Trans Rights Backlash is just one symptom of Widespread Media Failure
Watching the way the “gender debate” has unfolded over the past year, and in particular the last few months, has felt a lot like watching a horror movie.
In the calm reverie before the storm, the sweet promise of progress hung in the air. But slowly, the atmosphere shifted. Strange things started happening. Untruths spoken and written in national media. Voices, always present, started to become louder. And louder. And louder. Until the crescendo of malign misinformation and ill-concealed revulsion of trans people and their allies became deafening.
People, once trusted, turned their backs, or, worse still, amplified the hate. People who spent their lives fighting for the rights of women and of LGBT people were defamed as advocates of violence against women, as homophobes, as people who would trade in their principles for a bit of government funding. Meanwhile, the government itself was accused of acting at the behest of a small but extreme group of lobbyists.
It became hard to discern who exactly was supposed hoodwinking or strong-arming whom; whatever the direction of the flow of influence, it was claimed that all had been brainwashed. Any of us who supported international, UN-recommended best practice on trans rights were gaslighted into believing we were losing our minds and that all of this was definitely made up by three people in Scotland.
What started out as a psychological thriller turned paranormal, and there was no going back. The perfect portrait of Scotland, the rainbow utopia, had faded and contorted before our eyes. This healthy democracy, with the capacity for intelligent, evidence-based policy development, was brought to a standstill on improving the lives of one of its most marginalised populations, because it was scared into inaction by apparent controversy.
The media machine had well and truly succeeded in demonstrating its power – but did it even realise what it had done?
13 months after the consultation on reforming the legal requirements for changing the gender marker on birth certificates closed, the Scottish Government is yet to announce its decision, with reports that the cabinet is “split” over an issue which the SNP – along with the Scottish Greens, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives – promised to address in its 2016 election manifesto.
One might wonder, based on an analysis of the UK and Scottish media, whether trans people even existed before 2017. Fast forward to 2019, and scarcely a day goes by without a negative story about trans people, their current legal rights, or their efforts to enhance them. The reason for the sudden wave of attention is, by now, all too familiar: the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act.
Those words, repeated ad nauseam but seldom explained, have come to represent a sort of shorthand for anything and everything relating to trans people. In reality, the crux of the consultation is that it would remove the requirement for a psychiatric diagnosis before a person can change the gender on their birth certificate. Currently, trans people can do exactly that on their passports, drivers’ licences, NHS records and other documentation, and their access to most spaces and services is not contingent, in law or in practice, on having their birth certificate changed.
These basic facts have not been apparent in much of the media coverage of the issue, which has seemed intent on generating maximum controversy about all aspects of trans lives under the guise of reporting on these proposals. Rights already won by trans people have become the subject of juicy debates on TV, radio, print and, of course, social media.
Watching this play out, and play out, and play out, seemingly gaining momentum with each new column and sensational headline, it has been more apparent than ever that some of those with power in the media are either oblivious or simply apathetic to the social impact of their output.
In Scotland, the conversation on trans rights started out as distinctly civil in comparison to our counterparts in England. Women’s organisations stood alongside LGBT campaigners in explaining why trans people can and should be included in their joint efforts for a more equal, safer and socially just Scotland. MSPs from across the political spectrum were photographed with ‘Equal Recognition’ campaign signs, demonstrating their support for reforms which seemed a fairly simple extension of progress which had already taken place with limited fanfare.
It was as the public – media-driven – debate in England intensified that the Scottish media began to follow suit. After all, there are few things that sell better than a Divisive Issue, least of all one that divides people who are already marginalised and poorly represented. It strikes me that this turn of events is not unique but rather one disturbing example of a deep-seated problem in today’s mainstream media.
Comparisons have been drawn between the response of certain sections of the media to the question of trans rights and the repeal of Section 28 (the legislation which barred schools from teaching about same-sex relationships) almost 20 years ago. The parallels are certainly troubling, but it is more chilling still to imagine how that particular “debate” would have transpired in the era of social media and click bait. Of course, the news media has always been driven by competition to be the “most interesting”, but I fear that its decline in the digital age has spawned a whole new impetus to shock, to incite debate, and even to anger.
This is the only explanation for the astronomically disproportionate representation of UKIP on the BBC’s Question Time panel – and in its audience. It’s the only fathomable reason why Piers Morgan remains as co-host on Good Morning Britain (or why he was hired in the first place). And there can be no other answer as to how Brian Beacom and Stuart Waiton can have their enlightened opinions on everything from women’s looks to women’s football published in The Herald, a Serious Broadsheet Newspaper.
The editorial strategy behind platforming such voices is not to inform or to open up constructive dialogue. The purpose is to throw a match onto the gasoline and watch the ratings and clicks light up as the audience takes the outrage-bait and provides free advertising on social media. The problem with this is that, when you play with fire, you are bound to get burned – and in this case the people being burned are the minorities, women and other easy targets that these controversial shock-jocks tear apart every time they’re given the platform to do so.
For every person who is outraged by transphobia, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, there are others who are genuinely convinced by these views and empowered by the knowledge that they are clearly not controversial enough not to broadcast. While some in the media might claim that it is important to present “both sides”, this fails to acknowledge the existing power structures in society and the role which the media has to play in reinforcing those.
What’s more, the framing of every issue as an adversarial debate undermines our ability to discuss complex subjects with nuance, insight, and, most importantly, respect. The media is not merely a mirror, reflecting society back at itself – it is part of society, and to ignore its own power in shaping the social and political dynamics it reports on is a dereliction of duty which can no longer stand.
We are now witnessing, on multiple different issues, the political and personal consequences of a media strategy centred more on generating heat than shedding light, coupled with a disregard for clarifying whether the controversial opinions it platforms are even based in fact.
On the issue of trans rights, LGBT and feminist campaigners alike have pointed, repeatedly, to inaccuracies in reporting and comment pieces, and yet the same inaccuracies have appeared again, and again, and again. It seems to me that no meaningful or useful conversation can begin from a starting point of misunderstanding.
It is, I believe, this misunderstanding which has fuelled so much of the debate on the issue, to the point where the same misconceptions have been shared and repeated by elected representatives. Many people who perhaps gave little thought to the issue of trans rights, or to the existence of trans people at all, until the past year or two are now concerned and inclined to oppose practices which have been taking place for some time, such as the inclusion of trans women in women-only services.
Given that there has been an outright flood of inflammatory reporting and commentary on the issue, this is little surprise. Why wouldn’t someone believe what they read in the newspaper, watch on their publicly funded broadcaster, or listen to on the radio, day after day after day?
If the journalists and editors responsible for this output did, in fact, want to ensure that Scotland and the UK became a less hospitable place for trans people, and that efforts to make their lives that bit easier would be put at risk in the wake of public outcry, they have succeeded. If it has achieved this by sheer accident and ignorance of its own influence, then it has even harder questions to ask of itself.
The media has shown just what it can do when it puts its mind to an issue and gives it the publicity it so deserves. Maybe, just maybe, if the media could exercise some responsibility and use that power to raise public awareness of the daily barriers faced by trans people, by women, by migrants, and by other marginalised communities, we would be having very different public conversations today.
Stonewall UK have developed a Q&A on trans people and their rights which can be read here and Scottish Trans Alliance have produced a website with lots of information about the proposed Gender Recognition Act reforms.