Ruling

11966-22 Vinsen v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      27th April 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11966-22 Vinsen v The Sunday Times

 

Summary of Complaint

1. Charlotte Vinsen complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'Real feminist' Sturgeon is deaf to women's concerns”, published on 16 October 2022.

2. The article, which appeared on page 16, was an opinion piece which criticised Nicola Sturgeon’s proposed new Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and suggested that it could put women and girls at risk. It stated that: “The woman [Sturgeon] who calls herself a ‘real feminist’ said to the BBC that her proposed new Gender Recognition Act ‘doesn’t give any additional rights to trans people nor does it take any rights away from women’. I disagree.”

3. The article also said: “Remarkably, nobody seems able to explain what living in an acquired gender actually means, so how those granting certificates can judge whether the criteria has been met is anyone’s guess.” It went on to say “Soon, then, in Scotland, it may be easier to change the sex on your birth certificate than it is to change it on your passport. In consequence, intact males who are judged to have met the meagre requirements will be considered as ‘valid’ and entitled to protections as those who’ve had full sex reassignment surgery, and more male-bodied individuals will assert more strongly a right to be in women’s spaces such as public bathrooms, changing rooms, rape support centres, domestic violence refuges, hospital wards and prison cells that were hitherto reserved for women.”

4. The article reported that “In 2019, The Sunday Times made a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice that revealed almost 90 per cent of sexual offences committed in changing rooms happened in those that are unisex.” It set out three arguments which the writer said were made by Mrs Sturgeon, which she described as being ”beloved of trans activists”, and then the writer’s position on each. It stated “The first is that trans women are extremely vulnerable, far more so than biological women. This is in spite of the fact that no trans woman has been murdered in Scotland to date, whereas 112 women were murdered by men in Scotland between 2009 and 2019.” With regard to the second argument it said “men who transition, uniquely among all other categories of those born male, never harm women. Yet there is no evidence to show that trans women don’t retain male patterns of criminality”.

5. The third argument was that it was “transphobic to suggest any man would fraudulently claim a female identity. This claim is extraordinary. Nobody but the very naive can fail to be aware that predatory men are capable of going to great lengths to gain easy access to victims, and have often sought out professions or special status that offer camouflage for their activities. Sex offenders have historically been found among social workers, teachers, priests, doctors, babysitters, school caretakers, celebrities and charity fundraisers, yet no matter how often the scandals break, the lesson appears never to be learned: it is dangerous to assert that any category of people deserves a blanket presumption of innocence.”

6. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format.

7. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 for a number of reasons. They said it was inaccurate to claim that "almost 90 per cent of sexual offences committed in changing rooms happened in those that are unisex” as this statistic referred to complaints, not offences, and that there was no data to show how many of these complaints were found to have merit.

8. They further said the article’s claim that "no trans woman has been murdered in Scotland to date, whereas 112 women were murdered by men in Scotland between 2009 and 2019" was inaccurate, as this statistic had not been confirmed. They said that police had discretion to list trans people by their sex assigned at birth until 2021 and, therefore, it could not be claimed with certainty that no trans women have been murdered in Scotland as they were likely recorded as men in police records.

9. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate to state that "no one seems to be able to explain what living as an acquired gender …means”. They said, in their view, it is accepted that “living as an acquired gender” meant the gender expressed publicly in an individual’s daily life for example, at work, shopping, accessing other services, in a housing environment or in the broader community.

10. The complainant said that the writer disagreed with Nicola Sturgeon that no rights would be taken away from “biological women” with the GRC (Gender Recognition Certificate) reforms. The complainant said that the article did not make clear which rights were being taken away and said that the reforms would merely change the process for the document change, but nothing else would change.

11. The complainant said it was transphobic and inaccurate to describe trans women as “men” where Mrs Sturgeon’s argument was described as being that “men who transition, uniquely among all other categories of those born male, never harm women.” They said that the law doesn't currently distinguish fully surgically transitioned women from other types of trans women with the exception of prisons, and therefore it was inaccurate to suggest that this distinction would be lost. They further said that this argument was described as “beloved of trans activists”. The complainant said there was no citation for this claim, and that a trans activist wouldn't refer to a trans woman as a "man who transitions” but rather as “assigned male at birth".

12. In addition, the complainant said the article had inaccurately characterised Mrs Sturgeon’s position where it said that one of her arguments was, "trans women are extremely vulnerable, far more so than biological women”. The complainant said that Mrs Sturgeon had actually referred to trans people as "one of the most stigmatised".

13. The complainant also complained under Clause 12 as they said the article had misgendered trans people and made assumptions based on prejudice and not fact. They further argued that it was spreading fear about a minority. They said it was discriminatory to claim “it is dangerous to assume any category of people deserves a presumption of innocence" as this was in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN, designed to give legal protections for everyone against discrimination.

14. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code.  In response to the cited statistic relating to changing rooms, the publication said that this had appeared in another one of its articles, published on 2 September 2018, based on data provided in response to a FOI request. This article reported that “Almost 90% of reported sexual assaults, harassment and voyeurism in swimming pool and sports-centre changing rooms happen in unisex facilities, which make up less than half the total.” The publication said this was based on extensive research and FOI requests to police forces around the country. It said it could not provide the FOI request as the journalist was no longer working at the publication, however it stated that the 2018 article’s accuracy was not in dispute and the columnist was entitled to rely on it.

15. In response to the complainant’s concerns about the difference in meaning of “committed” and reported complaints, the publication said that the presumption of innocence is a principle of English and Scottish law - however the columnist was writing about the relative numbers of women reporting what they regarded as sexually threatening behaviour in mixed and in single-sex changing rooms. The publication said where no specific incidents were discussed or described, no individual had been accused. It argued that the thrust of the assertion was that more women reported unwanted and offensive sexual behaviour in mixed facilities than in single-sex facilities and that, in this context, the difference between “reported” and “committed” was not significant. It also noted that the complainant had no evidence to suggest these offences had not been committed, or that women were more likely to make up accusations of sexual assault after being in a unisex facility. It said the columnist's point and meaning would be unchanged.

16. In response to the article’s claim that "no trans woman has been murdered in Scotland to date, whereas 112 women were murdered by men in Scotland between 2009 and 2019", the publication said this was based on police statistics – which it considered the most authoritative source available about crime in Scotland and it was reasonable to rely on them. It provided a table of statistics from Police of homicides in Scotland. It said the statistics showed that there is no record of any murder victim being transgender. It also said that contacts at Police Scotland had privately informed the publication they were unaware of any such cases. During the IPSO investigation, the publication made an FOI request to the police for an on the record position. The police responded and said: “as of 16 January 2023 there are no known reported victims who identified as Trans Woman. This is based on searches carried out on The Scottish Homicide Database, Homicide Governance and Review files and shared data drive.”

17. Further to this, the publication said that murders of women in Scotland ranged between 10 and 20 per year in the relevant period and each one was the subject of extensive press coverage. The publication said it was unable to find a case where the victim was reported as transgender. The publication said the complainant has provided no alternative evidence to suggest otherwise.

18. The publication said that the article was clearly a comment piece, and the writer was entitled to express her view - shared by many MSPs, academics and campaigners in Scotland, as she cited in the article - that the process of amending GRC documentation will erode women’s rights. It further said that it was the writer’s opinion that nobody could explain what “living as an acquired gender” meant to her satisfaction, and that she was entitled to both hold and publish this opinion, despite examples the complainant provided which they considered explained it.

19. The publication said that the reference to “men who transition” was no more than a statement of fact. It said that the issue revolved around people who are legally and biologically male transitioning to become legally female. It said that this was not in dispute and that the columnist’s description, which was her opinion,  could not possibly be inaccurate under the Code. In response to the complainant’s claim that the law does not currently distinguish fully surgically transitioned women from other types of trans women with the exception of some prisons, the publication said that the columnist’s argument was that as a consequence of the lowered requirements of the legislation, more male-bodied people would assert their right to be in women’s spaces. It said the columnist was entitled to express this view which is shared by many others in Scotland and elsewhere. It said there was nothing inaccurate, misleading or distorted about these points and the writer’s meaning was perfectly clear.

20. Regarding its characterisation of Mrs Sturgeon’s beliefs about the vulnerability of trans women, it said the that the article made clear this was the writer’s characterisation of Mrs Sturgeon’s position rather than a direct quote. It said that the phrase was not in quote marks, and was prefaced by the words: “In saying this, Sturgeon is employing no fewer than three arguments beloved of trans activists.” Therefore, the publication argued that this was clearly a characterisation many would find reasonable, given Mrs Sturgeon’s reference to trans people being stigmatized, among other comments.

21. The publication did not accept there had been a breach of Clause 12 or that it had been engaged. It said that Clause 12 applies to individuals and that the article had not referred to an individual in this context. In any event,  it added that the writer’s argument that “it is dangerous to assert that any category of people deserves a blanket presumption of innocence” was explicitly against discrimination, as no whole category of people - whether defined by gender identity, race or anything else - should be assumed to be incapable of doing anything wrong.

22. In response, the complainant made a general point about the media’s reporting on trans individuals and the increasing violence they face on a daily basis. They said that according to Stop Hate, transphobic hate crimes were up 16% in 2020-2021. The complainant said that overall coverage of trans-related stories had increased over the last three years which signalled a more hostile approach to trans people, with newspapers regularly demonising trans individuals while simultaneously refusing to report accurately on or acknowledge their experiences. The complainant said there was a link between the hostility in the media to trans people, and real life hostility they or queer people in general face. They said press coverage during the GRA consultation period followed a similar pattern. The complainant said that physical attacks have increased substantially and that many people were now fearful to the point of disengaging from public life.

Relevant Clause 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 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

23. The Committee recognised the complainant’s strength of feeling on the specific issues raised in the article. While it noted that the article was a comment piece, where the complainant had identified alleged inaccuracies relating to statements of fact, the Committee considered whether the publication had taken care to avoid publishing significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information.

24. The article stated that no trans woman had been murdered in Scotland to date, whereas 112 women were murdered by men in Scotland between 2009 and 2019 - figures that it said were based on police statistics. The complainant said this statistic was not confirmed as the police had discretion to list trans people by the sex assigned at birth until 2021. The Committee noted that the publication had relied on a number of sources to support its position. These included general news coverage of homicides in Scotland, which the publication noted did not report the deaths of any trans women as well as confirmation which had been provided by the police that there were no known cases of murdered trans women in Scotland. Whilst acknowledging the position of the complainant, the Committee was satisfied that the publication’s reliance upon the information from these sources demonstrated that the publication had taken care. Where the information supported the claim that there had been no murders of trans women in Scotland and the complainant had not provided any examples to establish the contrary, the Committee did not consider the claim to be significantly inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

25. The complainant believed that the article was inaccurate as it had stated "almost 90 per cent of sexual offences committed in changing rooms happened in those that are unisex". They said the statistic relied upon referred to complaints rather than to offences which had been found to have been committed following a successful prosecution. The Committee noted that the evidential basis for the claim (a previous report of a response to a FOI request) was not in question and considered that it was not significantly inaccurate for the publication to characterise complaints about alleged criminal conduct as “offences” where the writer  was expressing concerns about the safety of such spaces. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

26. The Committee understood that the complainant disputed the writer’s views about the potential impact of the GRC reforms and that they did not consider that the article made clear which rights the reforms were said to take away from “biological women”. The Committee noted that the article had set out several reasons why, in the writer’s opinion, the GRC reforms could negatively impact the rights of ”biological women”, for example: “there is no evidence to show that trans women don’t retain male patterns of criminality.” Furthermore, the Committee noted that this was clearly a comment piece and framed as such, and that the Code expressly recognises that the press is free to editorialise and campaign, in this case against the GRC reforms. The writer had also stated “no one seems to be able to explain what living as an acquired gender …means". The Committee acknowledged that the meaning of this term may attract a range of perspectives and viewpoints, and that the writer had expressed a view that was different to the complainant’s – this did not make the article inaccurate. This was clearly identifiable as the view of the writer which she had expressed in a comment piece.  There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

27. The complainant said the article was transphobic and inaccurate to describe trans women as men, where the writer had said that one of Mrs Sturgeon’s arguments was that “men who transition, uniquely among all other categories of those born male, never harm women.” The Committee understood that this was not the terminology the complainant believed was appropriate or accurate, however the writer was using terminology to explain what she perceived to be Mrs Sturgeon’s argument in order to make the meaning of the point clear. The Committee further considered that the reference to “beloved of trans activists” referred to the writer’s view of the arguments made in support of the reforms and not to “men who transition”. For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1.

28. While the Committee understood that the complainant considered “men who transition” to be inaccurate and transphobic, it noted the article was an opinion piece on the reforms to the GRC, from a prominent writer with well-known views on sex and gender. In this context, it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to refer to “men who transition” when describing trans women – where trans women were assigned male at birth and have, or are in the process of, transitioning and where it was clear to which people the writer was referring.

29. The Committee next considered the article’s claims that “Soon, then, in Scotland, it may be easier to change the sex on your birth certificate than it is to change it on your passport. In consequence, intact males who are judged to have met the meagre requirements will be considered as ‘valid’ and entitled to protections as those who’ve had full sex reassignment surgery, and more male-bodied individuals will assert more strongly a right to be in women’s spaces such as public bathrooms, changing rooms, rape support centres, domestic violence refuges, hospital wards and prison cells that were hitherto reserved for women.” It was not in dispute that the reforms would be to make it easier to change sex on a birth certificate. The columnist’s claim that this would lead to individuals “assert[ing] more strongly” a right to be in single-sex spaces clearly represented her conjecture about the wider social impact of the reforms. Where this was clearly an opinion piece, and the writer’s views were distinguished as comment, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

30. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate to characterise Mrs Sturgeon as having said that trans women are more “vulnerable” than biological women, as she had actually said they are "one of the most stigmatised". The Committee did not consider the difference between “vulnerable” and “stigmatised” to be significant or inaccurate where the article did not report this as a quote from Mrs Sturgeon’s but clearly presented this as the writer’s view of Mrs Sturgeon’s position . For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1.

31. The Committee considered the complainant’s concerns raised under Clause 12. It noted that this Clause is designed to protect specific individuals mentioned by the press from discrimination based on their race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability. It does not apply to groups or categories of people. In this instance, where the complainant’s complaint concerned trans people in general, this Clause was not engaged.

Conclusions

32. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

33. N/A

 

Date complaint received:  17/10/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  06/04/2023