"The search for the mot juste is not a pedantic fad but a vital necessity. Words are our precision tools. Imprecision engenders ambiguity and hours are wasted in removing verbal misunderstandings before the argument of substance can begin."
Anonymous Civil Servant.

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.


On 26 October 2021, the BBC News website posted a long article headed “‘We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women’”. The original ran to about 3,800 words. By way of contrast, I checked the approximate word count of the top line news articles on the site on 16 November 2021 and found them to run between about 500 and 1,000 words. Without going into extensive research, that's about the usual lengths for BBC News website articles regardless of the topic.

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.

On 24 February 2022, the BBC sent me this email:  "Thank you for getting in touch again about our article 'We're being pressured into sex by some trans women' [with link, suggesting it is still up] and please accept our apologies for the very long and regrettable delay in our response. Before addressing the detail of your complaint, we want to assure you that we recognise the strength of the response to this article and have listened closely to all of the comments we have received following publication. A number of complainants have written to us to ask whether the BBC is always sufficiently sensitive and thoughtful when exploring issues that cut across different minority groups. Others have suggested we could provide greater context in our coverage so that audiences have a fuller understanding of the issues being reported on. We agree that in future we can do more to provide additional context. It is vital that BBC programming is able to independently explore issues impartially - including viewpoints that some audiences will consider challenging. But, alongside this commitment, we will also reflect carefully on the feedback we have received and continue our discussions with a range of groups, representing a wide range of perspectives, to help inform future coverage in these areas. As a result of the number of complaints we are addressing the main points in one reply. We understand most points about the original article relate to issues that include accuracy, due impartiality, harm and offence, and fairness. In response, we would reiterate that there was a legitimate editorial justification in commissioning the article, and it arose in response to audience feedback about another story. This article, which includes a range of testimony, is one piece in a body of work across the BBC which reflects many different issues and perspectives on the trans community and others.  The testimonies included in the article were personal and impressionistic, and the research study that was featured had limitations which were properly explained to the audience. It was conducted on social media and is therefore self-selecting. In addition, the author of the survey, who was contextualised in the preceding paragraph, admitted 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. The article was explicit throughout that the extent of the problem was unknown so a reader would not have been left with any misleading impression of the scale of the issue nor its frequency. We used the word “some” in the article since that clearly does not mean most nor all. Others quoted in the article said: “there is currently little data” and “we don’t have figures”. The article explicitly gives an insight into how it was constructed and the efforts made to secure testimony on what is a complex topic. Throughout the article the contributors were framed in proper context and we also included many relevant public expressions of opinion. The article also provided a duly balanced approach by linking to external sources and other articles. We believe that seeking the view of the LGB Alliance was a legitimate line of enquiry – as was seeking the view of Stonewall. In applying due impartiality to news, “we give due weight to events, opinion and the main strands of argument. We may produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate, as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so.” This article explored a range of viewpoints and perspectives - some first-hand testimony, some research and other public statements. The inclusion of views from Veronica Ivy, Stonewall, Planned Parenthood Toronto, Riley J Dennis and Roz Kaveney offered counterpoints to other contributions.In assessing if the article breached our standards on harm and offence, we believe the use of language was proportionate. Fair warning was also given to strong language contained in the article. The article also includes testimony from across the spectrum and their contributions are appropriately contextualised. With regards to the contributors featured, we conducted a number of interviews with a number of people and organisations over a number of months. Some contributions were editorially more significant and relevant to the main substance of the article than others. A sample of the interviews conducted were included in the final piece, but not all. The definition of ‘high profile’ is subjective and in the context of this article was used in terms of what high profile means to the wider population rather than a smaller proportion. There is no obligation upon the BBC to include a contributor purely on the basis that someone may wish us to do so, or indeed because a complaint about not having done so is received. The article was updated to remove a contribution from one individual in light of comments she published in blog posts in the days following publication. And we acknowledged that an admission of inappropriate behaviour by the same contributor should have been included in the original article. But the inclusion, or indeed the subsequent omission, of her contribution did not create a risk of readers being materially misled by the article. Her contribution was strictly limited to the circumstances around the origin of the phrase “cotton ceiling”. We appreciate that this may not be the response you were hoping for. If however you are still dissatisfied you can now contact the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). The ECU is Stage 2 of the BBC’s complaints process. You’ll need to explain why you think there’s a potential breach of standards, or if the issue is significant and should still be investigated. Please do so within 20 working days of this reply. Full details of how we handle complaints are available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/handle-complaint/. How to contact the ECU: We’ve provided a unique link for you in this email. This will open up further information about how to submit your complaint. You’ll be asked for the case reference number we’ve provided in this reply. Once you’ve used the link and submitted your complaint, the link will no longer work."

