Ruling

06642 Hill v The Spectator

    • Date complaint received

      29th March 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06642-18 Hill v The Spectator

Summary of complaint

1. Mike Hill complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Spectator breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The march of trans rights”, published on 6 October 2018.

2. The article was an opinion piece which discussed the increasing number of people who identify as transgender, and focused on the publication and implications of the Allsorts Trans Inclusion Schools Toolkit – a new set of guidelines which advise schools on how to support trans and gender variant children.

3. The article gave two examples of scenarios involving trans children and schools’ responses. It said that both the examples and the responses were real, and the responses came from the Toolkit. The article explained that the Toolkit would advise schools faced with one of the examples – a scenario in which a non-transgender girl became upset after a transgender girl had watched her undress after gym and played with her penis – to respond in a manner that favoured the transgender child over that of the non-transgender girl, suggesting the parents of the non-transgender child should change their attitude to find the behaviour acceptable. It said that these examples “are real. So are the responses, which come from the Allsorts Trans Inclusion Schools Toolkit”.

4. The article also asked why a disproportionate number of girls were “starting a journey that can lead to hormone treatment then binding and ultimately removing their breasts” and whether this is “…simply part of a wider crisis of mental health amongst girls?”; it said that organisations often received “highly dubious quasi-legal advice from lobby-ing groups” on trans issues, and stated that: “According to Stonewall’s ‘trans umbrella’, you are transgender if you sometimes cross-dress.”

5. The article was also published online with the headline “Trans rights have gone wrong”. It was substantially the same as the print article.

6. The complainant said that the article gave the misleading impression that the Toolkit would advise schools to respond to these examples in the manner set out by the article. The complainant pointed out that these examples were not included in the Toolkit, and that there was no evidence that they had taken place in reality, nor had the publication demonstrated that due diligence had been undertaken to establish their veracity. He said that therefore it was inaccurate for the article to apply the Toolkit’s advice to these examples in the way described. In addition, the complainant said that the article gave the misleading impression that the Toolkit prioritised the welfare of transgender children over non-transgender ones.

7. The complainant said that it was misleading as stated in the article that a “disproportionate” number of girls suffered from gender dysphoria, as it remains rare. He also said it was misleading to omit the fact that there are medical guidelines surrounding the care of trans children, and that medical intervention is not an inevitable outcome of a child identifying as trans.

8. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to characterise the advice given to organisations as “quasi-legal” or “dubious” as he said that it was given by specialist lawyers and was legally binding in line with the Equalities Act.

9. The complainant recognised that the Stonewall trans umbrella says that “trans” people may describe themselves as crossdressers. However, he said that it was misleading to claim that it said that “transgender people” may describe themselves as crossdressers. The complainant said that there is a distinction between trans and transgender, as people are not considered transgender unless their gender identity also differs from the sex assigned at birth; as such, it was inaccurate to use the two terms interchangeably.

10. The publication did not accept that there was any breach of Clause 1. It said that the article was clearly an opinion piece; the columnist was entitled to criticise the guidance. It said that the journalist had interpreted the Toolkit and considered that it would advise schools to respond to the examples- which had happened in real life- in the manner set out in the article. It said that the Toolkit was a set of guidelines, and so by its very nature, it would be impossible for it to encompass all of the possible scenarios involving transgender children; the fact that the complainant had a different view of how the Toolkit would be applied to this scenario did not mean that the article was inaccurate for putting across the journalist’s views.

11.  The publication said that journalist had a sufficient basis for this interpretation. It pointed to the fact that the Toolkit responded in the way set out by the article to a scenario very similar to the example given. It also said that the “Underlying principles and messages” of the Toolkit made clear that teachers using it as guidance would be extremely reluctant about challenging trans children or taking the side of children who raise objection to the presence or behaviour of trans children, including in changing rooms. 

12. The publication said that the example in question had happened in real life, but in in line with their obligations under Clause 6 (Children) and Clause 14 (Confidential sources) they did not want to provide any further information which may reveal the identity of the child. It said that the journalist had been in direct contact with the family involved in the situation, and they were satisfied with the accuracy of the article.

13. The publication said that readers would understand that the word “disproportionate” was clearly referring to the well- reported fact that over 70% of referrals in 2017/18 to the Tavistock Gender Identity Development Service were for young people assigned female at birth.

14.  The publication said that it was not misleading to characterise the advice given by some lobby groups as “quasi-legal”, because some lobby groups make frequent reference to legislation in order to urge organisations to adopt their recommendations, but this was not legal advice given to organisations by lawyers. It said that the article made clear that the description only applied to lobby groups, and was not referring to legal advice given by lawyers.

Relevant Code Provisions

15. 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.

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.

Findings of the Committee

16. The publication accepted that the example in question did not appear in the Toolkit; it said that the example illustrated its conjecture as to how the Toolkit’s guidance would have applied in this case. The author was entitled to speculate on how the guidance would be applied, but under the terms of Clause 1 (iv) it was required to distinguish this as conjecture. By stating that “These cases are real. So are the responses, which came from the Allsorts Trans Inclusion Schools Toolkit” the article failed to make clear that the Toolkit response was not a response to the scenario set out, but was instead the author’s conjecture as to how the Toolkit would have responded to such a scenario. The Committee found that the article breached Clause 1(iv), and thus required correction under 1(ii). The publication had not offered any correction; there was also breach of Clause 1(ii).

17.  The complainant speculated that the example may not be real, as claimed in the article; he was not in a position to provide any basis to support this claim. In the absence of such evidence the Committee did not find that there was any breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18.  It was clear from the question posed in the article (as to whether there was a wider crisis of mental health amongst girls) that the article was comparing girls to boys. In circumstances in which the number of girls diagnosed with gender dysphoria greatly outnumber the number of boys, the publication was entitled to characterise this amount as “disproportionate”. The article did not claim that there are no medical guidelines surrounding the treatment of gender-variant children or that identifying as such would inevitably result in medical intervention. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

19.  It was not misleading for the article to characterise advice from lobby-ing groups as “quasi-legal” to distinguish the advice from that given by a law firm. The article was entitled to describe this advice as “dubious” given the distinction being drawn.  There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

 20. The Stonewall advice clearly states that “trans” people may describe themselves as “crossdressers” and that transgender people may describe themselves as “trans”. For this reason, the article was not misleading or inaccurate as to Stonewall’s guidance, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion

21. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial action required

22. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication. The nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

23.  In this case, the Committee considered that the newspaper had been entitled to speculate on how the Toolkit would be applied to various scenarios, however this should be clearly signalled as the publication’s own conjecture. As such the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction which made clear that the example did not appear in the Toolkit, and the article had speculated as to how its guidance would be applied to this scenario.

24.  The original article appeared on page 12-13 and as such, the correction should appear in print on page 12-13 or further forward in the publication, and as a footnote correction to the online article. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

Date complaint received: 05/10/2019

Date decision issued: 29/01/2019