Ruling

01431-21 Todd v oxfordmail.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      2nd December 2021

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01431-21 Todd v oxfordmail.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Selina Todd complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the oxfordmail.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Artist's talk cancelled after student outcry over 'transphobia'”, published on 19 November 2019 and an article headlined “Oxford University project says 'women must be defined by sex'”, published on 8 February 2021.

2. The first article reported on an artist who was scheduled to give a talk at a university which was cancelled following accusations that she was transphobic. The article quoted from a letter issued by the university’s LGBTQ+ society, which stated that the artist had shown support for the complainant, who was described as a professor and “a strong advocate of a [named organisation], a transphobic organisation acting under the guise of academic freedom”. The article also reported that the complainant had been “accused of being ‘transphobic’ by students” at the university she worked at.

3. The second article reported on a funding application for a project submitted by the complainant. The article described the proposed study as aiming “to prove it is ‘essential’ that ‘sex’ is protected as the only legal definition of a woman”. It reported the complainant was “hoping to stop people from being allowed to choose their own gender under the Equality Act” and that she had warned “that if people can legally change their gender it will make it impossible to collect viable data about differences between men and women in society, such as salaries”. The article said that the newspaper had requested a copy of the complainant’s 2019 funding application under a Freedom of Information request, and contained a quote from the application which said that the aims were “To show that upholding ‘sex’ as a legal characteristic defining women, against those who wish to replace this part of the Act with ‘gender’ as a self-chosen identity, is essential if we are to collect and analyse vital sex-based data such as differences in males’ and females’ employment and pay”. The article also stated that the complainant had “previously been criticised by Oxford University Student Union’s LGBTQ+ campaign for holding ‘anti-trans’ views”. The study was described as a “campaigning study”.

4. The complainant said that the first article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that it was inaccurate to describe either herself, or the named organisation, as transphobic, and that a named student group had accused her of transphobia. She also said it was inaccurate to call her “Ms” rather than using her professional title, and that this was significant where the article impugned her professionalism. The complainant said she had not been contacted in advance of this article.

5. The complainant said that the second article also breached Clause 1. She said that it was not possible for people to “choose their own gender under the Equality Act” and the article was therefore inaccurate. She also said that the sentence misrepresented her views and made her appear discriminatory as well as ignorant of UK law. The complainant said it was inaccurate to describe her as having warned that it would not be possible to collect data about the differences between men and women, nor had she questioned the existing rights to legally change gender. She said it was misleading to call her “anti-trans” without acknowledging that she, and others, had previously refuted this description. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to describe the study as a campaigning study, as it was an academic study and not a campaign tool, nor had she described it as such.

6. The complainant had originally complained directly to the publication in relation to the first article within a week of its publication. However, her complaint was suspended due to personal circumstances and was resumed in June 2021.

7. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code with regard to either article. It said that allegations that the complainant and the named group were transphobic were in the public domain, and that it had published the allegations again in good faith. The publication also said that it believed it had contacted the complainant at the time, but it could not be certain or provide evidence of this due to the length of time that had passed between publication and investigation. The publication said it was not significantly inaccurate to refer to the complainant as “Ms” rather than “professor”.

8. In relation to the second article, the publication said that the aims of the complainant’s study, as included in the funding application, was: for “policymakers […] to show that upholding ‘sex’ as a legal characteristic defining women, against those who wish to replace this part of the Act with ‘gender’ as a self-chosen identity, is essential if we are to collect and analyse vital sex-based data such as differences in males’ and females’ employment and pay.’” It said that it had accurately characterised this aim in simple language when it reported that the complainant was “hoping to stop people from being allowed to choose their own gender under the Equality Act”. It also said that this was not an inaccurate representation of the Equality Act; the article did not report the current standing of the Act but that the complainant hoped that self-chosen gender would not become part of the Act in the future. The publication said that on this basis, the phrase did not make the complainant appear discriminatory or ignorant, save for the fact that the complainant was discriminating against a certain viewpoint which opposed her own. The publication said the same aim could also be characterised as the complainant “warn[ing] that if people can legally change their gender it will make it impossible to collect viable data about differences between men and women in society”. It said that something being “essential” could also be described as warning.

