Comment: Julie Burchill – the message she is sending to trans people and aspiring writers

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Yesterday I received an email from the Press Complaints Commission explaining the final ruling with regard to the 800 complaints they received about Julie Burchill’s article “Transsexuals should cut it out” published in The Observer, UK on 13 January.

If you were lucky enough to escape reading this article and avoid the furore that followed, here are a few excerpts from the piece, which was written in defence of a fellow Guardian writer who’d received Twitter ‘abuse’ from offended trans people and friends.

“a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing.”

“a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.”

“To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women”

“Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days”

The original article ‘Seeing red: the power of female anger’ by Suzanne Moore was actually a very well written and powerful piece about the power of women, but the writer had slipped up by including the sentence “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”

Moore had been questioned and criticised on Twitter for presenting Brazilian trans women in a way that encouraged negative feeling towards a minority, and it could be said that the comment is especially thoughtless given the comparatively high number of trans women murdered in Brazil every year simply for being trans women.

Instead of apologising for her lack of consideration for a vulnerable minority, she set about throwing back a torrent of bile including “People can just fuck off really. Cut their dicks off and be more feminist than me. Good for them.” Because of this, she was (to quote Burchill) “hounded off” Twitter. (Poor thing.)

Julie Burchill, a well known, well paid journalist and minor celebrity as well as a self proclaimed feminist was apparently so outraged at the treatment her good friend Moore had received on Twitter that she felt the need to pen a poisonous, hateful tirade against trans people in response. Imagine a bitter, middle aged woman on her second bottle of red wine, spewing hatred towards the people she thinks are responsible for her failures, and thus the resulting ball of twisted regret inside her that laces every word she says with spite. Now imagine the words she is saying being written on paper, unedited, exactly as they’ve been spat out, and now imagine the wisdom of a good nights sleep and a re-read in the morning being disregarded and the words on the paper being emailed directly to the woman’s editor. If you can picture that, you have the general tone of the article; vicious, unresearched, ridiculous.

Which leaves one glaringly obvious and rather worrying question, how on earth did it get from the editors’ inbox to real column inches in a national newspaper?

Before giving the OK to any article, every editor must make sure the content abides by the Editors Code of Practice. The Code is intended to give newspapers and editors a firm set of principles to abide by, and ‘a clear and consistent framework within which it can address complaints from members of the public.’ (PCC website) It is an industry code, established by the industry to regulate the industry, enforcible by the industry.

Point .12 of the Code i) and ii) cover discrimination.

“i)The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individuals race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii)Details of an individuals race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.”

In my letter to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) I argued that in the case of the Burchill article the transgender community, as a collection of individuals, could be entitled to the same protection as an individual against hateful or “prejudicial…reference”. Afterall, Corporate Personhood is a recognised legal concept which enables the extension of some of the rights of an individual to a corporation, on the basis that a corporation is essentially just multiple individuals. Why should a person have less rights when they join with one or more other people? It seems rather unjust that this idea should be strong enough to hold up in court in legal battles with huge corporations but not solid enough to protect a minority community.

The PCC nonetheless decided that the publication of the article would go unpunished because the hateful rhetoric was directed towards a whole bunch of people, not just one, and that’s allowed. The hurt and upset caused was noted but apparently not worth further comment.

It could be argued that further action in this case, where no breach of any code or regulation had technically been made, would have infringed on the authors right to free speech. She hates trans people, and it is her right to say so. In print. In a national newspaper.

In fact the article was published in the ‘Opinion’ section of the paper, but Burchill is a regular contributor, a well known and well established journalist. For many, what she writes is fact, and it is what she writes that influences opinions, and helps to form arguments in the national consciousness, as well as give rhetoric to people repeating those ideas and opinions. Readers expect their journos to have researched their argument, to have a good working knowledge of the topic, to have valid experience in the subject, in short – to know what they’re talking about.

It is a sad fact that many people will take Burchill’s argument as truth without question.

If you need further convincing of how irresponsible the publishing of Julie Burchill’s article was, imagine the same language being used about other minorities;

“a bunch of yids, in bad hats.”

“Negros, coloureds, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days”

I just can’t believe that had the article been using the same language, the same tone and argument against, for example jewish or black people, that the PCC would have shrugged it off on a technicality. That said, I think the PCC would have received more than 800 complaints, and Burchill would have a hard time finding further remuneration for spouting her prejudice.

All of this and more has been discussed at length though, the hatred, the upset within the trans community, the apologist follow up articles from the ‘Political Correctness? The world’s gone mad!’ brigade. Burchill also cites her working class roots in the article, pitching working class against middle class, educated against uneducated (particularly unhelpful in today’s political climate) and that too has been discussed in opinion sections and blogs in every corner of the internet. One thing about this article has not to my knowledge been publicly addressed, that is, it is terribly written.

I’m not going to get on my grammar horse and criticise her lack of hyponyms, her frankly shit punctuation or the fact that she seriously uses the word ‘ridic’ in public . I’m sure I’m guilty of an equal amount of errors. My main beef with the article as a piece of writing, written by a professional writer is that it has no structure, no logical order, isn’t researched (she repeatedly refers to trans women as transsexuals or trannies) and just appears to be one long drunken rant.

It reads like she has quite literally got shitfaced, spat on a piece of paper and typed-up the result into her laptop using her forehead as she passed out onto the keyboard.

Publishing it in the Opinion section does not make up for the appalling quality of this article. I am absolutely sure that if an unknown writer had emailed the same article to the same editor it would never have made it into print. This is what concerns me.

Julie Burchill is allowed to preach her hatred in a national newspaper because she is Julie Burchill. Her name is well known and as such, the newspaper will receive more hits on their website and thus more advertising revenue just for including her name. This is at the expense of transgender people’s quality of life, and more seriously, their personal safety.

It is also at the expense of good writers. Writers with something to say, writers at the beginning of their career, careful to research their subject before writing, concerned with the quality of their work and keen to change reader’s opinions, to challenge accepted ideas, to open peoples eyes.

When did the function of newspapers go from being a source of information and education, to one huge billboard for advertisers? It is no wonder that more of us are shunning the sunday paper and turning instead to independent internet blog sites.

The message here for budding professional writers is that quality doesn’t matter, truth doesn’t matter, and you needn’t worry about taking responsibility for the harm that your words might cause. The way to get ahead in journalism is to increase the ‘paper’s click-rate, boost online traffic in whatever way you can, cause a scandal! The more outraged people sharing your article on Facebook, the better! That’s how you get yourself the big jobs, the expenses budget…

Burchill knows that.

“…I’ve got an entertaining budget of £12.50!” (Moore) said proudly. “Sod that, we’re having lobster and champagne at Frederick’s and I’m paying,” I told her. Half a bottle of Bolly later, she looked at me with faraway eyes: “Ooo, I could get to like this…” And so she did.”