17308-23 Johnson v

    • Date complaint received

      6th July 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      12 Discrimination, 3 Harassment

Summary of Complaint

1. Lindsey Johnson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that breached Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “College principal’s absence ‘a mystery’”, published on 16 February 2023.

2. The article reported that the complainant, a school headteacher, had been absent from school for some months. The article reported that the complainant “presents as non-binary using the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ and the title, Mx.” The article went on to refer to the complainant as Mx Johnson throughout, as well as using “they” and “them” to refer to them. Each instance of the complainant’s pronouns within the article appeared in inverted commas.

3. Prior to a complaint being made to IPSO, the complainant contacted the publication directly to make it aware of their concerns. Following this contact, the sentence referring to the complainant being non-binary, along with their pronouns and their title, Mx, was removed from the online version of the article. The inverted commas around the complainant’s pronouns were also removed from this version of the article.

4. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 12 (Discrimination), as they considered the online article’s use of inverted commas when referring to their pronouns was intended to express irony towards their identity as a non-binary individual. They considered this to be pejorative. In addition, they considered that the reference to their gender identity inferred that there was some kind of issue with their gender identity, as it was not otherwise relevant to the story.

5. The complainant also said that the article was harassing towards them, in breach of Clause 3.

6. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Code in the manner alleged by the complainant. It said that, while it agreed with the complainant that there was no need for references to their pronouns to be placed within inverted commas, this did not mean that their use represented a breach of Clause 12. It also said that there was no need to include details of the complainant’s gender identity, which is why it had removed this reference from the online article. It said that this reference was not necessary for the story – which was about the complainant’s absence from work – but that the reporter had included the reference so as to avoid any confusion about the article’s use of “they” and “them” pronouns within the article.

7. The publication did not accept that the article was harassing towards the complainant or their gender identity. 

Relevant Clause Provisions

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.

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

8. In the view of the Committee, the sentence reporting that the complainant “presents as non-binary” was a clear reference to the complainant’s gender identity and therefore engaged Clause 12. Clause 12 provides that the press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s gender identity in a story and that details included must be relevant. The Committee noted that the reference had been included by way of explanation of the complainant’s preferred pronouns of they/them in a news report which did not focus on or otherwise draw attention to the complainant’s gender identity. Having carefully read the article, the Committee was of the view that the reference was not included in the story in a prejudicial or pejorative way and that the limited details were relevant to allow readers to understand the complainant’s preferred pronouns. The Committee noted that the publication had responded quickly when the complainant had contacted it about the reference and had removed it, which supported the view reached by the Committee that it had not been the publication’s intention to be prejudicial or pejorative and that it had been included for the reason provided by the publication. In these circumstances, the Committee did not find that the brief reference breached Clause 12.

9. The Committee then considered the complainant’s further concern that the use in the article of inverted commas around their preferred pronouns was intended to express irony towards their gender identity as a non-binary individual, and that this amounted to a pejorative reference to their gender identity. The Committee carefully considered the point.  While it understood that the complainant had serious concerns about this element of the article, it noted that quotation marks can be used for a variety of reasons and did not agree that the use of quotation marks was necessarily intended or would be understood in the way the complainant suggested. It further noted that an individual’s pronouns will not always directly correlate to, or in themselves reveal, a person’s gender identity. Articles which report on stories of local interest will almost inevitably have to use some form of pronouns to refer to the people involved and by doing so, in the Committee’s view, this does not always represent a reference to their gender identity. In circumstances where the complainant’s preferred pronoun was included in the article together with an explanation to assist readers’ understanding, and where the Committee considered that the use of quotation marks was ambiguous in meaning, it did not conclude that the quotation marks had been used in a prejudicial or pejorative way in breach of Clause 12 (i). Nonetheless, it welcomed the publication’s removal of the marks in light of the complainant’s concerns.

10. Clause 3 does not prohibit references to the protected characteristics of individuals, and referring to the complainant as non-binary and the placement of inverted commas around their pronouns did not represent intimidation or harassment as defined by Clause 3 – this concern fell consideration more appropriately under Clause 12. In addition, where harassment implies a pattern of unwelcome behaviour, which is repeated often, the Committee did not consider a single article to support a breach of Clause 3. There was, therefore, no breach of this Clause.

11. While the Committee did not consider that the article breached the Code, it welcomed the prompt steps the publication had taken to try to resolve the complaint and address the complainant’s concerns.


12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required


Date complaint received: 01/03/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 12/06/2023