Sunday, March 27, 2011

Changing channels, turning down the volume, but not pressing 'Mute'

Yesterday on this Blog I used this week's series of transgender-themed shows to explore the difference between a purely numerical approach to editorial 'balance' and a more intelligent, genuinely proportionate one -- the kind for which you need to understand the subject matter.

But what happens when broadcasters and print journalists get it wrong and groups like LGB or trans people clamour to right the imbalance? It's not long before a free speech version of Godwin's Law rears its' head and the 'C' word -- Censorship -- gets hurled into the debate.

Even in an age of seemingly limitless media bandwidth, any move to genuinely change the balance of a debate involves limiting the freedom enjoyed by the previous beneficiaries of monopoly attention in order to make room for alternative views. So is that necessarily 'censorship' with a capital 'C'? Is anyone's freedom curtailed? Or is it ... well, er... balanced?

No stranger to censorship


Before we even start down this road I think it's important to declare an interest, as a former minority rights activist who has had a privileged front seat view of how real censorship -- the total blackout kind -- really works.

I really hate censorship because I've been affected so much by it. The idea of inflicting it on anyone else is a total anathema to me.

Between 1992 and 2007 I contributed towards the campaign for legal recognition for transsexual people in the UK as a vice president of the organisation Press for Change. LGBT History Month kindly preserve a record of that involvement here and miraculously I seem to have a WikiPedia entry too.

As campaigns go Press for Change was spectacularly successful. Our work led to the introduction of regulations outlawing discrimination in employment, vocational education and (eventually) the supply of goods and services. Our legal team won a crucial case confirming the entitlement for people to receive gender identity services on the NHS. My colleagues and I watched emotionally as the Gender Recognition Bill -- our original raison d'être -- was passed into law by Parliament in July 2004.

I moved on from the organisation almost four years ago and I notice now that unfortunately the main Press for Change web site ( has been down for weeks. When you Google for the name of this organisation which had such a massive legislative influence, you'll find nothing.

No press reports, no analyses ... nothing.

Similarly, if you Google the names of myself and colleagues you'll find very little from the mainstream too. All you'll find are the niche web sites and blogs in which we've gone on to promote ourselves. Go down to the British Library, or search Britain's online newspaper archives and see what you find.

Go on. Try it.

The trans invisibility cloak

In September 1995 I made my 'out' debut as a campaigner, speaking at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. The room was full of journalists looking for a spectacle. What they got was a serious debating challenge. And, the next day, not one of them printed a word. Zilch.

In February 1996 Alex (now Lord) Carlile presented a Private Members Bill in the Commons, setting out something remarkably similar to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. It was the first time I was mentioned by name in Hansard. Eleven MPs debated the bill before it was talked out. The press looked on from the gallery. The next day... Oh, I must have blinked.

In October 1997 my colleagues and I delivered a 10,000 signature paper petition to 10 Downing Street, marched en-masse down Whitehall and then held a press conference in Westminster's Jubilee Room. The press were there. The cameras clicked. The next day ... nothing.

Granted, we obtained mentions by other means...

In 1996 we also won a landmark European Court of Justice case defining our right to protection against employment discrimination. That was bound to be mentioned by the press, as it was a judgement against the Government. Check it out though, and see how much trans commentary you can find.

In 1999 three trans women assisted by our formidable legal team and allies won the case defining the right to NHS treatment. Again the press could hardly avoid covering it. Yet check out the trans voices.

These are just a few examples and in fairness, by 2002, we were getting a little more traction and making some TV news and current affairs ... but only because we had the full weight of the Government's press officers forcing doors open for us to put a face to their policy announcement about planned legal recognition.

Defined by others

You could say, of course, that trans people are a tiny group of people and that maybe the news agenda was full with 'important' stuff on each of those occasions (and all the rest I've not documented). The trouble with that argument is that it's not borne out by the facts.

All that while other commentators enjoyed free rein to write in derogatory terms about trans people as objects of derision, or to set the terms for television and radio debate. I myself put in a couple of appearances on shows like 'Kilroy', before concluding that it contributed nothing to what I needed to get across.

I was once told by a BBC Radio 4 producer that her boss wouldn't allow her to do a half hour interview with me because 'we've done a transsexual show already this year'.

And, in print, hardly a week passed without the tabloids exposing the innocent lives of another poor trans person who had never sought publicity.

Media lawyer and journalist David Allen Green spoke eloquently about this phenomenon at the Channel 4 event launching Trans Media Watch's Memorandum of Understanding and wrote about the topic for the New Statesman.

Even in the supposedly intelligent and liberal broadsheets, radical lesbian and second wave feminist writers enjoyed the privilege of being able to run out another derogatory column about trans women whenever they were short of ideas. My calls to papers such as the Guardian in those days, requesting a right of reply, fell on deaf ears, though I was a bit more successful with the occasional campaign of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission.

What erasure means

As I hope I've made plain, I've got a pretty good appreciation of what real censorship means. The type I'm describing is no minor question about whether someone can have another slot on TV or in a paper to repeat a dominant viewpoint which they've had a chance to voice already.

For me and my colleagues it meant that our political campaign for the rights of a hugely discriminated minority was denied practically any visibility at all. The dominant discourse against us offered virtually no right of reply.

Thank God at least for the Internet. Through sheer necessity we framed our entire campaign by creating our own media: web sites and email lists. Blogs hadn't been invented. YouTube was a decade in the future.

It meant that, although we were all thoroughly briefed and could reduce our campaign points to a three minute interview or a sentence in a newspaper, we had practically no access to those mass means to communicate with society.

It was totally disempowering. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. It's a testament to our ingenuity that we succeeded regardless. In another age we probably couldn't have done so.

Hopefully that explains why I feel so passionately about the right of people to have equal access to powerful media.

Censorship isn't in my vocabulary. But fairness and balance are.

Move over, it's their turn

In the years since the Gender Recognition Act was passed (and since I've moved away from activism) things have changed very markedly. There is now a very active and vocal grassroots movement within the complex web of the trans communit(ies).

More 'out and proud' advocates have emerged. Whilst we always wanted Press for Change to be democratic (and didn't fully succeed) the modern campaign ground really is open to all. Anyone who can type into a Blog or lift a camcorder can have a voice. The result is an explosion in consciousness and creativity.

Better still, trans people are now at last beginning to have a voice in some parts of the mainstream media. Some even have regular columns. There is an expectation that people shoud have a voice and be heard, plus an impatience for change. The impatience is understandable after lifetimes of oppression.

All of that is brilliant. Yet it also means conflict with people who've been used to the old ways. People who've regularly written or broadcast material that is derogatory towards trans people for instance. The challenges have long since begun and are getting louder.

What it can lead to, of course, is the demand for people to stop doing what they've always done till now, or to make space for trans voices to be heard equally well.

Is that then censorship as such? After all, the incumbents have had plenty of chance to say their piece. Repeating it could be considered greedy, especially if their occupation of a mainstream platform stifles other voices, as the treatment of trans topics has often done.

The Peter Kay affair

An example of this surfaced last week, shortly after the gala launch of the Trans Media Watch initiative with Channel 4, when it emerged that comedian Peter Kay was basing his contribution to the Comic Relief Red Nose Day telethon on a comedy character he had created before -- the fictional transsexual singer Geraldine McQueen. Geraldine was the central figure in the spoof vehicle "Britain's Got the Pop Factor... and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice"

Kay's Red Nose Day contribution was a singing duet with the real life talent show success Susan Boyle. The two sang a version of "I know him so well".

However, even though it might have been argued that the original talent show concept derived its' comedy from an observational satire on the genre of TV talent shows, trans observers were more concerned that the singing duet seemed to rely on the proposition that it was just funny to see a transsexual woman portrayed as a competitor, especially in scenes where Kay was seen to remove his wig or talk in ways that real trans women simply don't.

One commentator made the observation (with which I sympathise) that the portrayal would actually make it harder for a real transsexual person to take part in such a competition in future, since they would be continually demeaned by references to the joke. It's all rather a far cry from this example of how the Taiwanese version of X-Factor deals with transgender contestants for real

Later there was more concern when ITV chose to feature Kay, in character as Geraldine, as the supposedly first ever transsexual panelist on the daytime show "Loose Women". Again the question posed was why it was considered funny as a proposition, and why no real trans women appeared to have the same privilege.

As Kay's wall to wall publicity coverage ramped up to present a seemingly non-stop repetition of the insult perceived by many trans people, it was then noticed that Channel 4 (who only the previous week had pledged to improve its' game) had scheduled a repeat of Kay's original show. The effect was predictable (and, let's face it, pretty understandable). This is just one of the views expressed.

Censorship or balance?

This is a textbook example of what happens when balance is lost, of course. And it's a complete cock-up. A license to broadcast a one-sided message in which the oppressed targets have no voice at all.

Whilst I might sympathise with the argument that these shows were commissioned and scheduled long before the Trans Media Watch Memorandum was a gleam in anyone's eye, and that the hope is that education will eventually prevent any more of them, the fact remains that there are still consequences to be dealt with.

Just because the same kind of misrepresentation and demeaning portrayals have been going on for decades doesn't make it OK to let another one slip by this week because the policies and education weren't ready.

You'd have thought that, when planning to sign the Memorandum, someone at Channel 4 might actually have checked their own schedules and asked the basic question, "Does my backside look exposed in this?"

Indeed, may this be an object lesson for the leaders at Channel 4 (and the other broadcasters that follow).

Decisions you make at commissioning or production level are easy to change -- you can adjust the balance in an educated way and nobody is going to debate it. I make such choices every time I make a podcast or write a blog like this.

Let such a creation get onto the schedule, however, and the fact it's there (and the decision about whether to allow it to remain) becomes rather more public and controversial.

Nobody is going to question, for instance, whether a commissioner decided in the privacy of their own office against a recreation of "Love thy Neighbour" or the "Black and White Minstrels". Such things have long since been considered unacceptable bad taste.

The same ought now to go for whether to reshow Peter Kay's transsexual travesties again.

We are all censors of sorts

But isn't that censorship I hear you cry?

No. The reality is that value based editorial decisions are made all the time. Thanks to social media even the public do this nowadays. Every time we choose who to follow or unfollow on Twitter, or which messages to retweet, we are making such decisions. When we pick which shows to watch on TV we are doing it. They're not censorious. We're not preventing anyone else's free speech.

The same goes for television broadcasting. The choice is simple. If broadcasters are really too afraid to stop making and repeating tasteless shows that hurt an oppressed minority then the least they can do is ensure there is that much treasured commodity BALANCE in that schedule. Broadcasters with a public service remit have a particular responsibility in that regard.

However, I don't personally think that the decision not to repeat a show you realise offends people is censorship. It's self restraint and responsibility.

People have seen it already. Millions more than will ever hear my side.

The owners of the rights are also free to market it on video, for as long as the public don't feel embarrassed to buy it. One day they will. And one day they will look amazed at the fact that it was ever mainstream, just as we cringe over YouTube clips of the Black and White Minstrels.

Change the channel, turn down the volume

Just to reiterate one more time, I come at this from the perspective of knowing personally what real censorship means .. of being totally denied access to the means for public debate through mainstream media. It's why I have a Podcast, a Blog and a YouTube account. At least these days I can share these thoughts to a few hundred people, even if the reality is that a greater opportunity to be heard is generally out of reach.

By contrast, the privilege I'm talking about is that of the dominant, monopoly, viewpoint. The people who have been able to behave as they do throughout the same period and are the first to cry "Censorship!" at the slightest suggestion that they cut back a bit to let other voices be heard.

In reality I don't want to stop any of the people who demean trans people from having any say at all (though one day they will probably want to edit out the record of this period in history through embarassment). All I ask, however, is that broadcasters and editors take the care to ensure those are not the only voices.

I don't want you to use the Mute button. But figuratively turning our abusers down a bit, and providing a few more channels to hop would prevent the effective censorship that has prevailed until now.


Christina Beardsley said...

This is a fascinating article Christine and bears out our experience at the Lambeth Conference back in 2008 when I organised a Trans seminar for the bishops as part of the so-called 'fringe'. There were 4 Trans Christians and 1 Trans Buddhist: 4 from the UK, one of whom was African, one from the US: 3 females and 2 males; and 2 were clergy. Journalists were present from the broadsheets, including a well-known blogger, but there was no subsequent reporting, except on a conservative US blog. 'Under the radar' we are and it is not always a good thing.

Katie Johnstone said...

A very well written and though provoking article. In relation to your thoughts about a trans person not being allowed onto the 'Loose Woman' show, why not tell them how you feel and ask to be let onto the show as a visitor? As a transgendered woman, I also know how you feel about being invisible. I feel really invisible most days and have found that to be overlooked is quite normal. I get the impression that people would prefer in the main that I don't exist, and because I do exist then to keep me out of the way suits them. They seem to be embrassed by my very existance. Anyway, on a brighter side I think TMW is great and to have the support of some of the big media players will really help our community, as long as they are in it for the long haul. Listening to Lynne Featherstones speech when the memorandum of understanding was launched made my cry, because I genuinely felt that she meant every word.

Kind Regards


Emily said...

You've hit the nail on the head, Christine. The media is happy to cover trans people when they can put a prurient angle on it or when they can expose one of those evil, deceptive trans people 'pretending' to be another sex. When it comes to reporting on the real issues, however, they're not interested and if they do so, they want to turn it into a cat fight by bringing transphobic people into the discussion in the guise of being balanced.

I just wonder if this will ever change. Thank heavens for the Internet and for the chance to communicate directly!

Rachel, Norfolk said...

I'm not sure I get the whole rant about Peter Kay's sketch - I thought it was really quite funny, to be honest. Oh, and I know plenty of trans people that DO speak like that (although with more of an East Anglian accent...)