The Observer’s readers’ editor, Stephen Pritchard, has issued his full response into the paper’s decision to publish a transphobic article by Julie Burchill.
Writing on guardian.co.uk, the website of the Observer’s sister paper, on Friday afternoon Pritchard said: “Some of the language was gratuitously offensive; to repeat it here would be to add insult to injury.”
Julie Burchill wrote the article in defence of her friend and fellow writer Suzanne Moore – who had also caused offence in the trans community with some of her remarks in an article which was published first in the New Statesman and then in the Guardian.
This, argued Burchill, led to Moore being “monstered” by a lobby.
In the 24 hours after the article was published, Pritchard received over 1,000 emails and 2,952 comments were posted online, most of them highly critical.
Referring to the controversy, Pritchard said: “The ensuing storm was notable both for its vociferous nature and for its individuality. A controversial issue will often bring a blizzard of identikit protest of apparently confected anger but while clearly this lobby was organised most of the emails and letters we received were personal and heartfelt.
“And they were not only from trans people. Concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby felt hurt that a minority that could expect to be protected by a liberal publication was being attacked in an extremely insulting manner.”
Pritchard continued: “Many correspondents pointed out that our own editorial code states ‘… we should not casually use words that are likely to offend’ and cited clause 12 of the national Editors’ Code: ‘The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.’ But note, this is a safeguard for individuals; it offers no protection for groups or ‘communities.’”
Pritchard also revealed his personal regret. He said: “Anyone commissioning Burchill can expect to receive some high-flown polemic, something her regular readers have come to expect; a Burchill column is rarely uncontroversial. Several senior staffers saw the piece before it appeared and could have urged wider discussion on the impact of the piece. I include myself in this; I saw the piece when it arrived on Saturday morning but hesitated to suggest changes (my role as readers’ editor is not to intervene in advance of publication). That’s something I now regret.”
Commenting on that decision, Stephen Pritchard wrote:
The problem for the editor, and the reason why he took the decision to take the piece off guardian.co.uk, is that he did not feel he could defend it in that form. It also breached the standards that the paper expects others to uphold when they submit comments to the website. They state: ‘We will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of hate-speech or contributions that could be interpreted as such. We recognise the difference between criticising a particular government, organisation, community or belief and attacking people on the basis of their race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age.’
The editor told me: ‘This clearly fell outside what we might consider reasonable. The piece should not have been published in that form. I don’t want the Observer to be conducting debates on those terms or with that language. It was offensive, needlessly. We made a misjudgment and we apologise for that.’