Julie Burchill's transgender article didn't breach PCC code

Mar 26, 2013

Observer columnist had 'right to be offensive' with column calling transgender people 'screaming mimis'

A COLUMN in The Observer by Julie Burchill that outraged transgender people by referring to them as "screaming mimis" and "bed-wetters in bad wigs" did not breach the editors' code of practice.

The Press Complaints Commission received 800 complaints about the article, which was published in The Observer on 13 January. It triggered a small demonstration outside the paper's London offices and an internal investigation by the readers' editor. The Observer's editor, John Mulholland, concluded the paper had "got it wrong", pulled the piece from the paper's website and issued an apology. But in a decision released today, the PCC says the column did not breach the editors' code even though it contains a clause that forbids "prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability".

"Clearly, the PCC decided that Burchill's column, despite her colourful choice of language, could not be deemed to be prejudicial," wrote Roy Greenslade in The Guardian. "In other words, she had a right to be offensive." Reading between the lines, says Greenslade, it appears that the commission "took the view that it was a matter of taste and therefore lay within the editor's prerogative".

The PCC's finding seems to call into question The Observer's reaction to the publication of the story. An internal investigation found it had broken its own code of practice, which states it "should not casually use words that are likely to offend". The paper's readers' editor said the column had been published due to "a collective failure of editing".

The pressure group Trans Media Watch tweeted it would appeal the PCC's decision.

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The PCC clearly states that it did not breach clause 12 because it did not contain reference to "any specific individual" not because it wasn't prejudiced. This is yet another instance of the PCC failure to hold the press to account.