9. The publication said it was not inaccurate to describe the study as a “campaigning study” where the complainant was well known for her views and being an academic, and that her work was likely to affect the national discussion around the issues. Furthermore, it said the complainant’s study used research carried out by an extremely prominent national campaign group, which was quoted in the article as being “delighted” to have supported the research which “documents… the threat [posed] to women’s sex-based rights”. The publication therefore said that as the results of the study were being used as a campaign tool by a campaign group it was not significantly inaccurate to report it as a campaigning study.

10. The publication said it was not inaccurate to describe the complainant as having “previously been criticised by Oxford University Student Union’s LGBTQ+ campaign for holding ‘anti-trans’ views” without also including the complainant’s or other parties comments on this. The publication said the article clearly attributed the allegation to a small group, and it had previously published the allegation alongside a strenuous refutation from the complainant. It also said that this was not the main focus of the article. 

Relevant Code Provisions

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 3* (Harassment)

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Findings of the Committee

11. With regard to the first article, the Committee noted that the complainant had not been described as a matter of fact as being transphobic, but that she had been “accused of being ‘transphobic’ by students at the college”. It also included the basis for these claims within the article, by directly quoting a letter from the students that stated the complainant supported an organisation the students considered to be “transphobic”. The complainant accepted that it was accurate to report that she had been accused by students of being transphobic, but said that it was misleading not to include in the article her denial of this accusation or to contact her in advance of the article for her comment. Due to the length of time that had passed between the article’s publication and the investigation, the Committee could not determine whether the complainant had been contacted prior to the article, and could not make a finding on this point. However, the article had clearly attributed the allegation to a group of students rather than making a claim of fact, and placed the term “transphobic” in inverted commas as well as giving the context for these claims. In addition, in the context of the article as a whole, it was clear that the allegations formed part of a contentious debate and were the opinion of a named group of students and not a statement of fact by the newspaper. In these circumstances, it was not a failure to take care not to publish the complainant’s denial that she was “transphobic”, or to refer to accusations of transphobia against the complainant or the organisation by the group of students. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that she had been described as “Ms” rather than “professor”, and the impact this had on her professionalism. While the Committee noted that the complainant preferred to be referenced using this title, it did not consider that the use of a title which did not reflect the complainant’s occupation to be a significant inaccuracy; it also noted that the article made clear that she was a professor. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. Turning to the second article, the Committee firstly considered the statement in which the article said that the complainant was “hoping to stop people from being allowed to choose their own gender under the Equality Act”. The aims of the complainant’s study, as set out in the funding application provided by the complainant, was “to show that upholding ‘sex’ as a legal characteristic defining women, against those who wish to replace this part of the Act with ‘gender’ as a self-chosen identity, is essential”. This aim was also replicated in the article. The Committee considered that as the stated aim of the study was expressed in terms of opposition to replacing the legal characteristic of “sex” with self-chosen “gender” on the Equality Act, it was not an inaccurate or misleading characterisation of the proposal to state the complainant wanted to stop people from being allowed to choose their gender under the Equality Act. The Committee did not accept the complainant’s interpretation that the article was alleging that the Equality Act currently allowed people to choose their own gender. It therefore did not agree that the article gave the misleading impression that the complainant was not aware of the law, or was discriminatory in the way she suggested. Where the study’s aims stated that continuing to use the legal characteristic of sex “was essential if we are to collect and analyse vital sex-based data such as differences in males’ and females’ employment and pay”, it was not inaccurate to report that complainant was “warn[ing] that if people can legally change their gender it will make it impossible to collect viable data about differences between men and women in society”. In addition, where the aim was also reported in the study, readers would be able to see exactly what the aim was. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

14. The complainant did not consider her study to be a “campaigning study”. However, where the aims of the complainant’s study were to share the results with policymakers in order to demonstrate support for its position regarding potential amendments to the Equality Act, amongst other aims, it was not significantly inaccurate to describe it as a “campaigning study”.

15. The second article had also contained allegations that the complainant has “previously been criticised […] for holding ‘anti-trans’ views”. The article had made clear that the allegations came from a specific student LGBTQ+ group, had attributed the accusations to them, and made clear that it was a claim from this group rather than a statement of fact. Where this was clearly an allegation, and attributed to a group that readers would understand to have a particular point of view in a highly contentious debate, it was not misleading nor was it a breach of Clause 1 not to publish the complainant’s denial or seek her further comments. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

17. N/A



Date complaint received: 06/08/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 16/11/2021