The Telegraph’s attacks on Mermaids are damaging trust – and young people will pay the price

A screenshot of a Telegraph article with a picture of the CEO of Mermaids on the right holding a placard

Young people will pay the price for The Telegraph‘s attacks on trans kids’ charity Mermaids, activists have warned.

Since Sunday (25 September), The Telegraph has published a series of articles about the charity, which provides support to trans children and their families.

In one article, the newspaper accused Mermaids of putting children at risk by providing them with chest binders “behind parents’ backs”.

The report relied on an email exchange between an adult pretending to be a 14-year-old trans child and a member of staff at Mermaids.

Next, The Telegraph published an article in which it questioned whether the provision or use of chest binders could be considered “child abuse”. 

The article referenced a page on the Metropolitan Police’s website about chest ironing, a practice that is generally carried out in parts of Africa.

It is usually forced on young girls against their will and involves family members using painful and abusive methods to flatten a child’s breasts and hinder their development.

That article prompted outcry, with many pointing out that breast ironing and wearing a binder are not the same thing.

Finally, the newspaper published an article on Thursday (29 September) alleging Mermaids was under investigation by the Charity Commission for “safeguarding red flags”.

PinkNews revealed the report to be entirely inaccurate – Mermaids is not being investigated by the Charity Commission.

Instead, the commission has opened what it describes as a “regulatory compliance case” after it received multiple complaints about the charity’s conduct after The Telegraph‘s coverage.

In a statement, the Charity Commission explained: “Concerns have been raised with us about Mermaids’ approach to safeguarding young people. We have opened a regulatory compliance case, and have written to the trustees. We now await their reply.”

A “regulatory compliance case” is not the same as an investigation – that’s called a statutory inquiry, which the commission has confirmed is not underway.

The Telegraph‘s reporting a ‘concerted attack’ on Mermaids

The series of articles has led to outcry among LGBTQ+ people, with many criticising The Telegraph for deliberately obscuring facts and for misrepresenting chest binders.

Cleo Madeleine, communications officer at Gendered Intelligence, says the articles are part of a “concerted attack” from right-wing media against the LGBTQ+ charity sector more broadly.

She believes The Telegraph‘s reporting is directly linked to the legal challenge spearheaded by Mermaids challenging the Charity Commission’s decision to register the anti-trans LGB Alliance as a charity.

“I think that is part of it – there’s obviously very strong connections between The Telegraph and organisations like the LGB Alliance,” Madeleine says.

“They’re trying to draw fire on Mermaids, particularly on the people working for Mermaids, in much the same way as Stonewall was dragged through the press during the Allison Bailey tribunal.

“It’s a concerted attack that’s intended to bring a lot of negative publicity to the organisation but also to invite the harassment, particularly on social media, of the people who are working for the organisation. It’s an all out attack.”

PinkNews has contacted The Telegraph for comment but it is yet to respond.

Madeleine also points out that the reports are coming as the UK’s economy lurches rapidly toward the cliff-edge – she says the press could be using trans people as a distraction.

“It’s really reminiscent of the way that gay people and specifically gay men were talked about during a time of similar crisis in the 1980s when we had the introduction of Section 28, the mismanagement of the AIDS crisis, and some of the language that’s being used around trans people now is very reminiscent of the Thatcherite language around gay people then.”

The real cost of it is going to be borne by young people.

The impacts of articles like those published by The Telegraph are far-reaching,” says Madeleine. The coverage is “hugely damaging” to the trans community more widely.

“Thanks to this media campaign and the political campaign against trans people there is a huge amount of misinformation and a huge amount of mistrust between the LGBT community and the general population.

“It’s just making it easier and easier to fall into these traps of misinformation and the real consequence of that is that young people who really need support, whether it’s from an LGBT organisation, from their community, from their school, are losing that support.”

Madeleine says such coverage also “compromises public faith in the press at a time when public faith in institutions is collapsing generally”.

“The real cost of it is going to be borne by young people,” she says.

The backlash on social media to the series of articles was swift. One parent of a trans child echoed Madeleine’s suggestion that the backlash is intended to distract from economic doom.

The attacks on Mermaids come just weeks after a tribunal challenging the Charity Commission’s decision to register the LGB Alliance as a charity heard evidence.

The legal challenge was spearheaded by Mermaids and is supported by LGBT+ Consortium, Gendered Intelligence, LGBT Foundation, TransActual and the Good Law Project.

Responding to The Telegraph‘s initial article, Mermaids said in a statement: “Some trans masculine, non-binary and gender diverse people experience bodily dysphoria, as a result of their chest, and binding, for some, helps alleviate that distress.

“Mermaids takes a harm reduction position with the understanding that providing a young person with a binder and comprehensive safety guidelines from an experienced member of staff is preferable to the likely alternative of unsafe practices and/or continued or increasing dysphoria.

“The risk is considered by Mermaids staff within the context of our safeguarding framework.”