Fair Play For Women has submitted a total of six complaints to the independent press regulator, IPSO, about inaccurate reporting of sex. We are now publishing the dialogue between ourselves and IPSO (see Appendix) from our most recent complaint on 8th October 2020 to help the public understand the arguments and decision-making processes.
Our premise is that sex must always be reported accurately when sex is relevant and important to the reader’s understanding of a story. This is particularly important when newspapers report on male-pattern crimes such as violent and sexual assault.
“Former female PCSO, 34, who now works as staff member at Lincolnshire Police is charged with making explosives and importing weapons after raid on her house” published by Mail Online on 8th October 2020 (complaint #28445-20)
Brief overview of the complaint
On the 8th October the Mail Online published a story about the arrest of an individual charged with making explosives. The headline and text misled readers by referring to the individual as ‘female’ when in fact the sex of that person was male. This was despite the fact the sex of the individual was in the public domain (including open disclosure by the individual themselves on social media and at work).
We argued that the sex of the individual was important and relevant to the story because the vast majority of violent crimes, such as bomb-making, are committed by members of the male sex. It is rare for a member of the female sex to commit such crimes. Therefore getting the sex of the individual wrong is likely to make a material difference to a reader’s understanding of the story. The sex of the individual should either not have been mentioned or it should have been made clear this individual was not born female.
IPSO first rejected our complaint by finding no breach of accuracy because the article had accurately reported on statements made by the police. We have been offered this type of reasoning many times before in our complaints about court reporting where judges refer to gender identity as if it were sex. However, we contend that this nevertheless breaches Clause 1(iv) of the Editors’ Code that the press “must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”. It is now standard procedure for court officials and the police to refer to a person’s preferred gender identity if this differs from their sex. This means gendered terms and pronouns can never be relied upon by a reporter to confirm an individual’s sex and so it is inaccurate to report them as if they do.
In this particular complaint we challenged the reason for the rejection because at no point did the police refer to the individual’s sex as ‘female’. In all reported statements the police referred to the individual either by name or using sex-neutral terms such as “someone” or “a person”. Accurate reporting of the police statement would NOT have included the descriptor ‘female’ in the headline. For this reason there has been a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy).
We escalated our complaint to the Complaints Committee. The Committee has 12 members including Lord Edward Faulks, who is the Committee’s Chair. The complaint was again rejected but this time because the inaccuracy “did not significantly affect the central point of the article”.
We disagree with the premise that sex does not matter when reporting on violent crimes. It is in the public interest that news reporting does not distort the public’s understanding that male-pattern crimes are overwhelmingly committed by males and not females. Such misunderstandings have the potential to impact public policy and support for the provision of single-sex spaces for women and girls. One of the reasons women and girls have female-only facilities is to keep them safe from males; not because all males are dangerous but because some are, and ‘female-only’ is a simple and effective way to keep women and girls safe.
Future engagement with IPSO
We have now exhausted the complaint process in this instance but we will be continuing our work to highlight this problem with IPSO by extending our discussions and submitting further complaints as they arise.
Although we disagree with the Committee’s decision, we were nevertheless encouraged by the Committee’s acknowledgement in their response to us that newspapers must take into consideration “complexities, sensitives and nuances of the matter”.
It is now clear that IPSO’s transgender guidance, first published in 2015, is out of date and needs updating because it lacks any advice regarding these “complexities, sensitives and nuances”. It contains no advice on how newspapers should address the need for accurate reporting of sex when an individual’s sex is important and relevant to the story.
We therefore welcome the recent announcement made by the chief executive that IPSO will now be ‘refreshing’ their transgender guidance. As stakeholder representatives we will be offering our support to IPSO in this process to ensure the rights of women and girls are given due regard in press reporting of sex and gender. The needs of all stakeholder groups should be considered and fairly balanced in any future update of the guidance and we are looking forward to seeing the guidance evolve.
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Copy of the correspondence exchanged between IPSO and Fair Play For Women for our complaint dated 8th October 2020:
I would like to report a breach of Editor Code Clause 1 Accuracy: i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Headline: Former female PCSO, 34, who now works as a staff member at Lincolnshire Police is charged with making explosives and importing weapons after raid on her house” published on 7th October 2020 by Mail Online
Text “A former female police community support officer (PCSO) has been charged with making explosives and importing weapons after a raid on her house”
The headline and accompanying text is misleading because repeated use of the word ‘female’ means the majority of readers will understand this to mean someone who was born the female sex. It was not made clear at any point that this person was not born female but instead ‘identified as female’. This is an important distinction because it means the birth sex of this individual is male.
