The press is back to its usual tricks: what changed?

It is pleasing – very! – to be able to report today that some weeks after publishing a disgracefully inaccurate and disrespectful piece on trans and intersex police, the Sunday People is to issue a partial correction in line with representations made by the Press Complaints Commission.

Much less pleasing to read their response and realise that even as Leveson continues his merry way, very little seems to have changed regarding their attitudes for accuracy or even respect for minorities.

Disgrace dissected

Let’s start with the piece itself, the assertions it glibly makes, and the People’s defence of same:

A rising number of sex-swap coppers are being recruited to Britain’s biggest police force.

Really? Kicking off point for this story was an FOI request made by freelance journo and sometime crime correspondent Stian Alexander. He was interested in LGBT presence in police forces. The Met’s reply revealed that it included 4 members of staff identifying as transsexual, 2 as transgender – and 8 as intersex.

These are figures for a single point in time, derived from diversity monitoring that was put in place following the 2010 Equality Act, which makes one wonder how the People can substantiate claims of rising numbers – espesh as, in Mr Alexander’s view, the number was possibly a little on the low side.

There is, later in the piece, a claim by “a source” that trans officers can play a vital role in crimes involving people from the trans community – who may be less inclined to trust a “normal” police officer. Though that is very weak stand-up to such a big claim.

There is also an interesting reference in another document (from 2003) that the People rely on to substantiate another inaccuracy, to the effect that in 2003 there were 10 transsexual officers in the Met. Now: math may not be my strongest subject…but even i know that 6 is a smaller number than 10.

Which suggests that far from a “rising number” being recruited, numbers are actually falling. Ah. Unless the People thinks that “intersex” is some sort of sub-species of trans.

Note, en passant, the rather nasty use of the word “normal”.

Sex-change recruits were allowed into the force after bosses agreed to exempt them from body searches.

Suspects can only be searched by ­officers of the same sex…

Hmmm. There is a core of accuracy here, but mostly this is just garbled. Being allowed into the Force depended on legal rights won in the courts – not some concession over searches, which trans officers have not been barred from carrying out.

Rather, the issue ended up being litigated and the situation appears to have been resolved by a House of Lords ruling in A v West Yorkshire Police (2004). Dealing with the issue of searches, the court rejected any notion that this could be a “genuine occupational qualification” for the job and, while it does consider those with and without a gender recognition certificate separately, is quite clear in asserting that “in policy terms …. the view has been taken that Trans people properly belong to the gender in which they live”.

Sorted? Not quite. Unfortunately, this view was overtaken by some otherwise helpful guidance issued by ACPO in July 2005 on the Gender Recognition Act.

This booklet distinguishes intimate and non-intimate searches and makes clear that only those with grc’s may carry out the former. Not actually a very big deal, since most police searches are non-intimate and non-intimate searches may be carried out by either gender. But it provides the People with a figleaf of cover for its assertion and, in responding to a complaint on this point, that’s just what they did, citing this and guidance issued by the Met in 2006 (subsequently re-issued in 2009) to the effect that trans police officers carrying out searches need to hold an exemption certificate.

This, according to the People, “suggests” that at least some trans police are exempt from conducting searches. Perhaps. But that’s a long way from the bold assertion their article makes – which pretty clearly “suggests” all trans officers are exempt and makes no distinction, as both ACPO and the Met do, between intimate and non-intimate searches.


In their rejection of a complaint over inaccuracy, the People also point out – helpfully – that the Met has confirmed that it follows ACPO guidelines in this matter.

That guidance never quite conformed to the law, a fact duly recognised by ACPO themselves in May of this year. A letter from Leicestershire ACC Steph Morgan, who is also ACPO Lead for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Portfolio to Chief Constables and Commissioners, dated 24 May, references confusion on this issue – and specifically withdraws the advice given in the earlier ACPO guidance note.

And the People published their piece when? Oh: on June 3, over a week after this official change was issued – and no doubt long after it was recognised as needing to be issued.

… and transsexuals cannot change theirs [sex] on birth certificates.

Simply not true since, er, the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 – and thankfully a point (the only!) the People were prepared to concede and correct.

The force previously hit the headlines when it emerged any officer wanting a sex-change would get a year’s paid leave.

Oh, dear. Another piece of mangling. The People reference a 7-page document published by the Met back in 2003 outlining the procedures if individuals wish to “change sex” – though they don’t seem to have had sight of the document themselves. Instead, they rely on an article in Personnel Today, dating to July 2003, which claims that “Police officers who want a sex change will be given a year’s paid leave while they have the surgery”.

Well, up to a point: and only up to a point.

The actual Met policy, confirmed by an official spokeswoman, is that anyone who undergoes surgery is entitled to a year’s paid leave, of which six months is at full pay, six months at half. That detail was included in the Personnel Today piece, but oddly omitted from the People’s report which “suggests” that you get a year’s pay just for “wanting” to undergo a sex change – as opposed to actually undergoing the surgery.

Which brings us to the meat of the nastiness:

London’s Metropolitan Police now includes eight hermaphrodites – those born a mix of male and female.

There are also four transsexuals who have had sex-change operations from male to female or vice versa.

And two are described as transgenders, meaning they are living as the opposite sex and possibly awaiting the op.

