Features

Triumph of the trans lobbyists

Julie Bindel on how transgender ideologists are winning the battle for media hearts and minds

In 2008 I was nominated for Journalist of the Year in an award ceremony organised by the gay rights group Stonewall. I have long been vocal about my displeasure with Stonewall, namely that it prioritised rich gay men over lesbians. But votes had come in from the general public rather than Stonewall itself, so I figured I had a fighting chance of winning.

I first heard about my nomination when I read in the gay press that a “nasty transphobe” should not have been included in the list. There was outrage, even at that stage, that I might win. My crime? In 2004 the Guardian Weekend magazine published my column on the madness of men identifying as women, and how the diagnosis of transsexuality was based on dangerous and outmoded sex stereotypes. What the trans cabal did not know was that I had written, a year earlier, a big piece in the Sunday Telegraph magazine on those that regret sex change surgery, but it was never published online. I will return to the theme of transgender “regret” later.

I turned up to the event to be greeted by 200 transgender activists and their allies holding up placards with slogans such as “Bindel the bigot” and shouting “no platform for bigotry”. This protest marked the birth of the modern transgender movement. I was told by one of the judges, confidentially at the time, that I was a clear winner as I had received more than twice the votes of the runner-up. But Stonewall were concerned about vilification by the gay press, which it relied on to promote its work and secure funding. After a toxic row in the Stonewall offices, the prize went to the Daily Mirror’s Dr Miriam Stoppard, who is neither a journalist nor linked in any way to lesbian and gay rights.

Back in 2008, apart from the handful of articles I had written on the topic, the mainstream press was not interested in the issue of transgenderism. The gay press has always been poor-quality in the UK and tended towards lifestyle and fluff articles, but it was partly responsible for promoting the idea of the LGBTQQI+ alphabet soup. Today most media outlets run only one side of the story — that of extreme transgender ideology.

On 27 March 2018, the splash headline on the front page of the Sun was “Tran and Wife”. The paper reported that Hannah Winterbourne, an Army officer, had married Jake Graf, a film director. Winterbourne was born male; Graf was born female.

According to a subsequent BBC report on the story, the headline “faced a backlash online”. In the words of the New Statesman, “The Sun’s transphobic front-page mars a couple’s wedding day.” The “backlash” reached parliament. The following month the Commons home affairs select committee summoned editors from the Sun, the Mail group and the Express to account for their output on issues including transgenderism.

Paul Clarkson, managing editor of the Sun, mounted a strong defence of the paper’s coverage: Winterbourne and Graf had approached the Sun about coverage, he said. They wanted the story to be printed. Warming to his subject, he then revealed more than he might have intended: “Every word, headline and image was passed by transgender groups pre-publication.”

Perhaps the significance of that sentence might not be obvious to non-journalists, but to those in the trade it is fairly shocking. The Sun, the biggest-selling paper in Britain and the baddest feral beast in the newspaper jungle, gave full copy approval to campaign groups.

Not that Clarkson was alone. Peter Wright, “editor emeritus” at Associated Newspapers and former editor of the Mail on Sunday, said his group was very keen to have its journalists receive training and guidance from trans advocacy groups. Or rather, more training. “We have talked to them in the past and taken advice,” he told the MPs.

These admissions went unremarked upon and unreported. It suits none of the participants to admit that the supposedly mighty newspapers that are commonly accused by activists of whipping up a climate of transphobic hatred are, in fact, so meekly compliant that they let transgender groups vet their reporting and train their staff.

Where did the Sun and Mail get the idea to ask trans lobbying groups how to write about trans issues? I would hazard a guess that the impetus came from Ipso, the press regulator. Its Guidance on Transgender Reporting includes a list of “resources” for editors to consult: All About Trans, Trans Media Watch, Stonewall, Gendered Intelligence, and Mermaids.

With the exception of Stonewall, none of those groups is large. Mermaids has a full-time staff of three, whose activities involve lobbying politicians and the NHS to make it easier for children to get puberty-blocking drugs and cross-sex hormones. It also organises training events for dozens of public and private sector organisations.

That Ipso guidance was written in 2016, long before the emergence of organised women’s groups arguing that allowing men to “self-identify” as women and claim the legal status of women might well have some consequences for those born female. Even though those groups have plainly established that there is a debate here and that there are two sides to this argument, Ipso still concerns itself with just one side. Ipso’s message to editors is clear. Upset the trans lobby and you’re in trouble. Upset the women by ignoring their worries and nothing will happen.

The 2016 guidance was written by Charlotte Urwin, Ipso’s head of standards. Urwin has praised Mermaids for its work, publicly thanking the group “for hosting a very thoughtful meeting with parents of transgender teens full of rich discussion about the particular challenges their families and children face”.

She made no mention of concerns raised about the group’s overstating of the risks of suicide among trans teenagers, the pressure it puts on parents to “affirm” gender changes (phrases such as “better a live daughter than a dead son” are common among its supporters) and no mention of its lobbying activities. Instead of treating Mermaids as what it is — a participant in an active debate about policy and law that journalists are covering — Urwin helps to paint Mermaids as a welfare organisation, pure and simple.