On 25 February 2022, I responded: "The BBC’s second response has again failed to address my concerns about this website “news” article. The framing of the article gives the impression that an unknown number of trans women are coercing lesbians into having sex with them at alarming levels. The BBC’s response now claims that because the article signposted the paucity in both the “quantitative” (the survey) and qualitative information (the “testimonies”) that “a reader would not have been left with any misleading impression of the scale of the issue nor its frequency”. This is disingenuous and goes to the heart of my complaint. If what is contained within the BBC’s second general response is true, then an appropriate news article could have read something like: “In covering the divisive issues concerning trans people, the BBC was told that there are incidents of trans women coercing lesbians into having sex with them. Following exhaustive investigation, the BBC was unable to source any credible data on this matter, and cannot find any indication of the scale or frequency of the allegations.” This is unambiguous. Instead, as I pointed out twice in my complaint previously, the article is written in an obfuscating style padded out with insinuations and opinions rather than facts, includes poor data (which is acknowledged to be poor, but why include it in the first place?), contains no contextualising data (for example, national data on sexual assaults or similar reports to police in England and Wales), and is long (yet according to the BBC’s second response, demands a reader to be across unlinked BBC content as well as multiple external links). All of this raises the obvious question: why publish the article the way it was published under the “News” banner? To reiterate my original complaint, which has not been addressed, 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."

Further update: on 31 May 2022, the BBC's head of their Executive Complaints Unit provided a general response. To quote it in full:

We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women, bbc.co.uk Finding by the Head of the Executive Complaints Unit (ECU)
31 May 2022

Complaint
The ECU has received a significant number of complaints about the above article on the BBC News website. Complainants have raised a wide range of concerns about the accuracy and impartiality of the article and its capacity to cause harm and offence. Each complaint has been read and considered.

The ECU usually issues an individual response to each complaint it receives but the BBC’s published policy for handling complaints provides for BBC to reply to a number of complaints about the same issue by compiling a summary of the main points raised, considering them together and producing a single response. On this occasion we have therefore decided to issue a single response, in the form of a finding by the Head of the ECU, which addresses all the significant points of complaint (though not necessarily in the terms in which individual complainants have formulated them) and which assesses them against the BBC’s editorial standards, as set out in its Editorial Guidelines and related Guidance. This means some points raised by individual complainants may not be addressed directly but we believe the approach is proportionate and the most effective way to ensure value for money for all licence fee payers.

In the course of this finding the terms “lesbians” and “trans women” have been used to differentiate between the groups highlighted in the article complained of, not to imply that they are mutually exclusive categories.

Outcome
Issues of complaint
Impartiality

Complainants raised two distinct issues in relation to impartiality:

1. that the concept of “due impartiality” (defined in the Editorial Guidelines as “adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation”) does not justify the inclusion in the article of contributions from people or organisations considered by complainants to be transphobic;

2. that the article did not include the range of viewpoints necessary for impartial coverage of a controversial subject, about which the Editorial Guidelines say:

A ‘controversial subject’ may be a matter of public policy or political or industrial controversy. It may also be a controversy within religion, science, finance, culture, ethics or any other matter.