Readers will have been misled into believing the birth sex of this person is female rather than male. The birth sex of the individual would have been easy for the journalist to find. There was plenty of public domain information available revealing that the individual was a male-born person who identifies as transgender. Other newspapers were aware of this information on the same day of publication. Also, the subject Watts is known to run a trans awareness course for the police in which she delivers “personal accounts of the transgender experience and journey”. Watts also makes their transgender status known in publicly available you-tube videos. One such video is called “coming out with the lacerating glass bigot twatter (LGBT)” in which Watts is seen hitting a picture of feminist Germaine Greer with a glass encrusted baseball bat. By making their trans status clear they also make their male birth sex known.
The male birth sex of the individual is both relevant and important to the story. The individual has been charged with possession of prohibited weapons and making explosives. The overwhelming majority of all violent crimes are committed by people whose birth sex is male. It is rare for people whose birth sex is female to commit these types of crimes. It is therefore in the public interest not
to be misled about this individual’s birth sex so as not to distort public perception about the reality of these types of crimes. Sex should either not be mentioned or if it is then it should be made clear this individual was not born female.
Since this individual has made no attempt to hide their transgender status (and therefore their male birth sex) it cannot be argued that their right to privacy about their birth sex over rides the public interest to read accurate information about their birth sex when it is both important and relevant to the story.
The executive response:
Dear Dr Williams,
I write further to our earlier email regarding your complaint about an article headlined “Former female PCSO, 34, who now works as staff member at Lincolnshire Police is charged with making explosives and importing weapons after raid on her house”, published by Mail Online on 7 October 2020.
When IPSO receives a complaint, the Executive staff review it first to decide whether the complaint falls within our remit, and whether it raises a possible breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice. We have read your complaint carefully, and have decided that it does not raise a possible breach of the Editors’ Code.
You said that the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) by failing to refer to the fact that that Zoe Watts is a transgender woman. You said that this rendered the article inaccurate because a majority of violent crimes are perpetrated by men, and you considered that the absence of any reference to Ms Watts transgender status may “distort public perception about the reality of these types of crimes.” We found that the article clearly reported on statements made by Lincolnshire Police, with statements relating to the alleged crime being prefaced or followed by “according to Lincolnshire Police” or similar. Where you have not suggested that Lincolnshire Police identified Ms Watts as a transgender individual in their statement, or that the publication inaccurately reported the statement made by Lincolnshire Police, we did not find that omitting to refer to Ms Watt’s transgender status raised a possible breach of Clause 1
You are entitled to request that the Executive’s decision to reject your complaint be reviewed by IPSO’s Complaints Committee. To do so you will need to write to us in the next seven days, setting out the reasons why you believe the decision should be reviewed. Please note that we are unable to accept requests for review made seven days after the date of this email.
We would like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider the points you have raised, and have shared this correspondence with the newspaper to make it aware of your concerns.
Our request to escalate to the Complaints Committee:
I would like to request this decision is reviewed by IPSO’s Complaints Committee based on 2 points:
1) Your summary of the complaint misrepresents the details of the complaint made and therefore calls into question the reasoning behind your decision. You said the complaint was about a breach of accuracy “by failing to refer to the fact that Zoe Watts is a transgender woman” and the “absence of any reference to Ms Watts transgender status may distort public perception”. You did not find that “omitting to refer to Ms Watts transgender status raised a possible breach of Clause 1). This misrepresents the complaint that was made. No where did the complaint say that Ms Watts transgender status should have been reported.
Rather, the complaint was about inaccurate reporting of sex not about failing to refer to anyone’s gender identity or trans status. The complaint was very specifically about “repeated use of the word female” which the majority readers will understand to mean “someone who was born the female sex“. This it is well established meaning and the word female is a term used to describe sex in many species, not just humans.
The complaint went on to explain that “The male birth sex of the individual is both relevant and important to the story” because “The overwhelming majority of all violent crimes are committed by people whose birth sex is male. It is rare for people whose birth sex is female to commit these types of crimes”. So, to avoid misleading the public I suggested that “Sex should either not be mentioned or if it is then it should be made clear this individual was not born female”.
There was no reason for the newspaper to use the word ‘female’ in the headline or the text and it could have avoided any inaccuracy or misrepresentation of the individual’s sex by omitting it from the headline. By making the editorial decision to refer to the individual’s sex by using the word female the article caused the breach of clause 1 accuracy.
The fact that a complaint referring to accuracy about sex was misunderstood to be a complaint about inaccuracy of gender identity shows a fundamental misunderstanding within IPSO about the difference between sex and gender identity. This mismatch between IPSO and mainstream public opinion is undermining the ability of IPSO to deal effectively with complaints relating to the accurate reporting of an individual’s sex. This is all the more surprising because a detailed report about this issue has been submitted to the Editors Code of practice review and head of complaints at IPSO. The first finding of that report was that “IPSO is wrongly conflating the meaning of sex and self-declared gender identity and is permitting gender identity to be presented as if it were an individual’s sex”. https://fairplayforwomen.com/ipso/. For that reason it is unclear why my complaint about sex was misunderstood in this way. An individual’s trans status is only relevant to this complaint because it means they may wish to keep their birth sex a secret and this may be a good reason for a newspaper to omit any reference to sex at all.
2) Your decision to reject the complaint was based on the finding that “the article clearly reported on statements made by Lincolnshire Police, with statements relating to the alleged crime being prefaced or followed by “according to Lincolnshire Police” or similar” and that newspaper had not “inaccurately reported the statement made by Lincolnshire Police”.
However, at no point did the statements made by Lincolnshire police reference Ms Watts’ sex. The statements reported were:
“Force said Watts was charged and will appear before city’s magistrates’ court”
“Zoe Watts, 34, was arrested on Sunday after chemicals of a potentially explosive nature were found at her home in Lincoln, according to Lincolnshire Police”.
“The force said Watts will appear before the city’s magistrates’ court charged with one count of importing prohibited weapons….”
“‘We within Lincolnshire Police share these feelings and, although this relates to someone who works for the force, we will investigate this meticulously without fear or favour.
“‘Please be mindful that, as a person has now been charged with offences, this is an active investigation….”
“Lincolnshire Police said Watts will appear before the city’s magistrates’ court, pictured, and has been suspended from the force while the investigation takes place”
In these statements the Police referred to Ms Watts either by name or using sex-neutral terms such as “someone” or “a person”. They did not refer to Ms Watt as a ‘female’ person. Therefore, it is the newspaper that decided to add the inaccurate reference to Ms Watts’ sex as female in the headline. Therefore, it is wrong to reject this complaint by finding this was the accurate reporting of a false or misleading statement made by the police – as suggested in the IPSO findings.
Note, the newspaper did accurately report the police referring to Ms Watts using the pronoun ‘her’. It is to be expected that the police will be using Ms Watts’ preferred pronouns associated with their ex-employees self-declared gender identity. It is wrong to assume in this instance that use of the pronoun ‘her’ informs the reporter in any way about an individual’s birth sex. It is well known that some people who identify as women will have been born the male sex and some will have been born the female sex. Therefore, it was not appropriate for the newspaper to assume Ms Watts birth sex was female based on the statement from the police referring to ‘her’. The newspaper added this fact about sex themselves and did so inaccurately because it is known that Ms Watts was in fact born male. Accurate reporting of the police statement would NOT have included the descriptor ‘female’ in the headline. For this reason there has been a breach of clause 1 accuracy.
IPSO must take special care with any rulings regarding the language of sex and gender identity because of the potential for political and societal ramifications. Transgender advocacy groups do not wish gender identity, sex or transgender status to be reported where it is not relevant to a story. Likewise, women’s sex-based advocacy groups, such as ours, do not wish the male sex to be misreported or misinterpreted as if it were the female sex, where sex is relevant to the story. The needs of both stakeholder groups should be considered and fairly balanced by IPSO and this is not currently happening – this reject complaint being a very good example of where it is going wrong.
Complaints Committee Decision:
Dear Dr Williams,
The Complaints Committee has considered your complaint, the email of 12 November from IPSO’s Executive notifying you of its view that your complaint did not raise a possible breach of the Code, and your email of 12 November requesting a review of the Executive’s decision. The Committee agreed the following decision:
The Committee noted your concerns about the reporting of transgender issues and acknowledged that journalists and editors must take care to ensure that their approach reflects and takes into consideration the complexities, sensitives, and nuances of this matter. However, in this instance, the Committee considered that the publication’s description of Ms Watts as a female did not significantly affect the central point of the article: the arrest of Ms Watts and her subsequent suspension from Lincolnshire Police.
For these reasons and the reasons already provided by IPSO’s Executive, the Committee decided that your complaint did not raise a possible breach of the Code. As such, it declined to re-open your complaint.
The Committee would like to thank you for giving it the opportunity to consider and respond to your concerns.