734/2021 - Trans Writers Union and the Sunday Independent

By Gabrielle Collins
Tuesday, 6th April 2021
Filed under:

The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint made by the Trans Writers Union that the Sunday Independent breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.

On 17 January 2021, the Sunday Independent published a review of a book titled “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters”.

The Trans Writers Union wrote to the Sunday Independent stating that the review of the book breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) as the reviewer had failed to inform readers that the views of the author of the book “have been rejected by the scientific and psychiatric community at large”.

The Union also claimed that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment)  had been breached as the author’s “work is rooted in comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports”. Omitting this information from the review was, the Union stated, a breach of Principle 2.

The Union also claimed that Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) had been breached. This Principle states

The press shall not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations, and must take reasonable care in checking facts before publication.

The Union claimed that the review had engaged in the  “passive reproduction” of the views of the author of the book and in the process had consequently scare-mongered the trans community.

Finally, the Union claimed that the review had breached Principle 8 (Prejudice). This Principle states

The press shall not publish material intended or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against an individual or group on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the travelling community, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age.

The Union stated that “If the Irish Independent was, at the most basic level, committed to best practice, they would have made an attempt to hire a trans writer to write about trans issues”” and that the reviewer had no knowledge of the trans community and had failed to critique the book.

The Union’s complaint concluded that the “act of reviewing this book has been in bad faith, and serves to discredit and cast aspersions on the trans community”.

The Sunday Independent replied to the Union defending the review stating that “our writer, as with any book review, was offering her opinion on what she read” and that a newspaper was not required to “verify the contents of a book before reviewing it”.

As the Union was not satisfied with the response of the Sunday Independent a formal complaint was made to  the Office of the Press Ombudsman.

The Sunday Independent in a formal submission to the Office of  the Press Ombudsman stood over the publication of the review.

Dealing with the claim that Principles 1 and 2  had been breached the newspaper repeated its belief that newspapers and reviewers are not required to verify contents of books  that are reviewed. To add to this, the newspaper stated that the author of the book was an academic and had degrees from Columbia College, Oxford and Yale and was a columnist and writer for the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper  further noted that the review had plainly highlighted to the reader  that the author’s view is “not uncontroverted, i.e., she is said to ‘make a persuasive case’, ‘paint a picture’, ‘questions’, ‘makes points’, ‘advocates’ and the issues discussed are noted to be the subject of ‘debate’.”

The Sunday Independent also rejected the claim that Principle 4 had been breached. It stated that the reviewer was offering her opinion of a book she had been asked to review and she was entitled to give her opinion as was the newspaper entitled to publish that review.

In regard to the claim that Principle 8 had been breached the newspaper did not agree that only a trans person should write about trans issues, or review a book about gender dysphoria. It stated that the “… book is aimed at parents is clear from the title”  It said that the reviewer “is a parent of teenage children and has written frequently on issues relating to parenting. As such she is well qualified (to) address the topic”.

As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

Principle 1

Principle 1 requires “the press to strive for truth and accuracy”. This requirement does not mean that newspapers in publishing reviews need to authenticate claims made in those books. Furthermore, reviewers are entitled to inform readers that they find the conclusions of the books under review persuasive. It seems to me that the complainants in essence are unhappy with the conclusions of the book and would wish that the review affirmed the Trans Writers Union’s position on the issues covered. This is not the basis to uphold a complaint that Principle 1 has been breached.

Principle 2

Reviewers are entitled to express their opinions about books being reviewed. Readers expect to find in reviews the opinions of the reviewers. In this case there is no failure to distinguish between fact and comment and therefore there is no breach of Principle 2.

Principle 4

No evidence has been provided to me that the review contained any malicious  misrepresentation or unfounded accusations. As with the claims of the breach of Principle 1 it seems to me that the complainants’ issues are with the book rather than the review.

Principle 8

I can find nothing in the review which breaches requirements found in Principle 8. The review includes a favourable assessment of the conclusions of the book, but it is not possible to sustain an argument that the review in any sense stirs up hatred towards trans people. Clearly both the book and the review have caused offence to the complainants but to conclude that Principle 8 has been breached it is not sufficient for complainants to rely on their personal feelings about something published. It is necessary to find that grave offence is more widespread and is supported by evidence.

11 March 2021