Who cares about the vulnerable when there’s a fight to manufacture?
April 9, 2015 § 16 Comments
Evidently not BBC’s Woman’s Hour.
Trans (and potentially trans) children – already a hot button topic – have been pushed further into the spotlight this week with Louis Theroux’s latest, broadly supportive, documentary, aired by the BBC on April 5th. Other arms of the BBC were quick to weigh in, as were the rest of the mainstream press – it made sense that Woman’s Hour, the BBC’s flagship magazine radio show for feminist/gender-related content, would want to add to the discussion.
What I didn’t realise, until they contacted me this Thursday, was that it wasn’t so much a case of ‘adding to the discussion’ as it was promoting their own agenda under the guise of ‘debate’.
Before I say anything else, I should probably touch on my background. I’ve been a trans (and general QUILTBAG) activist since I myself came out at the age of 15. I co-founded the first British nationwide LGBT organisation for young people, started the UK’s first gay/straight alliance, have done outreach and consultation work with groups like the London Assembly, NASUWT, Channel 4, and work as an advocate, fundraiser and writer on trans issues. I’ve done a fair amount of work with young trans people – most recently as a spokesman for Gendered Intelligence – and would describe myself as both trans and genderqueer.
I got an email Thursday afternoon from an assistant producer for Woman’s Hour, saying that they were “doing a discussion on the news story about the rise of children being referred to counsellors for transgender feelings”, and asking whether I would “be able to talk through the subject on the side of having non-binary gender vs transgender”. Two immediate red flags: the majority of non-binary people would describe themselves as trans, and the language around trans/gender non-conforming children – but I was happy to talk to them.
Over the phone, two further facts became apparent. The producer had very little knowledge of the subject – not the language (children are not treated by doctors “for transgender”), not the research, not the organisations – and that I was specifically being invited onto the programme to argue against children receiving age-appropriate care. We talked about the actual issues facing trans people seeking medical care – the fact that non-transgender (cis) doctors often insist on stereotypical behaviour and appearance from patients before they’re allowed treatment, that trans people who feel themselves outside of a gender binary are often denied care altogether, that doctors often disbelieve trans people and deny them referrals. I was told that this wasn’t “the angle” they were “going for”. After a few more messages we spoke again – they specifically told me that they were rescinding their invitation because they already had a “pro” side, and they wanted someone to argue against that. For that role they had picked someone who is not trans, who is known for her anti-trans views, and who has no experience in the field. When I raised questions about the impact of such a framing on trans young people I was told that it was “good to have a debate”. The programme was aired today. (Transcription here by Cassian Lotte Lodge – I want to make it clear that the issue here is with the production team and presenter, not the guests.)
Maybe this seems like a fuss over nothing – but it worries me a great deal, and has worried a great many of my colleagues. Not simply because of the ramifications upon trans children and their families, although that would be enough (and I’ll come back to that later) – but because it is symptomatic of broader trends in the framing of discussion in the mainstream press, and in the use of vulnerable groups as bait.
The BBC stressed that they wanted a debate – as a national, publicly funded organization they have a mandate and a duty to present a wide range of opinions whilst simultaneously trying to present ‘the facts’. I absolutely agree that they must do their best to report from multiple angles, to illustrate complexities, to detail the diversity of opinions represented by the public who fund them and who rely on them for information.
But staging a fight along predetermined lines doesn’t do that. There is nothing in the format of a 6th form debating society (with a limited motion, one “pro” and one “anti” speaker) that is somehow sacred, or especially useful, to the promulgation of free and informed discussion.
We know from weary experience that this is the not the standard way of reporting issues considered neutral. Only something juicy, something scandalous, something with the potential for outrage and conflict, is approached in this way. The way an issue – trans children in this instance – is seen by a producer is already apparent in the way potential discussion is framed.
And then, even within that framing – how is it possible for a producer to construct a debate when they are ignorant of the subject at hand? The producer I spoke to was clearly out of her depth and uninterested in getting even the basic facts right. No one is expecting every journalist to be an instant expert in every subject they approach – but I do expect a modicum of research and engagement. When a journalist hasn’t done that, it makes it very clear that they are not seeking to illustrate the issue for the listening public – how can they be, when they haven’t even done that on a personal level?
You can’t address complex and differing opinions when you don’t even know what those complex and differing opinions are. Reframing an issue to suit your own ignorance and marketing spin is the opposite of a free and informed debate.
So much for broadcasting standards. But with this particular issue – there are many in a similar vein, but this is one that I know – I think there’s another question to be asked: at what point does a national/international organization, relied upon by millions as an information source, have a duty of care towards the people it reports on? At what point does it have to stop thinking of vulnerable people as just a titillating story, a chance for an argument, and start thinking of the ethical implications of programming?
This wasn’t a light-hearted debate about Great British Bake Off, or an argument about party politics – it was meant to be a programme about some of the most marginalised people in our society. Not a robust conflict between two equal parties. A discussion about children who, in study after study, are shown to be disproportionately at risk of self-harm, family rejection, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness and suicide.
This isn’t theoretical. There is research on the effects of bullying, on how trans children come to know themselves and deal with the terrible abuse they suffer, on how great the risk of suicide is. Conversion therapy – the ‘treatment’ offered as an alternative to supportive counselling and, in some cases, puberty blockers – has been so widely accepted as cruel (not to mention ineffective) that the Obama administration has come out against it. On the other hand, research done into long-term outcomes of supportive medical/psychological care for trans youth has shown tremendously beneficial results. Beyond all of that, there are the voices of young trans people themselves – more and more and more and more – waiting for us to listen to them, to believe them.
But the people listening to this debate on Woman’s Hour, and all the others like it? Parents of trans children, extended family, teachers, school support staff, youth workers, doctors, nurses, care workers, NHS policy makers, politicians – the very people who desperately need the actual evidence on what works best when dealing with trans youth. Who, instead, are served up a wilfully uninformed, choreographed fight that presents lay opinion as equivalent to fact.
Worse – it erases the chance to present facts in favour of courting contentious opinion.
Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but that doesn’t make all opinions equal – and neither does it remove the impact that those opinions have on the world, for good or ill. In making the decision to favour preconceived, ignorant opinion over an informed discussion, the BBC has done damage to a group of people already under attack from too many sides. And I believe that to be shameful.
For more information on the issues facing trans youth and their families, and practical support, please see these organizations: