As government Ministers appeared before the Leveson inquiry last week to argue that changes to press regulation should not be too extensive, concern is growing that some national newspapers are abusing Freedom of Information laws to trawl for stories that they then skew to depict LGBT issues in a sensational and negative fashion.
The most recent example surfaced in the People a fortnight ago, in a story about the number of transgender officers in the Metropolitan Police. This originated in a FOI request made on the popular WhatDoTheyKnow website in May, which turned up the fact that some 582 Metropolitan Police officers identified as LG or B (or 8.5% of those who expressed a preference). In addition, 8 identified as intersex, and a further 6 as transgender/transsexual.
The reporting of these figures was condemned by the National Trans Police Association for its “material inaccuracies, use of pejorative language and disingenuous statements”.
Serious inaccuracies include statements that it is not possible to change one’s gender on a birth certificate (untrue since the Gender Recognition Act of 2004), that trans police officers may not carry out searches of suspects (not true in respect of non-intimate searches and not true at all once a gender recognition certificate has been awarded); and a claim that “any officer wanting a sex-change” will get a year’s paid leave (not true: this benefit is in relation to surgery, and does not cover a full year).
The piece also drew criticism from intersex activists for its insulting and inaccurate amendment of “intersex” in the original FOI to “hermaphrodite” in the published article.
The story has now been refered to the Press Complaints Commission under Section 1 of the Editorial Code (alleged to be misleading and inaccurate).
Similar issues arose earlier this year when The Sun claimed that the Ministry of Defence was paying for troops’ gender reassignment surgery. This arose from an FOI inquiry that revealed that over a possible two year period, the MOD had spent around £7,000 – out of a budget in excess of £100bn – to support military personnel in gender re-assignment.
While accurate, this piece was condemned at the time by members of Trans Media Watch for stirring up controversy by running a story out of all proportion to the actual impact of the money involved.
In response to the story in The People, Jennie Kermode of Trans Media Watch told us: “I wouldn’t like to see FOI requests restricted. A request like that made by The People could easily have been made for legitimate reasons, such as checking that the police were living up to diversity pledges.
“It’s important that journalists have the tools to do this kind of work and hold power to account. For that reason, it is damaging to the journalistic profession when they are abused.
“In the absence of any other context for the story, we can only conclude that the FOI use in this case was speculative and was intended to acquire material for a negative story about vulnerable minority groups. The negative intent in this case is clear from the paper’s choice to change the word ‘intersex’ in the police data to the inaccurate word ‘hermaphrodite’ which most intersex people find offensive.
“The deliberate omission [of background] suggests that the intent is to mislead readers.”
Further weight is added to these concerns by Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, who said: “The use of FOI requests by tabloids to stir up hatred and misunderstanding of those in the LGBT community is immoral and wrong. But we must be very careful about how we deal with these pernicious practices.
“Freedom of information must be equally applicable to everyone, regardless of their views. It’s not for politicians to prevent the media from knowing things, and the media will always sensationalise stories.
“It’s extremely important, therefore, that we have adequate safeguards to protect vulnerable minorities, such as a proper means of redress against tabloids who have stirred up hatred, or who misrepresent facts or opinions. But it would be wrong to prejudice freedom of information.”
A spokesman for Stonewall commented that they were unaware of problems of this kind on wider LGB issues.
A spokesman for Trinity Mirror, publishers of the People, said: “We’re grateful for this having been brought to our attention and we’re looking into the matter.”