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Notes From The Niallist: is Transgate another nail in the coffin of oldstream media?

Writer Paris Lees, image via lastofthecleanbohemians
“Transgate”, the recent controversy surrounding writers Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill’s comments about transgendered people online and in the print media, may seem like a bit of a storm in a teacup to those who have not been directly affected by the issues.

But it could be a decisive moment, not just for transgender awareness, but also how people view the “oldstream” media (in the UK at least) and in turn how social media can shape and express changes in public opinions exponentially quicker, and much more powerfully, than print and television can. 

That’s one of the very interesting topics of conversation in a Google Hangout-filmed debate posted by Channel 4 News yesterday, titled Transsexual people and the online age of outrage. It features writer Paris Lees, of META magazine and this well read Vice article, Sarah Savage of Channel 4’s My Transexual Summer, and experts on social media and transgender-issues.

Transgate certainly seems, as is mentioned in the video, a tipping point in public aware of the transgender community and the struggles faced by its members. I certainly don’t remember this much debate around a trans issue in my lifetime, and if there’s any heartening aspect to this whole shameful debacle, it’s that the backlash suggests trans people now have more allies than ever before.

But aside from drawing attention to the hateful attitudes certain persons, columnists, and even schools of feminism display towards people on the trans spectrum, this whole issue has made it that much clearer to the public just how valuable our opinions (and our freedom to express them) are to oldstream media. More and more, the cries of “freedom of speech!” and “anti-censorship” employed by columnists and news institutions over the last week are beginning to translate to the general public as “freedom for us to tell you how it is!”

This is particularly evident when commenters try to repost quotes from the Burchill article itself in the comments sections under certain op-ed pieces decrying the removal of her article only to see the quotes themselves removed. It has happened to me, and it has happened to others, and it makes a mockery of any kind of claim to “free speech”. Why should a writer of such low caliber as Julie Burchill be allowed to make statements about a social group, when members of the public are blocked from doing so?

It’s quite simply a PR disaster for print journalism.

This comes at a time when the Levenson Enquiry is trying to establish whether an independent regulator is needed for the British press. As people are getting their news from online sources much more these days, and thus beginning to doubt the role (and agendas) of mainstream news outlets, journalists are unlikely to be able to whip up enough outrage—real or “manufactured”, a frankly hypocritical term journalists LOVE to use about any controversy that they themselves did not stir up—to make people give a damn.

And let’s be clear about one thing, this is NOT an issue of “censorship”, a claim that’s getting bleated over and over in various echo chambers. If the offensive article was really “censored”, then how come it’s so easy to find on another major, mainstream news platform? I thought “censored” meant it would be gone for good? Or only available through a leaks site? Not on the site of the Daily Telegraph, surely?

This quote from Harry Giles very neatly explains the difference between “censorship” and “editorial policy”:

“… the columnists get it wrong … most call the Observer’s decision “censorship”, without expanding what they mean by that. This makes it seem as if the Observer’s decision were equal with a government passing a law against a speech or a type of speech. Government censorship prevents all speech of a certain kind, or an instance of speech, from happening in a country. Newspaper censorship – another word for which is “editorial policy” – says “we do not think this kind of speech should happen in our house”. Granted, because newspapers have a particular important role in a free speech society, they should be more careful about restrictions in their editorial policy than I would about restrictions on my Facebook wall.”

That is part of an excellent blog post by Giles, called Julie Burchill, Newspapers and Freedom of Speech, that dissects Transgate in a cool, calm and steadfastly philosophical fashion. It’s one of the best analyses I have read about the whole matter, and avoids being confrontational, or emotional (which is pretty hard, considering the language used by both Burchill and Moore.) I highly recommend it.

And for more enlightened discussion of Transgate and the mainstream media’s reaction to the “Twitter storm” here is the Channel 4 News discussion:

Transsexual people and the online age of outrage


Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
02:23 pm
Information Wars: Twitter versus English privacy laws

Heard the one about the footballer, the actor, English privacy laws and Twitter? Not if you live in the UK you haven’t—or so the British legal system would like you to think. However the reality is very, very different. Things are kicking off here at the moment over the distribution of certain bits of information (which cannot be mentioned) concerning certain individuals (who cannot be named) on the Internet (where all this info is being made public regardless).

In the UK the courts can issue a thing called an “injunction.” This is in effect a gagging order that stops the press from reporting on a particular story or court case, though the injunction itself can still be reported on. It can be taken one step further with the imposition of a “super-injunction,” in which the media can not even report on the issuing of the original injunction. Recently a few new Twitter accounts have popped up that claim to spill the beans and name the names in a number of super-injunctions. Although oldstream media have been forced to remain silent on these stories, the juicy details have spread like wildfire across the Internet. You can have a look for yourself, though the names will probably not mean much to a non-Brit audience—the most popular of the Twitter accounts are InjunctionSuper, SuperInjunction, and SuperInjBuster.

Some of these claims leaking through these accounts are believed to be false, but some not. If they are true, this brings English privacy laws into massive disarray, and makes injunctions pretty useless at stopping information from reaching the public. And with the information now available, people are now voicing what many have suspected for years—that super injunctions are used not for the sake of justice but to protect the careers and public images of the rich and famous by gagging the press. Comments from senior members of the legal system only go to re-enforce the idea that they are badly out of touch with the public and the reality of social networking media. From the Telegraph interview with Lord Judge (yes, that is his name) last Friday:

“The internet had “by no means the same degree of intrusion into privacy as the story being emblazoned on the front pages of newspapers”, which “people trust more”, he said.”


But Internet access means that people in the UK can quickly and easily read about the injected stories in other countries’ media, begging the question, what’s the point of injunctions in this day and age? And so the British print media are fighting back, finding ways of getting around the court’s orders. Yesterday the Scottish Sunday Herald published the face of the footballer at the centre of the biggest super injunction row, Ryan Giggs, on its front page (injunction are apparently limited ot the English press). Giggs’ name was also mentioned in British Pariliament, meaning that that story can now be reported on in the English newspapers due to rules over “Parliamentary privilege”. MPs and the courts are now at loggerheads over whether injunctions should restrict Parilamentary privilege.

The major questions all of this brings to mind are: are we going to start seeing clampdowns on freedom of expression here on the Internet? Are new rules and measures going to be put in place to stop people from talking and writing about specific topics? Those topics may or may not be true, but should we be stopped from mentioning them? And just how exactly would these potential rules on the limiting of expression be enforced? The English courts have already issued the first ever injunction specifically for Facebook and Twitter but just how they are going to enforce these laws, in this age of WIkileaks and Anonymous, of proxies, of IP address blockers, of pay as you go dongles and multiple fake online personas, remains to be seen. Somehow I just don’t think it will be as simple as the lawyer Mark Stephens (interviewed in The Independent) believes:

“The person who has committed this contempt of court will be best advised to take their toothbrush because they will probably be going to Pentonville jail,” he said. “Their emails used to upload this information are being traced, I imagine, as we speak.”

The cat is out of the bag, as it were, or to use another mammalian metaphor, the horse has bolted. New information on the super injunction story (and the stories the super injunctions are trying to protect) is coming to light every day. To keep abreast of what’s going on you could keep tabs on the British news outlets I have linked to above (The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Evening Standard) or ironically you might just be better off getting your info from a non-British source. Me, I’ll stick to reading the no-holds-barred Super Injunction Blog. Tough luck Mr Giggs.


Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
05:28 pm