James Kirkup

Is the BBC scared of the transgender debate?

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I like the BBC. I like the idea of a national broadcaster and I like a lot of BBC output. I admire many BBC journalists – the Corporation employs some of the very best. I am not a Beeb-basher, not least since so many of the people who bang on relentlessly about the BBC’s supposed biases are stupid or horrible or both. I say these things because for all my affection for it, this is an article about an area where the BBC is sometimes getting things wrong. Some recent BBC coverage of transgender issues fails to meet the usual standards of its journalism. Those failings, in turn, raise some wider questions for the BBC on this topic.

The first piece that isn’t up to scratch is this Reality Check about transgender prisoners, published earlier this week. Reality Check, when it’s good, is first-class public service journalism, the sort of rigorous, evidence-based analysis that British journalism and politics desperately need more of. This isn’t good. The piece purports to test an estimate made by Fair Play for Women (FPFW), a feminist group, that 41 per cent of trans women in jail are sex offenders. That’s significantly higher than the 15 per cent of the whole prison population jailed for sexual crimes.

FPFW is concerned that allowing male-born sex offenders to be imprisoned with female-born inmates (who are vulnerable and very often have been victims of sexual abuse) puts women at risk. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not pretending to be neutral here: I think that concern is a valid one and I’m not convinced current prison policy has sufficient regard for the wellbeing of female prisoners in this context. (There’s more to come on this issue, incidentally, but much of it is subject to court action and can’t yet be reported. But I think there are some awkward questions coming for prison chiefs and politicians alike, in due course.)

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. That is, to put it mildly, a striking figure. But having obtained that information, through good and proper journalism, the BBC Reality Check team goes to great lengths to tell readers to discount it. The piece is laden with caveats and warnings about those figures, some of which are badly flawed. For instance, the repeated insistence that “we don’t know the gender of the perpetrators in these cases”.

The implication there is that some of the 60 trans sex offenders might be transmen, people born female and now identifying as male. Put simply, this is bordering on offensive, the sort of “Reverse Victim and Offender” tactics that a certain sort of man uses when debating issues of violence against women. Because the sort of fact-checking analytical journalism that Reality Check is supposed to do would show the only reasonable interpretation of those figures for 60 sex offenders is that they relate to people born male who now identify as female.

I say that for several reasons. First, the sexual offences committed by those 60 trans offenders:

  • 27 convictions for rape (plus a further five of attempted rape)
  • 13 convictions for possessing, distributing or making indecent images of children
  • 13 convictions for sexual assault or attempted sexual assault
  • Nine convictions for causing or inciting a child under 16 to engage in sexual activity
  • Seven convictions for sexual activity with a child
  • Seven convictions for indecent assault or gross indecency
  • These are crimes that are overwhelmingly committed by male-born people, also known as men; a vanishingly small proportion of sexual offence convictions are against women. The latest prison population figures show that of the entire female prison population, only 128 were sentenced for sexual offences. So unless there’s evidence to the contrary (and the BBC certainly hasn’t found any), it’s reasonable to start from the assumption those 60 criminals were born male.

    Second, the known facts of transgender inmates in the prison estate. It is an established fact there are some male-born people in the female estate: that’s the whole point of this debate. But are there female-born people in the male estate? These would be people who were born female and later in life identified themselves as male and were sentenced to a custodial sentence, exercising their right under current prison policy to request to serve their sentence in a male prison alongside male-born prisoners. As far as I can establish, there are no such inmates; Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform, one of the country’s leading authorities on the prison system, also says: “I’ve not heard of trans men going to men’s prisons, they simply would not be safe.”

    Yet the Reality Check team seems not to have even tried to check these things. Instead they are inviting readers to infer that it’s possible that a significant number of those sexual offenders might be people were born female and now identify as male. That is poor journalism that verges on being misleading.

    There are various other evasions in the Reality Check piece, all seeming to try to lead the reader away from the obvious conclusion that the Fair Play for Women figures were essentially accurate and that a disproportionately high number of transgender prisoners are in jail for sexual offences.

    Just for good measure, Reality Check (a supposedly objective fact-check) chucks in a bit of commentary from Jane Fae, a “transgender journalist and campaigner” making the wholly subjective assertion that the public will “misinterpret” those official figures and that “the fall-out in terms of violence and abuse will, in some cases, be significant.” Perhaps that is a valid case to argue, but it is not one that belongs in a Reality Check piece.

    In truth, the public is in little danger of misinterpreting those figures, or even of knowing about them, because the BBC did its best to bury them. While most Reality Check pieces are featured on the homepage of BBC News, this one was not apparently placed there at any point. BBC News has made little effort to publicise what might reasonably be considered newsworthy information about a matter of public interest.

    The overall impression given is that someone at the BBC set out with the hope of debunking that Fair Play for Women calculation, but uncovered evidence suggesting that calculation was perfectly reasonable, then made significant efforts to avoid saying so or telling anyone that, yes, a lot of male-born offenders who identify themselves as women are in jail for sexual crimes, including crimes committed against women.

    Another example of sub-par BBC journalism on trans issues is the coverage of Cllr Gregor Murray, Scotland’s only transgender councillor. 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 “absolute 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.

    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.

    Since I started writing about this issue here, I’ve spoken to several BBC journalists who say that the Corporation's output in some cases fails to apply proper journalistic scrutiny to the issue, or to air a full range of opinions. (I should also say that I’ve appeared on BBC outlets a couple of times talking about this; sometimes it seems easier for a man to get on air talking about the silencing of women than for actual women to do so…) Some of my friends at the BBC say the BBC is institutionally scared of criticism by vocal and eloquent trans-rights groups, and so there is a tendency to shy away from the potential disagreement and tension that commonly arises when journalists do their job and put pursuit of the truth above the comfort of their subjects. This isn’t always the case, of course, and some BBC output is first-rate here. It’s possibly invidious to single out individuals, but Nick Robinson has, for example, done some outstanding work on the transgender issue.

    The examples of failure I’ve given here, by contrast, are all about timidity; instead of applying proper journalistic scrutiny and scepticism to the information at hand on sex offenders and Cllr Murray, the BBC treated the transgender issue more softly, more cautiously. That is no small matter, and its importance goes beyond the narrow issue of the BBC, in these cases, falling short in its journalism.

    The transgender debate, as I’ve argued repeatedly here for several months, is a story of political failure, where people in positions of authority and power are failing to scrutinise fully matters of public importance, and where some people (mainly women) are not being allowed to speak freely about such matters. The BBC is not, of course, responsible for the conduct of political debate, but its coverage and approach of an issue such as this does contribute to the wider political climate. It can, and should, do better here.

    Like so many others, the BBC should be braver in talking about transgender issues. The truth is nothing to be afraid of.

    Written byJames Kirkup

    James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

    Topics in this articleSociety