I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. A print journalist, or possibly radio. Not TV. My family had journalist friends, so I was able to ask them for advice. This was during the 1980s and early 1990s in Australia, but their advice holds true even now: wait to get some life experience before pursuing, be wary of specialist journalism courses (and always get a general degree first), and keep an eye on the industry because it’s undergoing a lot of change, and not all of it for the good.
That last bit was mostly about certain individuals who went on global buying sprees of news media. Those individuals modernised production methods across their growing empires operating throughout the English-speaking world, and concentrated on maximising profit. Local newspapers started to disappear, and the stable of journalists working for the national newspapers shrank. One or two of these individuals arguably got a bit giddy on their personal access to politicians, prime ministers, princes, and presidents. Journalistic and editorial ethics took quite a few hits, but that’s not a uniform thing.
For those reasons, I was glad to stumble into another career where I could exercise my research and writing skills, and do some good in the world.
My career, funnily enough, gave me the tools to critically appraise the news and current affairs media, and for several reasons resulted in me no longer watching or listening to news broadcasts, and rarely reading news articles. I prefer to get my news from the source — and one of the good things about the internet is my ability to do so. Later, if I desire, I can read detailed analyses from people who understand the topic to get their perspectives.
Put simply, the news media adds a layer of interpretation on an event being reported. That interpretation is, I think, often benign in intention, but not always. Much has been written about the choices made to run a story or not, how the headlines frame the piece, what’s included in the piece, and what is left out, as well as the narrative told in the story itself — both text (written or spoken) and images.
All news media is biased for the simple reason that all human beings are biased, but some news media organisations are better than others at mitigating those biases. My own bias is to prefer public service news media for the simple reason that the commercial warp and weft don’t apply even as other political pressures do (rarely party political, despite a lot of agitation over decades).
Two last points of note: I was awarded my BA Honours degree in part because of a thesis I wrote about Australia's public service broadcaster and its take on political impartiality in broadcasting. About a decade later I worked in the NSW Police specifically on sex-based crimes, a topic I revisited a few times during my career in the UK in the criminal justice arena. In other words, I know a little about what I am writing about in this column.
I saw a few tweets by people I don’t know in real life before this article appeared. They were wary about a potential BBC article raising an old controversy of which I knew little about, and contacted the BBC journalist to point them at the rebuttals. A few days later, I saw a link to the published article, which I read with mounting horror. I wrote a complaint on 26 October 2021 and sent it to the BBC. I include it in full:
"Inflaming an issue through poor data use
"The framing of this article gives the impression that trans women are coercing lesbians into having sex with them at alarming levels. All cases of sexual coercion is wrong, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, age, etc. However, the actual data used belies the overall impression given of the seriousness of the problem. Only two specific examples are presented with any journalistic credibility; other 'case studies' are vague and at best bump the numbers up to about six. Those other 'case studies' don't say where or when the alleged incidents occurred, and there does not appear to be any journalistic testing of the stories told. Most of the interviewees use sweeping statements that correctly state that such behaviour is wrong, but they do not give specific examples. The only attempt at quantification is an online survey of 80 respondents conducted by a politically motivated person. The article makes no attempt to explain that all surveys like this are far from representational; the sample is too small, and skewed because of how they were reached. I could run a similar survey on social media, get a similar number of responses, but have almost none claim sexual coercion by trans women and it would be as meaningless as the one quoted for the same reasons. The article does not cite national data on sexual assaults or similar reports to police in England and Wales. This would have been useful for context. Nor does it cite rates of sexualised violence against trans women and trans men, which also would be useful for context. Vague insinuations such as those contained in the article, and the article taken as a whole, are dangerous to minority sexualities, as has been demonstrated repeatedly through history. My concern is that both lesbians and trans women are at risk of potential retaliatory violence."
On 1 November 2021, I received an email from the BBC in response:
"Thank you for getting in touch. We have received a wide range of feedback from those who find the article challenging as well as those who welcome its publication. The article was carefully considered before publication, went through a rigorous editorial review process and fully complies with the BBC’s editorial guidelines and standards. Some argue that the article is flawed because it is “based on a survey of 80 people”. The article itself states there is little research in this area; that the survey featured was conducted on social media and is therefore self-selecting; and even the author of the survey admits it may not be a representative sample. Furthermore, there is a link to the detail of the findings which enables the reader to make up their own minds about the replies the sample generated. But the article is more than just the survey. The journalist’s work involved months of speaking to many people about the topic and the article includes testimony from a range of different sources and provides appropriate context. As a public service broadcaster we explore a wide range of issues and perspectives. And we believe it deals with a matter worthy of investigation. We have a strong commitment to impartiality, which means we constantly consider and evaluate which stories to cover and how. Impartiality is fundamental, and includes covering stories on any point of the spectrum of debate. And stories should be seen not just individually, but in the broader context of our wider coverage. The piece has prompted many complaints and many appreciations and we will consider all feedback carefully."
On 2 November 2021, I responded:
"The BBC's response did not address my concerns about the website article. I take particular issue at these statements in the reply: 'But the article is more than just the survey. The journalist’s work involved months of speaking to many people about the topic and the article includes testimony from a range of different sources and provides appropriate context.' My complaint highlighted the significant deficits in all of the material used in the article, not only the survey. The impression given by the article is that there is an alarming epidemic of trans women sexually coercing lesbians to have sex, but when parsing the information cited in the article, the numbers are tiny - about six, but because of the obfuscating style of the piece, it's impossible to determine further. (The cited survey must be disregarded because of the reasons given in the article, my complaint, and the BBC's response to my complaint - which rather does raise the question about its inclusion in the first place.) I also highlighted how the article did not in fact provide appropriate context to this issue and suggested data to include. Finally, the BBC's response completely ignores my stated concern about the impact of articles such as this in increasing the risk of retaliatory violence against both lesbians and trans women."
On 10 November 2021, I received this email from the BBC:
"This is to inform you that although we normally aim to investigate and reply at this next stage of the complaints service within 20 working days (around four weeks), we are currently dealing with a higher than normal volume of cases. This means it will take a little longer to reply to you at present. We hope you understand that this is why we are unable to respond within our normal service times. We will of course do so as soon as we can, but in the meantime ask you not to contact us further and apologise if you experience further delay."
On 22 December 2021, the BBC again sent an email stating that they were yet to reply. They suggested that I could escalate the matter to Ofcom. At this stage, I have not.