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NUJ event hears of continuing media homophobia

Homophobia, transphobia & the media event

Homophobia, transphobia & the media event  -  © Private

18 April 2013

It's a "straight choice" between Liberal and Labour read one of the slogans during the infamous Bermondsey by-election of 1983.

The political campaigns at the south London borough are now remembered for the vilification of Peter Tatchell, the Labour Party candidate, because of his sexuality. Homophobia came from all sides; Tatchell received abuse and threats, with one leaflet giving out his address and telephone number.

The fact that his Liberal Party opponent Simon Hughes later admitted he was a bisexual, but had hid it during the campaign, has added to the episode's notoriety.

Thirty years later, an NUJ event asked: "Has anything changed?".

We may now have a government that says it supports gay marriage, but we also have a press that, on occasion, shows prejudice against the LGBT community. Almost 60 trade unionists and members of the LGBT community came together to have their say about the coverage of LGBT issues in the media.

Marc Vallée, NUJ Photographers' branch, chaired the meeting and opened proceedings with a slideshow of photographs by NUJ members of decades of LGBT campaigns and protests.

Picking up the historical link with the Bermondsey by-election, Lesley Woodburn, a member of the South East TUC LGBT network spoke of her own experiences and the need for more community ownership of the media.

Helen Belcher of Trans Media Watch followed with a sensitive and measured approach to the Lucy Meadows case. Lucy was a transgender teacher in Accrington whose story was picked up by the media, including the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn.

He wrote in his column:

"The school shouldn't be allowed to elevate its 'commitment to diversity and equality' above its duty of care to its pupils and their parents. It should be protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats.
"These are primary school children, for heaven's sake. Most them still believe in Father Christmas. Let them enjoy their childhood. They will lose their innocence soon enough."

Lucy took her own life and, while Helen insisted that no actual causal link could be made between the press coverage of Lucy and her tragic death, the media attention and the more offensive writing on her case could not be ignored as some of it was factually incorrect.

It created an impression of colleague and parent disapproval of Lucy's transition when, in fact, her colleagues, school management and the majority of parents were supportive of her situation.

Helen noted that various surveys had shown that one in three trans people had considered suicide and when questioned, many trans people had cited media coverage as one of the reasons for their being targeted for hate crime.

She described the work of her organisation TransMediaWatch as an attempt to "change the culture of exploitation" of trans people. She said she was particularly interested in exerting a positive influence over editorial policies which may encourage reporters to "monster" transgender individuals who come to their attention.

There is also the need to present positive life stories, with the aim of achieving the "usualisation of transgender people". But the bottom line was a need for accuracy and to treat transgender people with respect.

Closing the speeches, Peter Tatchell recalled the media coverage of his attempt to stand for Bermondsey in 1983, but also looked at the current situation, post-Leveson. As an NUJ member, he said that he had always stood by the union's Code of Conduct and, by doing so, it had never impeded his freedom of speech.

It was clear, he said, that, more than ever, the media need to follow this code and that there needs to be an independent media regulator which is not populated and directed by owners of the press.

He also called for a statutory right of reply, particularly in response to false reporting and for legal aid to be granted to those who wished to sue for libel. He reiterated Helen's view that accuracy in reporting was important and gave the example of how a member of the public, who had crossed the road to thank him for standing, had been reported as "giving Peter Tachell a piece of his mind".

In the question and answer session, Mike Smith, NUJ NEC member, said that there had to be a distinction made between some journalists and NUJ members. NUJ members had a good tradition of standing up for ethical journalism, individually and collectively.

He made the point that colleagues working outside London felt that their coverage of LGBT issues was far more sensitive than that reflected in the national newspaper arena. He felt that this was down to local journalists being more aware of their local areas and not wishing to destroy the relationship with their readership.

Another member of the audience said that as the newspaper industry was shrinking in the face of social and online media, journalists who stood up for ethical reporting were facing more and more bullying and that, with huge staff cuts, they were increasingly expected to just turn round press releases rather than go out and do the research.

In response to a question about social media, Peter Tatchell warned the meeting about the dangers of seeing social media as a tool for community media, as, although it was incredibly useful, it could also be used by people with deranged views on LGBT race, disability and gender.

Read more about Trans Media Watch and the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

Tags: homophobia, transphobia, prejudice, equality, ethics