No. No, no and no. There is, without doubt, some debate within intersex circles as to whether “hermaphrodite” can be reclaimed. But that is the same sort of debate as goes on in other activist circles over the reclaiming of words such as “fag”, “nigga” and “tranny”: a private in-community debate. Otherwise, the h-word is pretty much a no-no, because for the most part it is used by outsiders to distort and belittle. It’s an insult.

As for the distinction between transsexual and transgender. No again. That’s not really how the trans community see the distinction – and it’s not right in this instance, where according to the National Trans Police Association, the different terms were chosen to allow individuals to pick the word they most closely identified with.

Still, that hasn’t stopped the People from responding to the effect that the word was not used in a “pejorative way” or in any way that would “make any of the groups detailed …in a lesser light” (sic).

They really don’t get it….

What this story tells us

This (detailed) analysis of the original story, as well as the response on the part of the People tells us a great deal about the UK press including, in an era when things are supposedly getting better through the work of Lord Leveson, a sorry reminder of how little has changed.

Journalistic standards

I’ll not comment directly on the standard that saw such a piece allowed out into the wild. Despite the fact that the People’s legal department, who dealt with the complaint, maintain that they have done nothing wrong apart from the minor factual matter of ability to change birth certificate, this piece reeks of inaccuracy – and is based on an approach to reporting that i would be ashamed to take myself.

There are question marks over the numbers and whether there are more or fewer trans police in the Met. The situation over searching is not as the People report nor as the gloss provided by their lawyer claims they reported. Their statement over paid leave is not accurate.

As for research: i am guessing that this was a Friday afternoon special: some poor sod of a reporter given about twenty minutes to pull together background on a story, with next to no time to gather up to date facts from those directly involved (’cause while official police spokespeeps are good, it often takes them a day or two to get back). That can be the only excuse for not speaking directly to the Met, to ACPO and to other organisations about this story and relying, instead, on webfinds dating back to 2003 and 2005. Back then, i seem to remember, we had a Labour Government in power and the News of the World still published regularly on a Sunday.

More seriously, the law on a series of important issues in respect of sex and gender, was very different. The legal treatment of rape was different. So, too, were the rights of trans persons. I do hope that the People’s advice columns are based on somewhat more up to date research – as otherwise some of their readers are going to find themselves in serious hot water.

Lawyerly attitudes

It speaks volumes, too, that the complaint should be dumped in the lap of the People’s legal advisor, Paul Mottram, whose approach, as that of most lawyers in such a position, is not to seek to mend bridges but to defend, defend, defend and look for any little loophole in the words to weasel out of a piece that without doubt DOES give offence.

The disingenuity of this approach can be seen first in the claims over intent: the People did not intend to give offence but – and here’s some dictionary extracts to prove it – “hermaphrodite” is a term wholly interchangeable with intersex. So grow up!

I hesitate to suggest that in some quarters, the term “lawyer” appears to be used interchangeably with “lying bastard”. That would just be childish of me. No. The fundamental point here is that if people – and above all, the press – are to write respectfully about minority and other groups, then that respect begins with talking to and listening to those groups. If some member of an ethnic minority tells me that they, personally, feel slighted, being referred to as “black”, or “coloured” – or whatever – then out of respect i should RESPECT that wish and not impose my preferred terminology on them just because it is easier for readers to get.

At very least, if the terminology is difficult, i should explain to readers the words used and why. I shouldn’t just go for it and cite a dictionary after the event – as Mr Mottram has – to bolster up my privileged claim that i have some god-given right to impose my terminology on others.

(Odd, that one: the dictionary cited in this case is Collins 6th edition which does suggest that “hermaphrodite” refers to beings that have both male and female reproductive organs – and since that is mostly NOT the case for intersex individuals, it seems self-defeating for the People to quote such a source. Also odd that they quote a dictionary published in 2001,when a 30th anniversary edition of same was published just two years ago).

Nah. The real issue here is NOT intent, but respect and its opposite: carelessness. Not getting stuff right is something that happens to all of us – myself included. Not putting stuff right, especially when it’s been cobbled together from a seriously wide range of out-dated sources is about lack of respect. And getting your in-house lawyer to indulge in nit-picking word play that misses the point entirely is – well, that, too has everything to do with privilege, nothing at all to do with respect of minorities.

Especially when the inaccuracies – such as those over leave for those “wanting” a sex change quite clearly stirs up animosity towards the trans community from those who don’t get just how difficult it is to obtain any sort of official support for transition.

The PCC – nothing changes

Pride of place, though, in this sorry saga, goes to the PCC. Yet again! They haven’t investigated – just acted as messenger between complainant and complained. They have, yet again, opted for whitewash and compromise: by negotiating a minor apology, this will not in the end show up as an official complaint and therefore, despite the People making such a dog’s breakfast of this piece, they won’t be fingered for their role in this.

And that’s the real issue. Poor journalism arises when journalists are placed under pressure and given unrealistic deadlines against which to research complex issues. But until there is any sort of real sanction – until the PCC really stands up complaints and makes it clear to offending organisations that pissspoor disrespectful conduct has a price associated with it, there will be no pressure to change. Amateur complainants will still be given the runaround by professionals such as Mr Mottram – and all concerned, newspapers and press body alike, will be able to claim that all’s well in the best of all possible investigatory worlds – however much we all know it isn’t.

jane xx


1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Carol Uren said,

    I am still waiting for a date when the correction to the article will be published after my complaint to the PCC about this article was upheld.

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