Shortly after lunch on 8 February this year, I walked through the side door of the imposing Royal Courts of Justice where I was to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.
I was presenting evidence collated by Trans Media Watch (TMW), even though I haven’t personally been the target of press harassment (yet – although I am aware that an easy route for the press to debunk Leveson is to debunk witnesses).
The full document we compiled and submitted was harrowing, containing stories of people whose jobs and families were destroyed by press intrusion simply because they were trans. The inquiry team agreed to keep many of the stories completely confidential because the victims were terrified of further press exposure.
For days before the hearing in Court Room 73, I was frequently reduced to tears reading and re-reading the horrors that trans people and their families were repeatedly subjected to. It was powerful stuff, and the inquiry team, including my interrogator, the fearsome and erudite Robert Jay QC, seemed sympathetic.
But the press intrusion into trans peoples’ lives didn’t stop when I gave evidence. In fact I made a second submission just three weeks later detailing press behavior on two stories in that time, both of which placed trans people, including many not directly associated with the stories, in real danger.
We all know the defense mounted by the press barons by now. One line is there were some minor problems with some journalists but they have sorted it all out now. Except there are many stories about bullying in newsrooms – and evidence from the National Union of Journalists was compelling in this respect. The perception was that corrupt behavior had spread widely.
Another defense is there were some minor issues with regulation but we just need a few tweaks here and there for revised self-regulation to work much better. My own experience in raising post-publication issues through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) indicated that, although their staff expressed concern, the drive to act as anything other than a channel for communication to aggressive media lawyers was simply not there.
Indeed, Lord Hunt stated very clearly at Leveson that the PCC was not a regulator, contradicting the PCC’s earlier claims.
Yet another argument we have heard is that the law is sufficient. Yet trans people often don’t have resources sufficient to engage a solicitor for an hour, let alone pick a fight with a well-funded national newspaper through costly court proceedings. Additionally court proceedings often drag on for months, leaving the problematic press coverage un-amended and opening up the complainant to further press harassment in the meantime.
Discussion about the legal processes that may be required to make independent regulation binding are suddenly and dramatically presented as Faustian pacts with government, moving Britain inexorably towards becoming an authoritarian state with only approved news being available, like Zimbabwe or North Korea.
Yet, somehow, similar state regulation of banks, teachers and supermarkets has not managed to stifle innovation or placed civil servants into every bank, school or grocer scrutinizing every decision made.
Responsible free speech is not at risk. We need an independent press to hold powerful people and organizations to account. That actually includes the press itself. The press have found that it is always uncomfortable to have the spotlight turned upon yourself.
Another line is that any new regulator would be as ineffective as the Press Complaints Commission was – it wouldn’t have stopped the outrages that took place. However, this is an argument against any regulation whatsoever, not the type of regulation. As David Allen Green pointed out, the effect of regulation should be to prevent things from happening that would happened otherwise. So an effective regulator should change the underlying culture in a profession.
Finally James Harding of the Times is on record as saying that changing the current system would make a bad situation worse. Leave well alone. Except it is obvious that all is not well. Are we really saying that it’s OK to destroy innocent peoples’ lives because freedom of speech is more important? In other areas of life, the press often campaigns for restrictions on freedoms to protect people. Why not here, in their own backyard?
I’m not naive enough to believe that Lord Justice Leveson and his team had suddenly become advocates for trans and intersex people, or that they were interested in following up specific complaints. Instead I think our submissions, out of many from similar disadvantaged and marginalized groups of people, gave him sufficient confidence that we could speak as an example of such groups.
Indeed the point I made at the end of TMW’s second submission was that, given the lack of any substantive reason for the behavior of the press in victimizing trans people, any vulnerable and marginalized minority could fall victim to such behavior with no real redress in the future.
According to a poll published in Wednesday’s Guardian, it seems that the vast majority of the British public are ignoring the fog-horned bleating of the powerful media magnates. The Press Complaints Commission seems thoroughly discredited and there is unanimous agreement that it needs changing. There is an appetite for reform. The stories of the McCanns, the Dowlers and Chris Jefferies (to mention some of the non-celebrities who gave evidence) horrified those who saw the news, both at the time and also during the inquiry. The explanations of the editors were largely seen as little more than self-justifying rubbish.
TMW has allied with Hacked Off and has supported the National Union of Journalists in calling for substantial reform to the regulation of the press. The belief is that the ethics and behavior in many newsrooms will change in the face of meaningful sanctions applied by a regulator independent of both state and the press. Commercial interests should no longer dictate what the public interest is, and those interests should be harmed if rules are broken.
So, we get to today’s publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report.
TMW campaigns on a strapline of Accuracy, Dignity, Respect. Actually accuracy is enshrined in the current Editors’ Code, but many trans people find that reporting in the mainstream press distorts the issues we face, or are simply misleading. But the three values mentioned should surely form the core part of the ethics of any news organization. We’re not arguing that reporting of trans people and issues should stop – merely that it is reported fairly.
Someone being trans should not, of itself, make a story newsworthy. The diversity of trans people should not be reduced to often inaccurate stereotypes for quick laughs or summary judgments. These points should also be covered under the discrimination section of the Editors’ Code.
It seems that, with the reporting of trans issues specifically, Lord Justice Leveson agrees with TMW. He starts by quoting chunks of our submissions, and adding ‘outing of transgender individuals’ (which he says is the most disturbing) to our list of media tropes. He refers to our examples and says they are not aberrations. He expresses concerns about the ways stories involving trans people are presented in the press, and makes reference to the way that reporting on stories involving gay people have improved over the past 30 years.
More importantly, he takes on board that other vulnerable groups are also singled out for discrimination in this way. It must stop.
Lord Justice Leveson has transferred responsibility for enacting his proposals back to the politicians. Will today see the beginning of serious discussion about press reform and responsible reporting? I certainly hope so, and I would like to thank the many people who supported TMW to enable us to bring our evidence to Lord Justice Leveson’s table. This process wasn’t easy for many of them. It obviously made a significant impact on him. Not to implement meaningful change would heap despair onto an already abused group of people.
See Leveson deliver his report here: