Earlier this week, Channel 4 hosted the launch of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which it has entered into with Trans Media Watch, an organisation set up to combat prejudiced, sensationalist, and inaccurate depictions of transgender people in the media. The MoU is a practical and constructive attempt to improve the depictions of transgender people. I was honoured to be invited to speak at this launch, alongside Lynne Featherstone MP, the excellent Lib Dem equalities minister.
But why is this important to anyone else, other than transgender people? Why have the presence of the equalities minister and a media lawyer? The reason is that the adverse treatment of transgender people by mainstream print and broadcast media has long been a scandal. Private citizens, who have made no effort to be public figures, are often suddenly subjected to humiliating features and commentary. Tabloids often carry stories involving transgender people, usually with “before and after” pictures, for no reason other than to try and entertain their readers. Television programmes commonly use transgendered people as figures of fun or ridicule.
This treatment of transgender people is thereby not a marginal issue; it is instead a general issue about media standards and the privacy of the individual. Transgender people may be undergoing intimate bodily surgery, but one would not for a moment expect others going under similarly intimate surgery to be the subject of sensationalist tabloid stories and distorted representations. Transgender people may also be negotiating sensitive relationships with family, friends and work; they may also be having counselling and have vulnerable mental states during their period of intense change; and so the last thing which they need or can cope with is sudden national exposure and sneering copy from some tabloid hack.
There is no good reason why any event becomes newsworthy just because someone involved happens to be transgendered. There is no good reason why those who happen to be going through this undoubtedly difficult process of transition and self-realisation should have their privacy and dignity attacked by any form of media.
The MoU between Trans Media Watch and Channel 4 may be a small step; but it is nonetheless a step in the direction of a more liberal society where the autonomy of the individual is placed higher the needless and often spiteful interferences of the commercial media.
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising media lawyer