UK News

These are crimes by men – why are newspapers pretending they’re not?

Kim Thomas takes a closer look at the way the British press report crimes perpetrated by men.

More than 90% of sexual offences against children are carried out by men…

You may have seen the story. A 56-year old woman, Rachel Smith, was given a three-year community order for chatting online with a 14-year old girl, in breach of a sexual harm prevention order made when Smith was convicted of making indecent photographs of children. Despite her extensive criminal record (50 previous convictions including one for indecent assault), Smith avoided jail because of the “positive changes” she’d made to her life.

Perhaps the story struck you as odd: after all, the vast majority (more than 90%) of sexual offences against children are carried out by men. Perhaps you felt the sentence was unduly lenient, and agreed with the Mail’s below-the-line commenters who wrote: “Ridiculous. If it were a fella would have been locked up and rightly so” and “For a man: two years in jail. For this vile female, nothing. Justice not served.”

As it turns out, the Mail commenters were wrong: men don’t tend to receive custodial sentences for this kind of crime, as Eric Joyce case demonstrated. But they were wrong in a more important way too: Rachel Smith is not a woman, in the usual sense of the word. Smith identifies as female, but was born male – though you would not have been able to guess that from the Mail article.

Just a one-off aberration? I’m afraid not. Take this story from the BBC, headlined: “Blackpool woman accessed child abuse images in hospital bed”. This is about 54-year old Julie Marshall, who used hospital WiFi to access her personal stash of 80,000 images of children being sexually abused. Nowhere does the story mention that Marshall was born male. The BBC also reports the case of 34-year old Zoe Watts, charged with making an explosive substance and importing prohibited weapons. You couldn’t have worked out from the story that Watts, previously an equalities officer for Unison, was born male.

The Sun ran a striking story of four women attacking a teenager at Leicester Square station. “In the vicious attack, the women could be seen repeatedly stamping on the man’s head as he lay face down on the floor,” the paper reported. A gang of women physically assaulting a young man in this way is certainly newsworthy – except, as one of the Sun’s commenters laconically noted: “All blokes.”

Here’s a fun one from the Derbyshire Times: “MISSING: Woman dressed as man seen in Dronfield” the headline reads. The story reports that police were looking for Lisa Lacey, a woman who sometimes dresses as a man. You might have been confused by the pictures, which show someone indisputably male. This is because Lacey, previously convicted of raping two teenage girls, is – well, you supply the punchline.

Does it matter? The short answer is that, if you care about the truth – as journalists should do – then yes, of course it matters. Pretending that a male criminal is a female, simply because the criminal in question says he is, is an out-and-out lie. This kind of inaccurate reporting, particularly in the case of sex offenders, disguises the problem of male sexual violence. Nearly half of the transgender prisoners in England and Wales have at least one conviction for sexual assault. Referring to these offenders as women not only misleads the reader into thinking they are biologically female, it creates an impression that far more women are committing crimes of sexual assault than is actually the case.

You might wonder why news outlets mislead their readers in this way. It may be that they are slavishly adhering to guidance from IPSO, the press regulator, which says that editors should ask themselves: “If known, have you used the pronouns the individual uses to describe themselves in your story?” Similarly, guidance from the NUJ states: “In your reporting, always refer to a transgender person’s chosen name, and ask them which personal pronoun they would prefer to be used to describe them. If this is not possible, use the pronoun consistent with the person’s appearance and gender self-expression.”

This might seem reasonable if your story is about a trans person who has just won the lottery. When you are reporting on a convicted sex offender who has decided to identify as a woman, however, it becomes ludicrous. So why do newspapers – and the BBC – go along with it?

One probable reason is that news reporters take their cue from the police: in the case of Lisa Lacey, for example, the police insisted they were looking for a woman dressed as a man. Similarly, the police insisted that the people who assaulted a teenage boy in the tube station were all women.

The courts, too, insist on using an offender’s preferred pronouns. The Equal Treatment Bench Book, a set of guidelines issued to magistrates, insists that transgender defendants should be addressed by the pronouns of their choice. In one notorious case, a witness, Maria MacLachlan, was reprimanded by a judge for referring to her biologically male assailant as “he” rather than “she”. The BBC, when challenged about its use of female pronouns to refer to biological males in court cases, claimed simply to be following the lead of the court: if the court uses “she” and “woman” throughout the trial, then the BBC’s report will do the same.

The BBC is wrong. It is the job of journalists to tell the truth, and to report the facts as accurately as possible. Yes, I know: journalists often get it wrong, and some media outlets are unashamedly biased. But what is remarkable about the trans debate is that the only significant pushback against a sustained attack on women’s rights has come from the media. Not just the police and the courts, but charities, political parties, schools, universities, hospitals, local authorities have all been ideologically captured by trans rights activists. If it wasn’t for the reporting of journalists like Janice Turner in the Times, James Kirkup in the Spectator and Sanchez Manning in the Mail on Sunday, we wouldn’t know about the Girl Guiding leader who had been sacked for speaking out in support of safeguarding children, or about the puberty blockers being given to young children, or the harassment of lesbians who refuse to consider biological males as sexual partners. Even the BBC, in an excellent Newsnight report, has played an important part in showing that many children identified by clinicians as trans are more likely gay or lesbian.

Brave reporting by journalists such as these, often in the face of sustained abuse, has been key to changing the debate on the conflict between trans rights and women’s rights. What seemed like an inexorable advance towards allowing men legally to self-identify as women has been stopped in its tracks by a combination of feminist campaigning and honest reporting.

At its best, journalism challenges received wisdom and holds the powerful to account. Instead of placating the zealots, journalists should be fighting to publish the truth. Taking on an influential lobby is always going to be hard, but, as one of JK Rowling’s most beloved characters so succinctly puts it: “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”  

Photo credit: The London economic

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Kim Thomas

Kim Thomas has been a freelance journalist for more than 20 years, writing for national newspapers and magazines on topics such as technology, education and health care.

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  1. An excellent and necessary article. Would that the police and other journalists cut through the deliberately confused narrative around gender/sex so we REALLY knew what was going on.

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