In determining whether subjects are controversial, we should take account of:

·     the level of public and political contention and debate
·     how topical the subject is
·     sensitivity in terms of relevant audiences’ beliefs and culture
·     whether the subject is a matter of intense debate or importance in a particular nation, region, community or discrete area likely to comprise at least a significant part of the audience
·     a reasonable view on whether the subject is serious
·     the distinction between matters grounded in fact and those which are a matter of opinion.

When dealing with ‘controversial subjects’, we must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence, particularly when the controversy is active.

In relation to 1, some complainants offered an analogy between racist or homophobic views and the inclusion of views they considered transphobic, pointing out that due impartiality does not require representation of the racist or homophobic viewpoints when race or sexual orientation are the subject of news coverage. The Head of the ECU considered these analogies unhelpful because of the extent to which there remains controversy about what constitutes a transphobic view, the controversy itself reflecting the extent to which it is argued that claims by or on behalf of trans people conflict with claims by or on behalf of other groups which have suffered prejudice, disadvantage or victimisation. He therefore did not accept that the inclusion of the contributions objected to could not be justified in terms of due impartiality – though how far impartiality was in fact at issue here is a question considered below.

In relation to 2, it is important to be clear about the subject addressed by the article, which was probably the first in mainstream UK media to explore the reported experience of some lesbians of pressure to have sex with trans women. Whether there are or are not concerns in this area is not a controversial topic, but a question of fact. The evidence included in the article (even without reference to other evidence gathered by the author but not included) was such as to establish that there are such concerns. It might well have been foreseen that reporting of this fact would give rise to controversy, for example about the incidence or significance of the phenomenon reported on, but that does not make it of itself a “controversial subject” requiring the inclusion of “a wide range of significant views and perspectives” to be reflected.

The topic of the article nevertheless relates to a subject which could be regarded as controversial because it is a matter of “debate or importance in a particular…community”, namely whether the preference of some lesbians not to have trans women as sexual partners is legitimate or, as some argue, a manifestation of transphobia. The author approached a number of people and organisations who might have given voice to that view but, apart from Stonewall (which provided a statement which was reflected in the article), they did not wish to contribute. Their views were nonetheless represented on the basis of what they had already said on the public record, either in the body of the article (in the case of Stonewall and Veronica Ivy) or in the section headed “Who else was approached?”. The Head of the ECU considered this sufficient to meet the requirements of due impartiality insofar as they applied to the article.

Accuracy

The Editorial Guidelines say:

The BBC is committed to achieving due accuracy in all its output…The term ‘due’ means that the accuracy must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation

The principal issue of complaint in relation to accuracy was that the evidential basis for suggesting pressure from trans women posed a significant problem for lesbians was inadequate. In this connection, the Head of the ECU noted that the headline “We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women” (which was not written by the author of the article) gave the impression that the focus of the article would be on pressure applied by trans women, whereas its focus was at least as much on internalised pressure experienced by some lesbians as a result of a climate of opinion (as they perceived it) within the LGBT community, rather than pressure directly applied by trans women. Only one of the named contributors who spoke about their own experiences[1] implicated a trans woman as a possible source of pressure, and that was in a context in which she had already internalised the belief that lesbians should be open to dating trans women (similarly, the unnamed respondent to a Get the L Out questionnaire who claimed to have been raped by a trans woman described herself as already “brainwashed by queer theory”). In the Head of the ECU’s view the headline gave a somewhat misleading impression of the article itself, and it appeared from many of the complaints that this had contributed to an understanding of the article as more focused on the conduct of trans women than was in fact the case. To that extent, it fell below the BBC’s standards of due accuracy.

