A simple, sad tale of bigotry

James Kirkup is not impressed by the BBC’s reporting on trans issues.

For one example, it sought to correct a claim by Fair Play for Women that “41 per cent of trans women in jail are sex offenders.”

The BBC seeks to test the FPFW figure of 41 per cent mainly by way of official Ministry of Justice figures, released following a BBC request under the Freedom of Information Act. Those figures show that 60 of 125 transgender inmates were serving sentences for sexual offences. That’s 48 per cent.

So what does the BBC do? It comes up with strained reasons to ignore the figures.

And then there’s its reporting on our friend Councillor Gregor Murray.

Cllr Murray of Dundee identifies as non-binary and prefers “they” as a pronoun. Cllr Murray recently quit as convenor of children and family services, and as SNP equal opportunities spokesman.

“Trans councillor leaves roles after ‘threats to life’” was the BBC headline on the story about this last week.

A casual reader might have taken the impression that this was a simple, sad tale of bigotry in modern Britain, a transgender person hounded out of a prominent public role by the nasty prejudice that too many trans people do indeed suffer. What that reader would not have learned is that Cllr Murray’s resignation came about after a series of incidents in which Cllr Murray published obscene and offensive comments about women who disagreed with him. Among those comments, he described a group of lesbians who took part in a public protest as “utter c***s”.

Journalism should always distinguish facts and assertions, and prioritise facts over assertions. That’s especially true when covering politicians, who routinely try to use assertions to obscure facts they find inconvenient.

It is a fact that Cllr Murray called some women “c***s” and faced significant public criticism for doing so. (A fellow SNP councillor described Cllr Murray’s conduct as disgraceful, for instance.) It is a fact that this criticism preceded Cllr Murray’s resignation. It is an assertion that Cllr Murray is resigning because of threats to Cllr Murray’s safety: the councillor’s letter of resignation, quoted in extravagant detail by the BBC, provides no evidence of such threats.

Also, somewhat off topic but not really, notice the way Kirkup is talking about calling women “cunts.” Notice the discrepancy between that and the way we are always told that “cunt” is not a misogynist or sexist or extraordinarily insulting epithet in the UK.

The BBC report, however, repeats the politician’s assertions at length and without any attempt at critical analysis, while scarcely mentioning the established fact of the politician’s conduct and reactions to it. The reader has to reach the 10th paragraph of a 13 paragraph story before finding this mealy-mouthed sentence:

“The councillor had been criticised for language they used in online rows with women’s groups.”

And that’s all. No mention of quite what that “language” was. It’s impossible to avoid wondering if the BBC would have been so circumspect on the issue if, for instance, a non-trans councillor holding an equalities post had described a group of women as “absolute c***s”. Having spent most of the last two decades writing about politics, I’d have expected Cllr Murray’s comments to be central to any story about their resignation, especially from a post that involves representing the interests of minorities, including the lesbians the councillor described as “absolute c***s. Something in the spirit of “Councillor who called women ‘c***s’ quits” would be the headline I’d have expected to see.

And that is the way the Dundee Courier covered the resignation: “Children’s convener resigns following row over expletive-laden social media outbursts”, it reported. In so doing, the paper did its job, reporting facts in the public interest and in proper context. The BBC failed to do that job. Why did the BBC fail in these instances? I don’t know or pretend to know. I can offer some informed speculation though. There is a live and sometimes heated debate within the BBC about coverage of transgender issues. Echoing wider political and public debate, there are some people in the BBC who worry that this issue is not being fully discussed or examined. These people, who include some very senior journalists, feel the BBC is sometimes too cautious, too timid, too afraid of controversy and possible offence over a complicated and contentious issue. They, like me, worry that the voices of women (and men) who have doubts and questions about custom, practice and policy on transgender issues (and the possible impact on women and their rights) are not being properly heard.


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