The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a reader’s letter published in print by The Daily Telegraph headed “Briefly” on 14 November 2020. The letter read, “With reference to the serial murderer Reginald Arthurell wanting taxpayers to fork out for his sex change operation, my husband said he’d perform this procedure absolutely free!”.
In response to a complaint noting the letter appeared to be threatening genital mutilation of a person on the basis of their transgender status, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the letter complied with General Principle 6. This requires the publication to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
In response, the publication said the letter expresses the opinion of the letter writer and focuses on the issue of taxpayers paying for a medical procedure of a convicted murderer. The publication said genital mutilation is not mentioned and the brief letter expresses one opinion held by a person in the community. The publication said there may be alternative views on how taxpayers’ money should or could be spent. The publication said the majority of their readership would perceive the author to be using humour to make their intended point, however acknowledged that some may have misconstrued the meaning of the letter.
The publication offered to provide a letter of similar length expressing the complainant’s viewpoint and they were prepared to publish it in the same position that the original letter appeared. The complainant did not pursue this remedy.
The Council’s General Principle 6 requires that publications avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The Council notes that publications must comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice in relation to letters they select and edit for publication, while also acknowledging that letters to the editor are very much an expression of the letter writer’s opinion. The Council does however recognise that passive or incidental promotion of violence and prejudice against transgender persons, including in the guise of humour, could breach the Council’s Standards of Practice and those choosing and editing letters for publication should be aware of the need for care.
The Council considers that in this instance, rather than being a serious call to violence, the letter very much reflects the strong disapproval of the writer at the crimes of the convicted person and what the letter writer considers in the circumstances to be an unjust use of community money to fund the person’s transition. The Council also considers that the letter was intended as morbid humour and most readers would recognise this. While some readers would regard the letter as offensive, distressing and prejudicial, the Council considers that in context it did not reach the level of the publication failing to take reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress and prejudice.
Accordingly, the Council considers that General Principle 6 was not breached.
Relevant Council Standards:
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council. Publications must take reasonable steps to:
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.