Complaints also drew attention to article’s inclusion of data produced by Get The L Out in 2019 (on the basis of the survey mentioned above). The BBC’s Editorial Guidance on “Opinion polls, surveys, questionnaires, votes and ‘straw polls’” says:

When a survey has been commissioned by an outside body with an interest in the issue, the audience should be told and we should exercise real scepticism in how we treat it… If [surveys] are of no statistical value and appear to have been promoted only to generate attention for a particular cause or publication, we should exercise real scepticism and consider not using them at all, especially when they are concerned with serious or controversial issues.

The Get the L Out questionnaire’s findings, as reported in the article (for example, that 56% of those who responded “reported being pressured or coerced to accept a trans woman as a sexual partner”) tended to give the impression that pressure to have sex with trans women, whether from individual trans women or from an activist consensus, was a widespread, or even a majority, experience among lesbians. In the Head of the ECU’s judgement, however, it provided an insufficient basis for that impression. The questionnaire was sent to a small number of “women only” and “lesbian only” groups, and only around a third of its 80 respondents were from the UK. The article included some caveats, for example by acknowledging that “the sample may not be representative of the wider lesbian community” and by describing Get the L Out as an organisation whose members “believe the rights of lesbians are being ignored by much of the current LGBT movement” and which had been accused of "bigotry, ignorance and hate". However, these did not seem to us to go far enough to make clear to readers the survey’s lack of statistical validity or the extent to which Get the L Out has an agenda (as an organisation which believes “transactivism erases lesbians, and silences and demonises lesbians who dare to speak out”) which the results of the survey appeared to serve. To the extent that the article failed to exercise the appropriate degree of scepticism in its treatment of the survey, it fell below the BBC’s standards of due accuracy.

With these two points in mind, the Head of the ECU went on to consider the argument put by a number of complainants that the article conveyed an impression of the scale and seriousness of the issue it explored which went beyond what could be justified on the basis of its evidence, which was principally anecdotal and, insofar as it emanated from organisations and individuals with an anti-trans agenda, to be viewed with scepticism. He agreed that the article’s evidence base was not such as to support the impression that “being pressured into sex” was a widespread experience for lesbians in the context of their relations with trans women, and noted the following statements in the article cited by complainants as giving the impression that it was:

Several people got in touch with me to say there was a "huge problem" for lesbians, who were being pressured to "accept the idea that a penis can be a female sex organ". (Author)

We know a minority, but still a sizeable minority of trans women, do pressure lesbians to go out with them and have sex with them… (Bev Jackson, LGB Alliance)

Though he accepted that both statements were capable of conveying the impression complained of, there were factors which seemed to him to qualify the extent to which they would have done so. In the first case, the view that there was “a huge problem” was clearly attributed to people who had contacted the author after reading a previous article of hers[2], so was not presented as a conclusion of the author’s. In the second, the author went on to question the contributor on the basis for saying “a sizeable minority”, which drew an admission from the contributor that “We have no figures”. Taking these qualifications together with the author’s acknowledgement towards the beginning of the article that, in the virtual absence of research, “it has been difficult to determine the true scale of the problem”, the Head of the ECU did not believe the statements cited above would have added significantly to the misleading impression arising from the article’s headline and its treatment of the Get The L Out survey, and he found no further breach of due accuracy in this respect.

Some complainants argued that it was inaccurate and misleading for the author to write “In addition to Veronica Ivy, I contacted several other high profile trans women who have either written or spoken about sex and relationships. None of them wanted to speak to me”, on the grounds that Chelsea Poe had agreed to be interviewed (though, in the event, no extracts from the interview were used in the article[3]). Whether the description “high profile” fits a particular trans woman is clearly a matter of judgement, in which there may be a subjective element. So, although the Head of the ECU accepted that some would regard Chelsea Poe as fitting the description, he did not believe it would be a serious inaccuracy to describe her otherwise. Nor did he believe the question materially affected the point being made by the author, based as it was on contacting ten trans women she regarded as high profile, and who would have represented the view that lesbians should be open to dating trans women with penises, none of whom agreed to be interviewed. He noted that the views of some of them, drawn from what they had put on the public record, were reflected in the section of the article introduced by the passage quoted above (“Who else was approached?”).

