The BBC's failure to report gender identity accurately

17 July 2020

8:14 PM

17 July 2020

8:14 PM

‘Blackpool woman accessed child abuse images in hospital bed’.

It’s a good headline, in that it catches your attention.

But there are two things making it an effective headline, at least in the sense that it gets attention. One is the notion of someone looking at child porn in a hospital – that’s a shocking thing, and as they sometimes say in American journalism schools, ‘news is a surprise.’

The other important part of the headline is the word ‘woman’. We don’t often associate women with crimes like viewing images of child abuse; the idea of a woman doing so has a bit of ‘man bites dog’ news surprise to it.

So, I can see how the BBC News website editors decided on that headline for a report about Julia Marshall who, on 14th July, was sentenced to nine months in jail over what a judge called a ‘vast’ collection of over 80,000 child abuse images.

The story beneath that arresting headline is short – just 12 sentences in all – and sparse in detail, as court reporting generally should be.

Yet the headline, and the story below, provide a lesson in how journalism can struggle to deal with contemporary notions of gender identity.

If you read the BBC story alone, you would learn that a 54-year-old woman had admitted three counts of making indecent images of children, had no previous convictions and had a history of mental health problems, as well as a heart condition that led to the spell in hospital mentioned in the headline. And that’s all.

What you would not learn is that Julia Marshall was born male and in recorded court documents, has another alias: John Robert Marshall.

Nor would you learn that when Marshall first appeared in a magistrates’ court over these crimes earlier this year, court records – based on information from Lancashire Constabulary – contained the following reference: ‘Gender: male’.

I contacted Lancashire Constabulary about Marshall’s case on Wednesday. The force confirmed that they have recorded Marshall as a male: even though Marshall ‘self-identifies’ as a woman, the offences concerned will be recorded in crime statistics as having been committed by a male offender.

Marshall was born male, has a male name and is regarded as male by the police, yet the BBC’s report on Marshall’s conviction refers to a ‘woman’ and makes no reference to the police records.

This is where things get challenging for journalism. Should the BBC online team have reported Marshall’s biological sex and recorded gender? In a narrow sense, I can see how they produced a report that does not mention it – they might have decided that issues of sex and gender were not directly relevant to the sentencing decision. The judge, Simon Newell, followed guidance for the judiciary and referred to Marshall as ‘Miss Marshall’. And while the judge alluded to the uncertainty of whether Marshall will be housed in a male or female prison estate, it remains unclear where Marshall will go.

I suppose it’s possible that a BBC journalist knocking out a short story based on some agency copy might just not be aware of the sex-gender disparity in the case. Though I have to point out that it has been widely reported in other media outlets, after being disclosed during an earlier court hearing.

Did the BBC decide not to tell readers about Marshall’s gender status out of fear for controversy or trouble, and the dreaded accusation of transphobia? BBC coverage of anything gender-related is always sensitive, and the corporation’s staff must tread carefully if they want to do actual journalism on trans issues.

Here’s an example. Last month, a BBC report about trans-rights groups’ arguments for legal reform included a quote from the journalist Joan Smith – who worries that reforming gender laws could have harmful effects on women’s rights. No doubt the BBC staff who included that quote thought they were doing their job as journalists, reporting on the range of views about a question of public policy.

But the mere inclusion of that quote from Smith – who also advises London Mayor Sadiq Khan ­– sparked a significant protest. An open letter from 150 trans-rights campaigners, including three MPs, was quickly sent to senior BBC executives, accusing the Corporation of ‘institutional discrimination and hatred’. This is not the sort of thing a public broadcaster can just shrug off.

So, a BBC journalist who wanted to report that Julia Marshall is regarded by the police as male might well have paused for thought before doing so. Or maybe they didn’t want to do so, believing, for some reason, that reporting Marshall’s gender status would be the wrong thing to do. I have heard BBC editors confide that some of their editorial colleagues believe that BBC journalism on trans issues should prioritise respect for gender identity above ‘balance’.

None of this is straightforward. I’m not arguing for any absolute rules on the reporting of someone’s gender status and history. I’m not even really criticising the BBC over their report, for which I can see several possible and understandable explanations. It’s important that journalism avoids unnecessary offence and handles sensitive subjects with care and delicacy.

But whatever the motivation, the consequence is that the BBC failed to give its audience all the relevant facts about a case it evidently considered important enough to report on. Some of the BBC’s audience may well have got the impression that Marshall is – biologically and legally – female. If so, they were misled.

That matters, and not just because journalism should always be accurate. The extent to which women commit sexual offences is a live issue in debates around gender policy and criminal justice more broadly. Whenever the argument is made that policy should be based on the fact that people born male – with male anatomy and legal status – commit the majority of sexual crimes, some people will pop up to argue that women also commit sexual offences. That is true, but also largely irrelevant. And coverage like the BBC report on the Marshall case makes it easier to muddy the waters around the issue – distracting from the fact that men, on average, pose a greater threat to others – especially women and children – than women do. Law and policy should be set on the basis of facts, and poor journalism helps obscure those facts.

The trans issue is delicate and complicated, coming to the fore in an age of hair-trigger offence. I don’t blame people who take the safe option around this issue, staying out of the minefield and resting on platitudes about the need to be kind and respectful. But journalists must always be free to upset and offend. In the end, telling the truth is more important than being nice.

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