Exam date

When's the 2016 exam? Wednesday 8th June, am.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Burchill trans column: PCC + 3rd party complaints

Burchill's column attracted 1000s of comments + complaints. Pic source.
NB: The Observer was bought by The Guardian Media Group in 1993, and so is what you'd term its Sunday sister paper.
[Scroll to the bottom for an update, March 26th]

The PCC may have announced it was disbanding itself ... but it continues until such times as a post-Leveson successor body is set up. They've stepped into the row about Julie Burchill's Observer column, now removed from its website (a highly unusual step), which was seen to widely insult transgendered people.

Some key details:
  • Dealing with clause 12 (discrimination) + 1 (accuracy); the issue of 3rd party complaints; the right to offend; the difference between columns and editorial: there are some links with the Iain Dale case (2010); Jan Moir's Gately column (2009), AA Gill's column on Clare Balding (2010) etc
  • Read all of Roy Greenslade's columns on this here
  • Burchill wrote a column for The Observer, sister paper to The Guardian;
  • She and it were known for featuring controversial views;
  • A January 2013 column set out to attack transsexual 'trolls' of her colleague Suzanne Moore, another columnist;
  • the column featured strong derogatory terms for describing transsexuals ("screaming mimis", "bed-wetters in bad wigs" and "dicks in chicks' clothing")
  • the paper received 1,000s of complaints; there were over 2,000 comments below the article
  • the PCC received 800 complaints
  • the topic trended on Twitter
  • they don't usual respond to 3rd party complaints but did in this case because of the public interest
  • PCC Editors' Code clause 12 states:
12 Discrimination

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
  • The Guardian, exceptionally, removed the article from their website (Greenslade argues this was wrong)
  • A (Lib Dem) government minister (Featherstone) called for both her and the editor to be sacked
  • An Independent readers poll saw 90% deem the article offensive
  • It attracted a protest outside the Guardian offices:
An internal Observer inquiry, conducted by the readers' editor, Stephen Pritchard, accepted that the column had broken the paper's own code, which states that it "should not casually use words that are likely to offend". He said that it was published due to "a collective failure of editing".
Days later, a peaceful protest about the publication was staged outside the offices of The Observer and The Guardian.
The editors of both papers, along with other journalists (including me), have since been invited by a transgender group, On Road, to meet young trans people in order to understand the problems they face. [source]
Clearly, the PCC decided that Burchill's column, despite her colourful choice of language, could not be deemed to be prejudicial. In other words, she had a right to be offensive.
Reading between the lines, I imagine the commission took the view that it was a matter of taste and therefore lay within the editor's prerogative.

(SOME OF) ROY GREENSLADE'S COLUMNS ON THIS
Here's Roy Greenslade covering the PCC's intercession:
Columnist Julie Burchill attracted 1,000s of online comments
The Press Complaints Commission is to launch an inquiry into the publication of Julie Burchill's controversial column in The Observer that caused outrage among transgender people. The commission decided to act after receiving 800 complaints.
Though the PCC does not generally take up what are called third-party complaints, it has done so on occasions when it feels there is sufficient public interest in doing so.
Similarly, although the commission has been reluctant to investigate stories that involve groups of people in which no individual is identified, it has done so in the past.

In its 2003 statement on asylum seekers and refugees, the PCC made it clear that it would consider complaints about inaccuracy and the use of "misleading or distorted terminology".
A clause in the editors' code of practice, the one about discrimination, will also surely be relevant in the Burchill affair. It states that the press "must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability".
The Observer's readers' editor, Stephen Pritchard, has announced his own internal inquiry into how the column came to be published and may also touch on why it was later taken down from the website on the orders of the editor, John Mulholland.
More later if possible
There have already been many articles on this and will be many more, but here's Greenslade again, 4 days earlier, setting out the issue, with the news hook of a government minister calling for both Burchill and The Observer editor to be sacked:
A government minister has called for Observer columnist Julie Burchill to be fired because of her column on Sunday in which she attacked transgender people.
Lynne Featherstone, the international development minister who was once equalities minister, took to Twitter to denounce Burchill – a freelance writer – for her "absolutely disgusting… rant against the transgender community". She described it as "a bigoted vomit" and called for The Observer to sack her.
Featherstone, a Lib-Dem MP, then suggested in another tweet that the paper's editor, John Mulholland, should be sacked too for publishing the column.
The online version of Burchill's column attracted more than 2,000 comments, with the majority opposing the writer, and the Twittersphere was deluged from yesterday morning onwards with people arguing for and against Burchill.
The heated debate prompted The Observer's readers' editor, Stephen Pritchard, to step in and announce that he will hold an inquiry into the matter. He wrote:
"As you might imagine, I have received many emails protesting about this piece this morning. Thank you to those who have written. I will be looking at this issue and will be replying to all in due course."
And Guardian News & Media also issued a statement. A spokeswoman said: "We acknowledge the strong reaction to Julie Burchill's piece published in The Observer. As indicated by Observer editor John Mulholland on Twitter, we are taking such reactions extremely seriously and we have asked our independent readers' editor to urgently investigate the matter."
Burchill's piece was written in defence of her friend and fellow writer, Suzanne Moore, who attracted hostility on Twitter for suggesting in a New Statesman article that women were too often expected to look like "a Brazilian transsexual". Moore then said she was quitting the social networking site because of the abuse she had received.
In her column, Burchill wrote of transgender people as "screaming mimis", "bed-wetters in bad wigs" and "dicks in chicks' clothing". She added that "the very vociferous transsexual lobby and their grim groupies" reminded her of "wretched inner-city kids who shoot another inner-city kid dead in a fast-food shop for not showing them enough 'respect'".
She also compared the attacks on Moore to "the Black and White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run".
Observer readers responded by describing Burchill's attack on transgender people as "vile, "shameful" and "disgusting".
And a poll conducted among online readers of The Independent resulted in 90% deeming Burchill's article as offensive.
NB: Julie Burchill is a freelance contributor to The Observer rather than a staff member.
• The original article was amended on Monday 14 January 2013 to replace the word "transsexuals" with "transgender people"
I'll return to this in due course, when the PCC have delivered their judgement.
...
And now they have; here's Roy Greenslade's analysis, packed as always with further hyperlinks:

PCC rejects complaints about Burchill's transgender column


The Press Complaints Commission, having considered objections about an Observer column by Julie Burchill that caused outrage among transgender people, has decided there was no breach of the editors' code of practice.
The PCC looked into the matter after receiving 800 complaints about the column, which was removed from The Guardian website following widespread criticism.
The Observer's editor, John Mulholland, also issued an apology to trans people, saying the newspaper had "got it wrong" in publishing the article in January this year.
But the PCC did not believe the column - which referred to transgender people as "screaming mimis", "bed-wetters in bad wigs" and "dicks in chicks' clothing" - breached the editors' code.
Though the commission does not generally entertain what are called third-party complaints, it felt there was sufficient public interest in this case to consider the matter.
A clause in the editors' code, about discrimination, states that the press "must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability".
Clearly, the PCC decided that Burchill's column, despite her colourful choice of language, could not be deemed to be prejudicial. In other words, she had a right to be offensive.
Reading between the lines, I imagine the commission took the view that it was a matter of taste and therefore lay within the editor's prerogative.
An internal Observer inquiry, conducted by the readers' editor, Stephen Pritchard, accepted that the column had broken the paper's own code, which states that it "should not casually use words that are likely to offend". He said that it was published due to "a collective failure of editing".
Days later, a peaceful protest about the publication was staged outside the offices of The Observer and The Guardian.
The editors of both papers, along with other journalists (including me), have since been invited by a transgender group, On Road, to meet young trans people in order to understand the problems they face.
Looking back again, here's Greenslade again (16th January) with an argument that the article should not have been taken down from the Guardian website:
Several people have emailed me, or called, to ask what I think about the latest Julie Burchill drama.
Her Observer column, in which she insulted transsexuals, was taken down from the website because the editor, John Mulholland, said the paper had "got it wrong."
Now we await the result of an inquiry into the affair by The Observer's readers' editor, Stephen Pritchard. Presumably he will discover how and why it happened.
Without wishing to give yet more ammunition to outraged transsexuals, I do not believe the column should have been withdrawn.
That's not to say I was entirely happy about the original content. The generalised attack on a minority was obviously offensive (and inaccurate). But I admit it didn't strike me as unduly outrageous when I first read it.
One key reason for that is my expectation every time I read a piece by Burchill that she will do exactly what she is hired for - to provoke controversy. Nobody does it better (or should that be worse?)
But her piece could and should have been edited in such a way that she got her central argument across - about the ill-treatment on Twitter of her friend, Suzanne Moore - without being so hateful about people who feel so marginalised.
I explain more of my feelings about the episode in my column in today's London Evening Standard.

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