Harm and Offence

The principal issue of complaint for many was that the article presented a harmful and negative stereotype in relation to the behaviour of trans women, and in doing so was transphobic.

The BBC’s guidelines on Harm and Offence and Portrayal say that content broadcast or published by the BBC may reflect, but should not perpetuate, the prejudice which exists in our society; and that output which includes views which might incite hatred or cause offence must have a clear editorial justification and include appropriate challenge and/or appropriate context.

In judging how far the article complied with these editorial standards, the Head of the ECU first considered the extent to which it concerned behaviour which would be likely to convey a harmful and negative impression of those said to be engaged in it. He noted that, though the concept of pressure to have sex, invoked by the headline, could be regarded as implying impropriety on the part of those supposedly applying the pressure, there is nevertheless a distinction between coercion (which would generally be regarded as reprehensible) and persuasion or advocacy and that there could well be instances where one party experienced as pressure what the other party regarded in good faith as legitimate persuasion. The article included one instance of behaviour which could only be regarded as coercive (if accurately reported), in the case of the unnamed respondent to the Get The L Out questionnaire who claimed to have been raped by a trans woman, but there was no suggestion that this reflected on the behaviour of trans women in general. In the only other case implicating a trans woman as a possible source of pressure the contributor (“Chloe”) offered no reflection on the trans woman’s conduct beyond allowing the inference that she had persisted in her attentions despite the contributor “repeatedly explaining she was not interested”, and described the pressure she experienced mainly in terms of her own response to “the language of the time” and what she took to be the prevalent attitude in LBGT community.

While the Head of the ECU acknowledged that some might consider such an attitude reprehensible on account of the experience of pressure to which it apparently contributed in the case of some contributors to the article, this is clearly not the view of those who argue that the preference of some lesbians not to have trans women as sexual partners is a manifestation of transphobia – a viewpoint illustrated by the quotations in the “Who else was approached?” section of the article. He therefore concluded that (with the exception of the sole claim of rape) the article did not impute to trans women, in general or individually, behaviour which can only be regarded as reprehensible, and that in the eyes of many trans women and advocates it is the preference of some lesbians, rather than the conduct of those who seek relationships with them, which is open to criticism. It follows from this that the Head of the ECU did not believe the article presented a harmful and negative stereotype in relation to the behaviour of trans women, risked inciting hatred or gave reasonable grounds for offence. It also follows that the elements of inaccuracy identified earlier in this finding would not have contributed towards the creation of a harmful or negative stereotype, even though they may have conduced to an exaggerated impression of the incidence of the concerns addressed in the article.

Some complainants raised an additional concern that providing a link to the report from Get the L Out was a breach of the BBC’s standards, in that the report contains offensive and transphobic language. The relevant BBC Guidance says that where BBC content offers links to external sites, concerns about “potential breaches of the law” should be taken into account, and that in some cases it may be appropriate to add a specific disclaimer or otherwise alert the user to controversial or challenging material.

The guidance does not say links to potentially offensive material should never be provided, or that an explicit warning should always offered. The text on the page made clear the organisation was considered by some to be transphobic, and the report itself was described in terms which made the controversy attaching to it clear:

While welcomed by some in the LGBT community, Angela’s report was described as transphobic by others.

“[People said] we are worse than rapists because we [supposedly] try to frame every trans woman as a rapist,” said Angela.

Given this context it is unlikely anyone following the link (to a page hosting the report, rather than the report itself) would have been unprepared for encountering language of the kind complained of. Accordingly the Head of the ECU did not believe the inclusion of the link or the omission of a specific disclaimer about it amounted to a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards.

Some complainants drew attention to what they regarded as misgendering or bioessentialist language offensive to trans people. Of the examples given, one seemed to the Head of the ECU to rest on a misconception. The contributor “Jennie” was quoted as saying “I've had someone saying they would rather kill me than Hitler…They said they would strangle me with a belt if they were in a room with me and Hitler. That was so bizarrely violent, just because I won't have sex with trans women”, and her use of “they” was understood by some as deliberately casting doubt on the gender of a trans woman. However, “Jennie” said nothing to indicate that the comments in question were made by a trans woman, and the Head of the ECU saw no basis for assuming that they had been. Consequently, he did not accept that this was an instance of misgendering. Other examples included contributors referring to trans women as “biologically male” or having “male” characteristics, but in no instance did this amount to a denial that trans women were women in fact and in law. While the Head of the ECU appreciated that such references were nevertheless capable of giving offence, he believed their inclusion was warranted by the editorial intention of providing insight into the experience and feelings of the contributors concerned. He found no example of misgendering or bioessentialist language in the author’s own words.

A number of complainants argued it was inappropriate for the article (in its original form) to include an interview with the lesbian porn star and director Lily Cade, on the basis of her previous sexual conduct and the transphobic views she posted online after the BBC article was published. Those responsible for the BBC article have said they were unaware of Ms Cade’s transphobic views before the article was published and claim there was no reasonable basis on which the views she subsequently expressed could be foreseen. They have confirmed there was no indication in their dealings with her which would have alerted them to the fact she held particular views about trans women, or might have any mental health issues. They acknowledged, however, that she had admitted to behaviour which she now recognised as sexually abusive in a Zoom conversation in September 2020, which had escaped attention by the time the article was ready for publication over a year later. In the context of the article, this information would have helped readers to judge her comments in the light of her own actions, and it was regrettable that it was not included. Once the issues of Ms Cade’s sexual conduct and subsequent online comments came to light, however, her contribution was removed from the article, and the following update was added to it on 4 November 2021:

We have updated this article, published last week, to remove a contribution from one individual in light of comments she has published on blog posts in recent days, which we have been able to verify.

We acknowledge that an admission of inappropriate behaviour by the same contributor should have been included in the original article.

The Head of the ECU judged this to be an appropriate response in the circumstances, and sufficient to resolve the issues of complaint in this respect. A number of complainants considered the update did not give sufficient detail of the reason why Ms Cade’s contribution had been removed but the BBC has to consider how to describe offensive material without repeating and perpetuating any offence it may cause, and the Head of the ECU believed the absence of detail was justified in this instance.

Also in this connection, some complainants referred to claims that the BBC should have been aware of the issues in connection with Ms Cade because Chelsea Poe had referred to them in her interview with the author. The Head of the ECU listened to a recording of the entire interview and found that Ms Poe referred to Ms Cade in the context of her experience seven years previously when considering an offer of work from a production company for whom Ms Cade was directing films, but did not do so in terms which suggested Ms Cade was transphobic and did not mention her admission of sexual abuse. Accordingly the Head of the ECU found no basis for the claims that Ms Poe had alerted to the BBC to the relevant issued in relation to Ms Cade.

Summary of findings

The Head of the ECU found that the article, though a legitimate piece of journalism overall, fell below the BBC’s standards of accuracy in two respects: the headline gave the misleading impression that the focus of the article would be on pressure applied by trans women, and the treatment of the survey conducted by Get the L Out did not make sufficiently clear that it lacked statistical validity. He also found a breach of standards in connection with one contribution to the article (subsequently removed) which he considered to have been appropriately addressed by an update added to the article. The complaints were therefore partly upheld in relation to accuracy and resolved in relation to the deleted contribution.



[1] “Chloe”

[2] “Sex, lies and legal consent: Can deceit turn sex into rape?”, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-49127545

[3] Some complainants asked for an explanation of why the interview was not used. Having listened to the recording, we agree with the author that it contained nothing which shed such light on the issues addressed in the article as to warrant inclusion.

Further action
The headline and text of the article were amended to reflect the finding.
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So, a partial victory. Of course, the article in its most damaging forms has existed online for over six months. 

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