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Activist loses IPSO complaint against Janice Turner column in Times about trans suicides

A transwoman who resigned as a comment awards judge in protest at the shortlisting of Times columnist Janice Turner has lost a complaint about one of the journalist’s columns on the issue of transgender suicides.

Helen Belcher complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that an article published on 20 October last year, headlined: “Suicide should never be a political weapon”, misrepresented her views.

In the article, Turner (pictured) discussed comments made by Belcher, who had pulled out as a judge at the Editorial Intelligence UK Comment Awards in protest at the Times writer’s inclusion on its shortlist.

Turner frequently writes about transgender issues in her columns.

Belcher was quoted as having said: “Since The Times started printing such [transphobic] pieces, starting with one by Turner in September 2017, I have heard of more trans suicides than at any other point since 2012. These have mainly been of trans teenagers.”

Belcher’s statement about Turner was part of a backlash which led to the Times withdrawing all of its nominees from the annual awards, saying it was “disappointed by the treatment some of our columnists have received for being shortlisted”.

In her column, Turner characterised Belcher’s comments as an accusation that her “work has caused the deaths of children”.

Turner also discussed wider concerns regarding how activists referred to the suicide rate of transgender people, including the phrase “better a living daughter than a dead son” which is said to be used by activists.

She asked whether it was “responsible for activists to insist that suicidal feelings are intrinsic to the trans experience, perhaps even a sign of being ‘true’ trans?”

The article also claimed that a 2016 report by the Women and Equalities Committee recommended “far-reaching legal changes including self-identification and an end to single-sex spaces, thus re-writing the definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’.”

Belcher said the piece mischaracterised the comments she had made on her blog, citing Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

She said her statement did not assert that the columnist was solely responsible for the suicides of transgender children.

Her concern was that the media coverage of transgender issues had contributed to a hostile environment for trans people, she added.

Belcher said Turner was only one of many sources of this perceived hostile coverage.

The complainant also said there was no evidence or basis for the assertion that trans activists advise parents: “Better a living daughter than a dead son,” which she said was an invented quotation.

Belcher also said the article mispresented the findings of the WESC report.

She further cited Clause 12 (discrimination) and claimed the newspaper had chosen to single her out and report her comments because she was transgender – adding that no other article on suicide by the newspaper accused specific individuals of “weaponising suicide”.

However, the Times disputed the claims, saying it had accurately reported Belcher’s comments about the columnist’s work in full and that her blog post had directly linked Turner’s work to an increase in child suicides.

On receipt of the complaint the newspaper offered to publish a clarification making clear Belcher did not intend to make such an accusation.

It said: “Following the publication of our article ‘Suicides should never be a political weapon’ Helen Belcher has contacted us to confirm that she did not intend to suggest that Janice Turner’s work was directly responsible for child suicides. We are happy to make her position clear.”

The newspaper added that the phrase “better a living daughter than a dead son” summarised the well-documented sentiment advanced by a number of activists.

It provided a quote from the chief executive of a well-known trans activist organisation who had said: “I have my daughter, whole and alive, but if I had refused to listen then it’s very likely that I would have a dead son”.

The newspaper also pointed out that the implications of the WESC report, referenced in the article, were the subject of ongoing debate.

The newspaper also disputed claims the piece was discriminatory and said Turner was entitled to report on the publicly available comments made by the complainant.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee dismissed all aspects of the complaint.

It said: “While the committee noted the complainant’s position that she had not intended to make this suggestion, the claim that the columnist had been accused of being responsible for the deaths of children was clearly presented as the columnist’s interpretation of the comments made by the complainant and by the other individual named, which were set out in the article.

“The fact that the complainant had referred to the columnist’s work as just one example within wider coverage by the publication, which she directly linked to an increase in transgender teen suicides, did not render the characterisation inaccurate or misleading.”

Read the full IPSO ruling here.

Picture: Chris McAndrew/The Times

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