Monday, April 20, 2009

EHRC Responds on the ‘Moving Wallpaper’ Affair

Background

On 20th March Britain's ITV television channel broadcast an episode of the programme "Moving Wallpaper" which depicted various forms of abuse and harassment of a fictional transsexual character.

A 454 member Facebook protest group explains how the programme was viewed by trans people:

"This programme made gratuitous use of a transsexual character as an object of derision. 'Georgina' joins a team of script-writers and is made to feel unwelcome as the butt of their 'jokes'".

The group lists the catalogue of issues which upset them:

Referring to her as "George" and using male pronouns in reference to her; calling her forthcoming gender reassignment surgery a "knock-through"; threatening to grab her by the Adam's apple, "if she/he still has one"; staff going on strike when Georgina receives a higher rate of pay due to her excellent work; saying she has stubble; calling her "it"; claiming to be scared by her "man hands"; saying she is a man in a frock; writing "vaginoplasty" on her calendar; consistently undermining her right to be part of the writing team and, finally, forcing her to leave by omitting to sign her contract.

According to Pink News [April 1st], over 50 people made formal complaints to the broadcasting regulator OFCOM. [By the time of writing this is reported to be over 85 people]

The Pink News article quotes Professor Stephen Whittle writing to OFCOM on behalf of Press for Change:

"This programme set out to belittle abuse and insult a transsexual woman, in ways that were completely unacceptable and inciting public derision and hatred of transsexual people."

The same article quotes an ITV spokesperson:

"Moving Wallpaper is a well established satirical comedy now in its second series. All material broadcast was in the context of the nature of the programme and there was absolutely no intention to offend. ITV has a strong record in the positive portrayal of lesbian, gay and transgender characters."

The Press Association reported the star of the show, Ben Miller, offering a defence:

"I find Songs of Praise quite offensive, but I don't want Songs of Praise not to be broadcast on television because I think other people who like Songs of Praise have a right to watch it and simply because I find it incredibly irritating and patronising I think that's my problem. It's not Songs of Praise's problem.

"So I think... the fact that people have been offended, people in the transgender community have been offended, by that episode of Moving Wallpaper I think is a great shame. We want to make people laugh; we don't want to upset people."

Seeking leadership from EHRC

When the events were first drawn to my attention I raised the issue with the local management of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, with whom I work at a regional level. This was within the context of an earlier complaint of mine concerning the commission's lack of visible action on any issue relating to trans people's discrimination and rights – an area which they have a statutory obligation to address.

Since then I have reminded EHRC about the programme on regular occasions, to ensure that the topic did not slip off anyone's desk. Today, being a calendar month since the original broadcast, I reminded them again, via the North West Regional Manager, Catherine May.

This is the full text of Catherine's response:

Dear Christine

Many thanks for raising the issue of the recent broadcast of Moving Wallpaper and the portrayal of the experience of a trans member of staff. As agreed, this was taken up with internal decision-makers at the EHRC who have decided not to follow this up with Ofcom or ITV.

Sadly, the media (both print and broadcast) often produce and say things that individuals find offensive. We frequently get requests both externally and internally asking us to intervene in such matters, often by issuing a statement to the media or by taking some sort of formal action as part of our role as a regulator. However we take the view that standards in broadcasting are not part of our remit (that falls to Ofcom), and if we make exceptions and officially intervene then it's very difficult for us to further manage expectations of other stakeholder groups who have also been negatively affected by offensive or discriminatory programming (which is unfortunately all too common).

I am sure you will understand that these are difficult decisions to make, and we have had similar situations with a few different areas of our work – for example we were criticised for not taking part in the discussions around Carol Thatcher's alleged racist language at the BBC.

We are keen to ensure that we take forward other areas of work that we have discussed that are in the remit of our work, and I will contact you about those separately.

Best wishes

Catherine May
Regional Manager, North West
Equality and Human Rights Commission

What I think

Personally, and in spite of my professional relationship with EHRC, I find this response disappointing.

To defend a decision to step back from intervening in this case with the observation that they don't intervene in others paints a picture of a toothless guardian – a fairweather friend, who can't be relied upon to defend anyone's rights when the chips are down.

It also sends a signal to broadcasters and journalists that it's still open season on Britain's tiniest, most vulnerable and most wickedly caricatured and maligned minority. "Go ahead. EHRC aren't vexed".

That makes me, as a transsexual woman working very much in the public eye, an easy target.

I had made the point to EHRC that this was such a straightforward open and shut case. The discriminatory content was evident to all – except perhaps Ben Miller and ITV's official spokespeople.

It was an opportunity for the Commission, which has so often sent mixed messages about its' support for the rights of trans people, to draw a very clear line in the sand and state clearly that out and out bullying (which often takes place in the pursuit of laughs) is not acceptable. And this, no mistake, was an act of bullying by TV – exploiting its' position of power to lampoon – and clearly liable to incite copycat behaviour in viewers.

The excuse that EHRC should not intervene on OFCOM's territory is not convincing to me. There is absolutely no reason why two regulators cannot work together on a case like this – the one commenting on the illegality of the scene portrayed, the other on the conduct of programme makers. In fact EHRC has, by inaction, robbed OFCOM of a point of reference when they adjudicate the complaint.

And the future?

I'm promised that EHRC are still diligently working on the broader issues that I raised three months ago in January. Having hung up my campaigner hat to be more "corporate" (as they call it) I'm in the difficult position that I have to award the professional benefit of the doubt to the commission and hope that, at some point in time, they will speak up publicly on behalf of trans people and manage to acquit themselves.

And I do repeatedly stress to the commission that they really need to achieve something concrete to acquire any vestige of credibility in the eyes of a community of people who have so far seen no positive outcomes on which to judge them.

In the meantime, I can only hope that EHRC seriously don't expect me to go out on a limb and try to convince any more vulnerable, frightened, angry people that they should put their trust in them sorting anything out for trans people in distress. At the moment I would find that unconscionable.

I'm your critical friend guys, but you surely don't expect me to offer your excuses as well?

10 comments:

Josephine said...

Well done anyway Christine. This isn't over. Sadly, I do think it just illustrates again the dilemma we face in making choices between going 'through channels' and taking loud and vocal public action. I am reminded of the Stonewall fiasco.

There is so much anger building up in the trans community at the moment.

Charlie Butler said...

We should keep an eye open now to make sure that EHRC is consistent about this principle, and has been so in the past. If it takes action over an offensive broadcast affecting some other group we will be able to highlight its selectivity.

The Carol Thatcher incident is a very poor analogy in my opinion, given that Thatcher was immediately fired by the BBC for her comments. No such action - or even apology - has been forthcoming from the broadcasters or producers in this case.

Jennie Kermode said...

Can we raise the fact that the EHRC feel there are too many problems in broadcasting for them to get involved with Ofcom, and with politicians as a comment on Ofcom, to show that work is not being done adequately where it matters? It seems to me that this statement is potentially a good piece of ammunition; it just needs to be used effectively.

Caisa said...

Being from Sweden I have no idea what EHCR is. But I watched the series and mostly found it very entertaining.

My first reaction to the episode was anger and sadness. But then I felt a bit better when I realized that all the roles in the series are caricatures. As we are so often ridiculed and persecuted I think that we are more sensitive than others re missrepresentation in the media. And I don't think that I would have reacted so strongly if the character hadn't been so obnoxious.

But all in all I wish they hadn't sent this episode. Nevertheless I hope there will be a new season. And why not with a transwoman in the regular cast? I'd be happy to play the tall Swedish woman who tries, and sometimes sucseeds, to seduce all the females. :-)

Christine Burns said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Do keep them coming.

Suzzy said...

In ways too significant for us to overlook I think the Georg/-ina character was a stereotype in the process of morphing in the right direction, not the wrong one. I raised a thin smile or two at the other stereotypes (unreconstructed, lewd, meeja types), and my discomfort-o-meter flickered only slightly and briefly when Georg/-ina stomped out of the building, straddled the bike with mannish gusto, and rode off into the gathering Ofcom storm.

I think it does us all good to wonder about the process of the giving and the taking of offence, through comedy or otherwise, and considering the merits and sins of this third-rate comedy show is good for that purpose. To me, relying on watchdogs in pinstripes feels more like increasing my personal level of vulnerability to offence rather than reducing it.

Charlie Butler said...

"In ways too significant for us to overlook I think the Georg/-ina character was a stereotype in the process of morphing in the right direction, not the wrong one."

Suzzy, could you expand on this? What ways do you mean? Also, are you referring specifically to the character herself, or also to the ways in which she was treated and referred to within the show as a whole?

Personally, I could see little or nothing positive there at all, and I'd be interested to hear your alternative perspective.

Matthew said...

Is this indicative of the EHRC's attitude to trans rights generally? Do they give trans rights the attention they deserve, or are trans rights sidelined by a commission more interested in other discriminated against groups?

Anonymous said...

Having raised issues with EHRC before associated with certain tabloids and how they portray trans people, they either do not reply or say it is trivial. One UK newspaper in particular, often runs stories about transsexuals and refer to them as "he/she" "it" "tranny" and the ubiquace "gender bender" as well as referring to trannsexual women as "he", him" and "his" and transmen as "she" and "her".

When I rang said paper, someone in the newsdesk office said that they never do this, but use their search engine on their site and its all there to see. When I have contact the PCC, they won't deal with it unless I am directly affected, no one it seems wishes to tackle the press in enough zeal to make change happen.

Take the BBC with its Most Annoying 2008 at xmas, 2 items focused on Trans people, and the guest made mocking comments, even 2 gaydar dj's joined in. The BBC saw nothing wrong.

Charlie Butler said...

You may have seen that Ofcom has now rejected the complaints about this programme. The full text of their judgement is up here: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=158966085360&topic=8552&ref=mf

It's hard to know where to begin...