were set out in the article. The fact that the complainant had referred to the columnist’s work as just one example within wider coverage by the publication, which she directly linked to an increase in transgender teen suicides, did not render the characterisation inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. The article’s claim that some trans activists tell parents, “Better a living daughter than a dead son”, was a summation of advice parents of transgender children had claimed to have received. The newspaper had provided accounts of activists warning parents of the potential suicide risk if they did not listen to or act on their child’s comments on gender identity. Summarising the advice of activists in this way was not misleading, as the sentiment behind the remarks – i.e. that a child may take their own life if parents do not act on their child’s remarks - was accurately conveyed. The newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of this statement. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
16. The columnist posed a question as to whether it was responsible for activists to insist suicidal feelings are “intrinsic” to the trans experience, or perhaps a sign of being “true trans”. The article did not state that activists had suggested that for a child to be ”true trans” they must have experienced suicidal feelings. Instead, she questioned whether always linking the prevalence of suicide amongst transgender children solely to their gender identity, without any other context or consideration of other factors, was helpful in terms of understanding the often complex reasons why a high level of transgender children experienced suicidal feelings. The use of the phrase “true trans” in this context, was not misleading in the way the complainant had suggested. Also, the fact that the article made references to trans “activists” in general, did not imply that the complainant endorsed all the views attributed to activists in the article. The article’s comments on the complainant were limited to the specific comments made in relation to her statement about the columnist. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
17. It was accepted that the 2016 Committee report referenced in the article recommended that a person should be legally recognised as the gender they self-identify with. This represented a proposed change to the current legal position under the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The columnist’s view was that the recommendations contained in the report would effectively also alter the legal status of single sex spaces and create new definitions of man and woman. Where the report recommended a significant change to the legal requirements which would have to be met in order for an individual to legally change their gender, it was not inaccurate for the columnist to characterise this as “rewriting the definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’”. While the report did not expressly recommend an end to single sex spaces, it did recommend restricting the circumstances where discretion could be exercised to maintain separate sex and single sex services. Further, in circumstances where an end to single sex spaces would arguably be the consequence of the legal changes being recommended, it was not inaccurate or misleading for the columnist to characterise the report’s recommendations in this way. In these circumstances, there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
18. The complainant’s concern under Clause 12 was that the
newspaper’s motivation for reporting on the comments she had made, and linking
this to suicide, was that she was transgender. Further, the Committee
understood that the complainant was concerned that other articles reporting on
suicide did not claim that specific individuals had weaponised suicide,
regardless of the fact that many other people had spoken publicly about the
topic. However, the terms of Clause 12 prohibit newspapers from making prejudicial,
pejorative or unnecessary references in an article to an individual on the
basis of a protected characteristic, including their gender identity. They do
not restrict a newspaper’s right to choose which topics it reports on, or which
specific material it selects for publication, which is a matter of editorial
discretion. Therefore the complainant’s concerns did not engage the terms of
19. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.
Date complaint received: 21/11/2018
Date decision issued: 15/03/2019
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