Urwin is currently overseeing a new review of Ipso guidance on trans issues, the premise of which seems to accept the narrative promoted by many advocacy groups, that a rising tide of media coverage is inherently linked to the vulnerability and harm of trans people. Last May, Urwin wrote:

I believe — based on our internal monitoring — that coverage of transgender matters has changed in recent years. But I know that this is heavily contested by transgender individuals; those who support them; and by journalists reporting on this topic.

The way the media covers transgender people and gender transition can have a significant impact on individuals and social attitudes, and also continues to generate wider debate. It raises difficult questions about the balance between being aware of the impact of press reporting and commentary on potentially vulnerable individuals and ensuring that it is still possible to report freely on these social issues.

One newspaper editor says that Ipso is “completely one-sided” on trans issues. Because the regulator starts from the position that trans people, individually or collectively, are frail and require special protection from harm, it naturally inclines towards upholding complaints about trans reporting and commentary.

Of course, not all papers are covered by Ipso. The Guardian, via its Reader’s Editor, regulates itself. It can certainly push the trans agenda without encouragement from the likes of Ipso. The paper has a number of feminists on staff who have grave doubts about the consequences of allowing men to “identify” as, and be accepted as, women. But few of them can say so. Recently, all UK staff received an email about the new Guardian Style Guide. They were instructed to use the term “cis” when referring to a person who is “not transgender”.

Owen Jones, the Labour activist and columnist, has significant influence at the paper on all things (pro) trans. In October 2018, editor Katharine Viner authorised an editorial which attempted to argue that both sides had a point and that perhaps dialogue and compromise might be in order. “Feminists are entitled to question whether such changes could adversely affect other women,” the leader daringly suggested. “This is a complex issue that society needs to consider thoughtfully.”

Hardly incendiary, but enough to set the fires burning among younger staff members and writers, especially in the US, where the paper has a large staff and a continued ambition to be taken seriously by the sort of people who still think the New York Times is a good newspaper.

Two of those Guardian staff published an op-ed in their own paper accusing it of bigotry over trans issues. “The editorial’s unsubstantiated argument only serves to dehumanise and stigmatise trans people,” they wrote. Jones, of course, gave his strong approval to his 918,000 Twitter followers.

But if Viner is struggling to strike a balance, the BBC appears not to even try. Among its recent appointments are Megha Mohan, the corporation’s first “gender and identity correspondent” and Ben Hunte, “LGBT correspondent”. Hunte thinks nothing of attending Pride marches as a participant and also reporting on those same marches. “I’m reporting on issues that we as a community are facing,” he has said.

Rapid promotion: BBC gender and identity correspondent Megha Mohan and LGBT correspondent Ben Hunte are young and inexperienced, but have been given influential new reporting roles

 

Mohan and Hunte are both young and junior journalists, yet they have been appointed to cover one of the most contentious issues of the day for one of the world’s biggest media outfits. I have heard from BBC journalists that there is some dissatisfaction in the coverage that Mohan and Hunte are responsible for. There have been several attempts to interest the pair in a range of relevant issues, such as detransition/transgender regret; the cotton ceiling (lesbians being pressured into sex with trans women); the battle over single-sex spaces; and drag children. So far, nothing.

More experienced journalists at the BBC consider it neither professional nor prudent for the corporation to appoint such inexperienced correspondents to represent particular “communities”. But many staff say BBC executives are obsessed with generating “content” that chimes with the mores of a younger audience. Privately, some BBC suits give an explanation closer to home. Internal staff surveys show that as many as 2 per cent of all BBC staff “identify” as transgender. The corporation’s LGBT staff forum is willing and able to flex its muscles over editorial decisions that displease members. “We have to tread very carefully to avoid complaints from them,” says one of the BBC’s most senior editors.

Some say tensions are growing within the BBC between an older generation of journalists and the younger breed of activists with microphones. Insiders say that individual programmes and their editors are taking increasingly divergent approaches. The Victoria Derbyshire programme, for instance, regularly provides unchallenged airtime to Mermaids and other trans activists. Radio 4’s Today, edited by Sarah Sands, is by contrast increasingly willing to report doubts about the medical wisdom of letting children take hormone treatments, and to allow its presenters to question politicians about trans issues and their potential impact on women’s rights.

Notably, neither Hunte nor Mohan is asked to contribute their expertise to Today. They’re more likely to be found on the BBC website among articles about YouTube stars and Jeremy Corbyn. According to Mohan,  the scientific fact that there are just two biological sexes is not just outdated, it is irrelevant to modern life: “In 2019 there are new and crucial conversations to be had on those whose identity varies from their biological sex: bathroom facilities, women’s shelters, even prisons.”

Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, is critical of extreme transgender ideology from a feminist, left-wing standpoint. Last year, Stock was asked to write a piece for the New York Review of Books in response to a New York Times article headlined “How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans”. The editor asked Stock to write a long piece which explained the political situation to readers and what was at stake. After she filed it, the editor, who I know to be a professional and fair journalist, gave it a light edit before sending it to two more editors (as is standard). They heavily edited the piece, demanding lots of corroboration and sources for every claim Stock touched upon, so that it turned out to be a lot more hard-hitting than she had first intended.

Then at the very last minute, the editor said that after a group editorial meeting, it was decided that some weaknesses in the argument had been exposed by the editing process and they wouldn’t run it after all. “They said they would still pay me for it in full,” says Stock, “so I took this to mean that they got cold feet.” She gave the article to the Australia-based conservative website Quillette, which prompted accusations from trans activists that gender-critical feminists were allied with the right.

The Times and Sunday Times are regularly accused of rampant transphobia for the simple reason that they cover gender-critical perspectives on the trans issues, often exposing harm to children and the danger faced by abused women using single-sex refuges and other safe places.
The Times is a rational, broad-church newspaper. It believes in dissecting shibboleths. It tends not to be tied to woke platitudes, unlike the Guardian, and is free from the left’s main self-constraint: the fear of being on the “wrong side of history”. Free speech, the right to be offended, reason, science, rational argument — these are the mainstays of the newspaper.

The Times columnist Janice Turner is known for tackling the transgender orthodoxy head-on: “As the person who first started discussing it at The Times, I was coming from the left, as a feminist and a Labour supporter. My politics, against racism, homophobia and other bigotry, are well documented. So it wasn’t like I was a right-winger. Which is the reason why, I think, that it had traction in the newspaper. It was a feminist critique.” Turner benefited from being given the space, in many columns, to unpick the irrationality of extreme transgender ideology in a humane way. “There are real people, human beings involved,” she says. “Trans people have the right to live dignified lives free of discrimination and prejudice. I have this in my mind at all times when I am critiquing the misogynistic extremes of the movement.”

Clearly, Turner is a critical thinker who has refused to swallow the pro-Mermaid ideology, namely that gender-non-conforming children are transgender and should be referred for medical treatment, as opposed to being allowed to be who they are. Newspapers such as the Mirror publish uncritical and extremely positive stories on the lobby group.

Another committed ally keeping Owen Jones company on the trans issue at the Guardian is commissioning editor Chris Godfrey. He tweeted that he considered one article by Turner in The Times to be “vile transphobic trash”. Turner has impressed medical professionals and human rights defenders alike for exposing the misogyny and anti-lesbian bullying that can lead to young women developing self-hatred and a desire to escape their biology. With transitioning becoming more and more normalised and easier to access, increasing numbers will now opt to become trans men.

Godfrey, who I discovered has blocked me on Twitter despite my having had no interaction with him, was a staunch defender of James Makings, the man responsible for appointing transgender model Munroe Bergdorf as the LGBTQ ambassador for the children’s safeguarding charity NSPCC Childline. It soon transpired that Bergdorf had suggested that children having a hard time at home should get in touch privately over social media. A kerfuffle ensued and Bergdorf was dropped, with accusations of “transphobia!” appearing all over social media.

Makings, who happens to be gay, had made amateur porn of himself masturbating in the toilets at his job at the NSPCC. Makings, who told his viewers that he had gone to work that morning wearing his rubber fetish gear under his regular clothes, eventually came under scrutiny by his superiors for his behaviour after feminists and child protection experts asked reasonable questions as to Makings’s suitability for his role at a children’s charity.

Godfrey tweeted in response to the calls to fire Makings: “Transphobes are now targeting the gay man who hired Munroe Bergdorf at the NSPCC because they found pictures of him online in fetish gear. The assumption is that because he is a gay man who is into fetish gear he cannot be safe around kids. This is homophobia at its most vile.”

Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth

The “vile, transphobic trash” written by Janice Turner on the massive increase in young girls transitioning turned out to be a vital piece of journalism for those many professionals who had serious concerns about the huge spike in their number. Turner revealed that “teachers noting a sudden clique of transitioning girls, parents whose girls abruptly identified as boys and several senior gender specialists . . . all wish to remain anonymous for fear they will be accused of transphobia, vilified, even sacked”.

It was also one of the catalysts for the recently-launched movement to support “de-transitioners” — young lesbians who medically transitioned to live as men and later regretted it. Charlie Evans, founder of the Detransition Advocacy Network, told me: “Turner’s piece, and the work of other journalists that dare to expose the reality of medically transitioning, helped me and dozens of other young women recognise that they could live as happy lesbians, and that testosterone and double mastectomies are not the solution.”

Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth. Capitulating fearfully and in advance to bullies — those who seek to control the agenda through instilling fear and issuing threats of retribution — is the opposite of what journalism is meant to do. This issue has put the spotlight on who has courage and who is a coward — and on news you’ll find reported in some places but not in others.

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