Ofcom’s decision this week that a presenter on a Monmouthshire local radio station breached the Broadcasting Code, by making derisive remarks about singer Sam Smith coming out as non-binary and wishing to be referred to as “they” rather than he or she, illustrates two important points. First, the journey Ofcom and (most of) the UK population has taken over the past decade or so in understanding and fighting against discrimination towards trans people – those who do not define themselves as masculine or feminine, and generally prefer “they/them” pronouns rather than “he” or “she”.
The presenter on Sunshine FM said: “I can’t get over this that he [Sam Smith] says he doesn’t identify with being male or female, so in future we have to call him ‘they’. And I heard somebody…saying, ‘the easiest way to find out, Sam, if you’re male or female or they, is to take your clothes off –there we go you’re definitely a boy!'” Ofcom decided in its latest Bulletin (11 May 2020) that the comments contravened Rule 2.3 of the Code because the potential offence to listeners was not justified by the context.
I can still remember at Ofcom over ten years ago, after a case involving an ITV comedy starring Stephen Mangan, having incredibly useful meetings with trans pressure groups to learn about the problems they faced. That learning process Ofcom went through has been echoed by British society generally. The results were reflected in Ofcom’s comprehensive research in 2016 about offensive language in broadcasting which I was proud to lead (see https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/91624/OfcomOffensiveLanguage.pdf ). Ofcom should repeat that research in the next year or two because attitudes in society change rapidly and the regulator needs to be fully up to date.
Over the past decade some in the trans community have become very hostile towards, and censorious of, those they disagree with. There have for example been high profile examples of individuals being hounded on social media or ‘no platformed’ at universities for espousing opinions which some trans people and their supporters find unacceptable.
Second, the Sam Smith case underlines the obvious point that broadcasters need to take great care in this area. They must make sure that their presenters and producers are aware of the sensitivities of trans people, and of their viewers and listeners. But at the same time I think they also need to be aware of the sensitivities of a number of people in the population who find it a little strange to address an individual as “they” instead or “he” or “she”. Ofcom interestingly (like it seems the BBC) adopts this terminology to avoid any possible offence to the trans community, and therefore seems to accept the risk that some with more traditional views might see this as the regulator falling in line with political correctness.
Ofcom now has published a series of decisions in this area (see eg Q Radio in Bulletin of 19 March 2018, and Sheffield Live! of 28 January 2019). So broadcasters have no excuse for not ensuring their staff understand the regulator’s approach.
Meanwhile the debate and controversy about the rights of people who self-identify, and how children should be treated who are unsure of their gender, continues. Ofcom made a point in their decision of saying that the radio presenter’s remarks were not contextualised by for example being “part of a serious or considered discussion about issues related to gender identity.” Let us hope that broadcasters will not play safe and shy away from discussion of these important issues because of fear of complaints from the more extreme voices in the transcommunity.