A highly offensive article about the trans community which was written by Julie Burchill and published in the Observer did not breach the Editors’ Code of Practice, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has ruled.
But it was subsequently republished on the website of the Telegraph.
In a piece headed “Transsexuals should cut it out”, Julie Burchill described trans people as “shims”, “shemales” and “bed-wetters in bad wigs”.
The columnist 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 that was published first in the New Statesman and then in the Guardian.
The PCC’s Editors’ Code of Practice states in a clause on discrimination that 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”.
However, in its ruling of the Burchill article, the PCC acknowledged that it had caused offence but declared the decision to publish was not in breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Although the editor of the Observer, John Mulholland, withdrew Burchill’s column 1 day later after publication and apologised for the upset that it caused, the paper denied it had breached Clause 12 of the code concerning discrimination, and the PCC ruled in its favour.
It said: “the clause does not cover references to groups or categories of people. The language used in the article did not refer to any identifiable individual, but to transgender people generally. While the commission acknowledged the depth of the complainants’ concerns about the terminology used, in the absence of reference to a particular individual, there was no breach of Clause 12.”
Complainants to the PCC also alleged the article raised concerns under Clause 1 of the code (Accuracy) that Burchill’s language was inaccurate as well as offensive, additionally, concerns were raised that the repeated use of offensive language had breached Clause 4 (Harassment) of the code.
However, the PCC ruled that no breach of Clause 1 or Clause 4 had taken place.
In its conclusion, the PCC said: “The commission acknowledged that the complainants found much of the article offensive. Nonetheless, the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice do not address issues of taste and offence.
“The code is designed to address the potentially competing rights of freedom of expression and other rights of individuals, such as privacy. Newspapers and magazines have editorial freedom to publish what they consider to be appropriate provided that the rights of individuals – enshrined in the terms of the code which specifically defines and protects these rights – are not compromised. It could not, therefore, comment on this aspect of the complaint further.”