Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP
Artillery Row

Do not sanction the truth

Stating biological facts should not be cause for heavy-handed complaints proceedings

A funny thing happened to me on the way to BBC redundancy. I was put through a lengthy disciplinary process for saying truthful things about sex and gender — not quite the same as the very visible farce that unfolded last week around Justin Webb and the complaint against him, but an earlier example of the BBC’s festering problem with accuracy around biological sex.

There has been no on the record reaction from Webb, but those of his colleagues at the BBC who also understand that sex and gender must be explained with clarity and truth, are bristling. And they aren’t small in number. The finding from the Complaints unit means in effect that if a journalist clarifies that “transwomen” are male, they could be reported for lowering the standards of the newsroom.

The truth has become punishable: the lie that trans-identified men are women is not. So here’s my tale, and I hope it helps explain the BBC’s contortionist thinking on accuracy and impartiality around sex and gender.

About two years ago (this is in no way a new headache for the BBC) the word “cis” was starting to be tentatively used in broadcast content and current affairs programmes. We have two glossaries on the BBC website that include cis, neither of them explaining that it’s a controversial term which reinforces stereotypes.  

The BBC Academy teaches that it’s important journalists don’t adopt activist language as their own — and I feared that “cis” was to become normalised by repeated use, just as gender identity did. I might have been wrong.  But I was sure that approaching programme or online editors about it would be unfruitful. 

So I decided to write a Twitter thread about “cis”, figuring that at least if someone complained, then editorial managers would have to read it, and any complaints would themselves prove it was a contested political term that shouldn’t be adopted.

The idea that if something is true, it is not an opinion, is at the root of this journalistic dilemma.  It was, then, necessary to made the thread entirely truthful.  

It explained that using “cis” involves accepting a system of belief underpinned by an understanding that there are two types of women, male women and female women, and this is as yet scientifically unsupported. (I didn’t really need the “as yet” but I thought I’d cover my bases).  

 Within about an hour I was told to take it down by my then boss on the News Channel for allegedly breaching the social media rules. After an afternoon of emailing, we brought another editor into the conversation. But neither was able to explain which part of the thread was untrue, and therefore might fall into the error of opinion. Because I wouldn’t delete the thread, it progressed to a disciplinary, and a formal hearing was lined up.

 Weeks later, and after a lot of bother, another editor (that’s three so far) at the hearing was also unable to identify anything about what I’d said that was untrue. Nevertheless, the process continued, reports were drawn up, evidence was submitted, the weeks went on, and the Ukraine War broke out.  

It was at this point I told my manager in a phone call that I was willing to delete. There was no news about anything except the war, no interest in anything but the war, we were all working extra hours on the war, the disciplinary began to seem trivial in comparison and a distraction, and I was frightened.  

By then, deletion wasn’t enough

By then, deletion wasn’t enough. This is the most extraordinary part. I was told to admit to managers that I’d been wrong and would never do it again, or the disciplinary would proceed.

This wasn’t just policing of public speech, which is part and parcel of everyone’s contract. It was a demand that I internally confess my wrongthink, and repent. Obviously I wasn’t going to do that. Everything I’d said was true, and no one had been able to identify a single opinion I’d publicly expressed. In fact, to this day, that is the case.  

Yes, people would make assumptions about my thinking from the fact I’d articulated these truths.  But I hadn’t expressed a single opinion.

It eventually turned into a grievance hearing, and the outcome was revealing. Accuracy and impartiality are not the same, I was told: something can be entirely accurate but raise a question as to impartiality. This might seem like a trite observation: after all, if you insert someone’s race or religion into a story where it is irrelevant, you may be using “accuracy” to sneak your bias into the copy.

However in this context, the impact is rather different. What this says, in effect, is that if the facts are on one side of a debate, we mustn’t articulate them, because it would reveal your thinking. The very willingness to make certain indisputable statements about biological sex is the crime, because gender activists have rendered the debate landscape so toxic and chilling that truth has become an emblem of defiance rather than clarity.  

It will therefore be divined, by the BBC, from your expression of these truths that you sit on one side of the debate. Never mind that they’re actually a vital clarification in a confusing political conversation. 

This is the antithesis of the journalistic principle of looking out of the window when two people are arguing about whether it’s raining. On sex and gender, the new rule is: looking out of the window is the last thing you should do, or you could be up on a charge.

Many people have understood for some time that this is the case, but the Executive Complaints Unit ruling has now made it public policy. Biological sex has officially became a mere “viewpoint”. 

The BBC is not the only broadcaster with an excruciating record on accuracy and impartiality on this issue. Sky and ITV have been just as shocking, if not worse: perhaps they all draw succour from the fact that they’re on the same side against audience understanding. 

It should be a requirement, not a punishable offence

I hope this throws some light on where the BBC now finds itself in trying to platform any sex and gender controversy. How is a presenter or reporter to explain why there is a controversy at all about trans-identified men in, say, women’s sports or prisons, if they are unable to say that they are male? It should be a requirement, not a punishable offence.

My wish is that this terrible ruling, so soon after the disgraceful descriptions of the vicious male murderer Scarlett Blake as a woman, will lead to some grave reflections internally about the impact on the BBC’s remit and branding of its one-sided approach on sex and gender. It’s not impossible. They must now sense the depth of outrage it has generated.

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