Chelsea Manning, pronouns and the press

It's been a fraught year for relations between trans people and the British press, from Richard Littlejohn singling out transsexual teacher Lucy Meadows, to the reaction to Chelsea Manning's announcement.

It has been a year of fraught relations between trans people and the British press, with Julie Burchill’s shabby, incoherent (and swiftly retracted) broadside in The Observer in January and Richard Littlejohn singling out transsexual teacher Lucy Meadows in the Daily Mail before her death in March. Unkind and unfair coverage – in particular the use of old names, incorrect pronouns and the trashing of people’s identities – has long concerned the community, with individual writers entering the mainstream media and organisations such as Trans Media Watch and All About Trans holding dialogues with editors and journalists in efforts to change the culture.

This has made progress, but also provoked virulently transphobic responses from certain conservative, socialist and radical feminist commentators; amongst other things, Pvt Chelsea Manning’s announcement that she wishes to live as a woman after being imprisoned for providing classified information to Wikileaks has provided a high-profile test case for the current nature of newspaper coverage of trans-related stories. For those following the case, Manning’s gender dysphoria was well known, but Manning and her family asked that Manning be referred to by male pronouns before the sentencing, and it was only last week that it became widely reported.

Largely, the broadsheets focused on the difficulties that Manning will face in a men’s jail, generally handling this more sensitively than in the US. Using elements of the familiar first-person transition story whilst questioning its clichés, All About Trans activist Paris Lees documented her youthful experiences of an all-male prison in a sensitive Guardian piece. All About Trans met Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman as part of their media engagement, and Newman quoted Lees in a Telegraph article on the consequences of pressure for male-born gender dysphoric people to meet masculine expectations, and the additional challenges, particularly the heightened risk of physical and sexual assault, that transphobia might bring. (The specific problems of the US prison system for trans prisoners were also highlighted in Jane Fae’s New Statesman blog.)

Many trans people noted which pronouns were used: Trans Media Watch’s guidance advises the use of those which most closely match an individual’s presentation, and avoiding ‘old’ names and photos, but in Manning’s case, both were established in the public domain. Adam Gabbatt in the Guardian began with ‘the US soldier who was sentenced as Bradley Manning’ before using Chelsea, she and her; the Mail’s long, surprisingly delicate response used Manning’s male name just twice – in the headline and the opening sentence – with female pronouns and her chosen name thereafter, emphasising the US Army’s refusal to fund treatment and the statement from Manning’s lawyer answering accusations of narcissism. In this context, the BBC’s use of male pronouns across their website was especially disheartening.

If this seems broadly positive, it should be noted that the British press were covering an American case. US outlets emphasised the cost of Manning’s transition (but not of incarcerating her), and British publications frequently highlight the taxpayer contribution towards gender reassignment for prisoners who are not otherwise newsworthy. The Daily Star's 'Rot in hell you traitor’ and Brendan O’Neill’s tediously inevitable and inevitably tedious Spiked diatribe telling Manning that she cannot determine her own gender identity suggest that had this occurred in Britain, the newspapers may have discredited Manning with the tired transphobic tropes deployed by Burchill and Littlejohn.

 

Private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning revealed that wishes to live as a woman last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder