12 August 2019
by: Mikhail Yakovlev
When Garry Jones became editor-in-chief at the Daily and Sunday Express, he quickly called out these tabloids’ reputation for Islamophobic, anti-migrant headlines. He vowed that under his direction the papers would not be lumped along the likes of the notorious Daily Mail and Sun, and quickly went about rectifying the problem in the newsroom. His work paid off. Earlier this year, the Muslim Council of Britain acknowledged that the paper’s coverage of these communities had improved drastically, although problems remain.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s care to compassionately cover Muslims and migrants has not translated to other minority communities. Specifically, transgender individuals.
You need no more than a casual Google search to see a series of Daily Express articles that refer to transgender as an “ideology” or a “kind of lunacy.” What makes matters worse, the Daily Express gives a platform to Ann Widdecombe, a notoriously transphobic former MP, Government Minister and current MEP who voted against every single LGBT equality measure during her twenty-three years in Parliament. Do you see any similarities with the Times’s love of transphobic and racist Rod Liddle, or the Daily Telegraph’s generosity to Boris Johnson’s Islamophobia and sexism?While the Express has also reported on rising hate crimes affecting the LGBT+ community with particular attention towards rans individuals, they have yet to reckon with the fact that the kind of rhetoric (here and here) they employ in their pages can contribute to this very phenomenon.
What is most alarming is that the Daily Express is not alone. Media Diversity Institute and its partners’ work on calling out Islamophobia in the press has found that right-wing tabloids such as the Daily Mail and the Sun are the worst offenders. But as this article in the Outline points out, it isn’t always the conservatives who are whipping up a transphobic frenzy. In fact, transphobia seems to unite British newspapers across the political and ideological spectrum.
Alarmed by the pervasiveness of anti-trans content in British media, Hacked Off investigated the worst offending articles, and published their insights in a report titled McCarthyism in Bad Wigs and Fishnets. One of the report’s key findings is that the most common transphobic narrative in the British media is spreading fear and disinformation about the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act. Specifically, countless articles argue that these changes will make it easier for trans women to access single-gender spaces put cisgender women at risk. Why? The proposed changes will scrap the intrusive and psychologically-harmful psychological examination process transgender individuals currently face to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). Instead, trans individuals will be able to self-identify as trans. Apparently, this will lead to masses of predatory males pretending to be transgender in order to enter these spaces. It is astounding that so many reputable newspapers can get away with publishing this kind of disinformation.
The report debunks these claims. First, countries that have introduced self-identification did not see any increase in gender-based violence against women due to this change (see examples here, here, here, here and here). Second, trans people in the UK are already able to self-identify as trans for the purposes of accessing single-gender spaces and services under The Equalities Act 2010. GRC is not required to do that. Likewise, GRC is not required to change a person’s gender in their passport and other ID, apart from their Birth Certificate. Last, by putting undue emphasis on hypothetical danger to cis-gender women, such articles ignore the fact that trans women already face disproportionate levels of violence in public spaces.
The report makes another interesting insight. It turns out that The Times – a newspaper that prides itself on “political neutrality” and aims “to cover contending issues with respectful ‘fair argument’” – is the overall ‘leader’ in the sheer quantity of transphobic content they publish.
While the report does not discuss these, so-called leftwing ‘progressive’ publications – such as The Guardian (here and here), The London Evening Standard (here) and even The New Statement (here and here) – publish articles that contribute to the climate of transphobia in British media, if in smaller quantities.
The Guardian UK’s official editorial take on the UK Government’s proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act is a particular striking example. Peddling the same ‘danger to cis women’ narrative debunked above, this painfully transphobic editorial provoked a counter op-ed from the paper’s own US editors. Titled “Why we take issue with the Guardian’s stance on trans rights in the UK,” their counter op-ed ends with:
“Cis women’s intolerance should not be a legitimate reason for limiting the rights of trans women. The idea that all trans women should be denied civil rights because a trans woman might someday commit a crime is the essence of bigotry and goes against feminist values.”
If you replace “trans woman” with “black woman” or “lesbian woman,” their argument becomes painfully familiar. After decades of various civil rights movements where the media has at some point helped or hindered women of color and LGBT women, have we not learned our lesson? Why is it that trans people remain fair game?
Alongside their report, Hacked Off published an open letter to IPSO, asking the press regulator to take complaints about transphobia in the press more seriously. However, given IPSO’s track record (particularly with our campaign that we launched alongside Hacked Off to crackdown on Islamophobia in the press) it seems unlikely much will come from it.
In the meantime, it is journalists and editors’ responsibility to do better. One of the easiest things to do is to hire and recruit more trans journalists and media workers—a proven tactic for improving coverage of a range of issues relating to diversity and inclusion. After all, how do we expect our news media, entertainment, arts and culture to be inclusive if we close the door on its creators?
You can sign and share Hacked Off’s open letter against media transphobia, here
You can sign and share MDI and Hacked Off’s open letter against media Islamophobia, here