Resolution statement 18904-17 Mermaids UK v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      22nd January 2018

    • Outcome

      Resolved - IPSO mediation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Resolution statement 18904-17 Mermaids UK v The Sunday Times

1. Mermaids UK complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Charity ban as boy forced to live as girl”, published on 8 October 2017. The article was published online in substantively the same format, headlined “Mermaids UK charity ban as boy forced to live as girl”.

2. The article reported that Mermaids UK, a charity which supports transgender children, had been banned by the High Court from any contact with a family after the mother, who was being advised by the charity, had “forced her seven-year-old son to live as a girl”. It reported that Mermaids UK had claimed that it was not the subject of the court order, and that the family had been ordered to have no contact with the charity.  

3. The article reported that the Mermaids UK website had featured a message from a doctor who was offering “same-day…fast-track trans-sex hormone treatment for children”. The article reported that NHS guidelines do not allow the treatment, which causes irreversible bodily changes and can compromise fertility for anyone under 16. It included a comment that had been made by the founder of another charity which stated that “I am concerned that Mermaids is indoctrinating children, scaring parents into thinking that [gender] transition is the only way and intimidating professionals”.

4. The article also reported that Mermaids had been granted £35,000 in funding from the Department of Education, and a total of £138,000 by the national lottery’s Awards for All fund and the BBC Children in Need appeal.

5. The complainant said that the High Court had not banned it from contacting the family of the child referred to in the article, and that Mermaids UK had never been a party to any such proceedings. The complainant also said that it did not advertise same-day cross-sex hormone treatment for children on its website; the treatments offered by the doctor were hormone blockers which had the effect of pausing the effects of ongoing puberty. It said that the treatment is freely prescribed by the NHS, is reversible, and is only offered to children with diagnosed gender dysphoria.

6. The complainant said that the inclusion of the quote made by the founder of the other transgender charity, in the article, gave the misleading impression that Mermaids UK had “indoctrinated” children. It said that the charity only seeks to support children in forming their own opinions regarding their gender. The complainant also said that the reference to the charity’s funding would put pressure on the funding organisations to withdraw their financial support.

7. The newspaper did not accept that there had been a breach of the Code. It said that it had contacted the charity prior to publication and had asked specific questions about the alleged “same-day cross-sex hormones”. It said that this information was not denied, nor had the charity asserted that only hormone blockers had been advertised. Furthermore, the newspaper said that the article was an accurate reflection of the doctor’s own accounts of her work on the Mermaids UK website and in an academic paper. The newspaper provided copies of this information.

8. The newspaper said that Mermaids UK had left a comment on its public Facebook account which stated that “Mermaids were actually prohibited from any contact with the child”, and that “Mermaids were ordered to have NOTHING to do with this child”. It provided a screen shot of these comments. The newspaper said that in any event, the article included the charity’s position that “it was not the subject of the court order and that it was the family that had been ordered to have no contact with it”. It did not accept that the article was inaccurate or misleading on this point.

Relevant Code provisions

9. 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.

Mediated outcome

10. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.

11. During IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper offered to publish the following clarification in the Corrections & Clarifications column, and as a footnote to the online article:

In our article (Charity ban as boy forced to live as girl, News, Oct 8), we reported that Mermaids, the transgender charity, had been banned by the High Court from making contact with a family. Mermaids has informed us that it has not been the subject of a court order; rather, it was told by the child’s mother that the judge had said that the child was to have no contact with Mermaids. It has also asked us to clarify that Dr Birgit Moller did not offer fast-track cross-sex hormone treatment for children; the treatment offered on a fast-track basis was hormone blockers.

12. The complainant said that this would resolve the matter to its satisfaction.

13. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.

Date complaint received: 09/10/2017
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 11/01/2018