UK Newspaper Lawsuit Could Transform Media Coverage of Transgender Issues

“To be a woman at the Times during these years was to experience systemized sexism.”

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2013 Rally for Transgender Equality — A rally in Washington, DC in support of the equal health and livelihood of trans people. (Photo: Ted Eytan)

“A former editor at the Times is suing the newspaper for anti-trans discrimination, harassment, victimisation [sic], and unfair dismissal on the grounds of gender reassignment — in a landmark case that, if she wins, could transform the UK [United Kingdom] media’s coverage of transgender rights,” began BuzzFeed’s report on the landmark lawsuit levied by transgender woman Katherine O’Donnell.

O’Donnell worked for the Scottish edition of The Times in the United Kingdom for 14 years until January 2018. Her position was made redundant in the time after she transitioned.

O’Donnell alleges she was bullied, was denied pay raises and promotions, and eventually lost her job in an unjust fashion. The lawsuit mentions many senior figures at the Times, including editor John Witherow. While the paper denies all claims, the case is gaining attention due to numerous elements.

Inside the Suit

The case not only focuses on the charges of workplace discrimination, but it also alleges printed articles within the newsroom about trans individuals created a hostile working environment. If her lawsuit is successful, which began early in May and is expected to last several more weeks, news outlets in the UK will have to consider the manner in which they cover trans people and those of other differing backgrounds.

O’Donnell mentioned a meeting with two senior editors where a fatal attack on a trans woman in India was mentioned, and one of the editors joking that it was a “lifestyle choice.” She would say in her witness statement: “The callous and dehumanising [sic] nature of the comments, however intended, left me feeling as if the floor had opened up beneath me and that I had fallen into a reality in which what these men really thought of me and people like me was revealed.”

On Friday, May 17th Witherow traveled to Scotland in order to give evidence in the case in front of the Edinburgh Employment Tribunal. Pink News details an exchange the Times editor had with O’Donnell’s counsel:

After being shown dozens of stories by O’Donnell’s lawyer, Robin Moira White, Witherow was asked about a Christmas-themed satirical column by Giles Coren that made a joke about people who are “something in between” men and women. “It’s not a very good joke…” Witherow said, “…and it probably shouldn’t have stayed in.”

Witherow was also shown a piece from The Times entitled “Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby.” When asked if he thought it was appropriate, Witherow said, “Yes, I think it backs up what she is saying.”

The writer of the piece, Janice Turner, won the 2018 British Journalism Awards prize for comment journalist of the year. Turner has been criticized in the past for her columns about trans rights.

“To be a woman at the Times during these years was to experience systemized sexism,” O’Donnell said during open court about her time working for The Times, especially after Witherow was promoted to his editorial position.

Journalism Also on Trial

The integrity of the journalistic process is a major ancillary aspect of O’Donnell’s case. If she wins her case, editorial decisions of news outlets throughout the UK would come into question. In order to avoid future legal action, editors would have to review how they cover differing groups of citizens and make sure their reporting is without aspects of bigotry.

Increasing the standards of journalism could lead to more objective fact-based coverage of sensitive issues by removing the personal bias of those tasked with investigating a particular topic. The case could lead to a sweeping change in journalism throughout the United Kingdom.

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