Fighting transphobia at The Times
My name is Katherine O'Donnell and for 14 years I was a journalist at The Times. I took my job seriously and I strongly believe in honest and responsible journalism.
I also happen to be a transgender woman.
In recent years I became deeply alarmed by my own newspaper's hostile and inaccurate reporting on transgender people.
I raised my concerns repeatedly, but was each time silenced, ignored or stonewalled.
As the only trans employee - indeed as one of the very few trans people in journalism - I felt increasingly uncomfortable at work.
Rather than addressing the paper's bigoted output, my employers treated me as the problem and in January 2018 I was unfairly dismissed in a redundancy that made no commercial sense and had not a scrap of paperwork.
I went up against the might of Rupert Murdoch's legal machine at an employment tribunal. To my shock and that of my barrister, the tribunal decided that a paper that calls transgender people names and mocks our appearance is a safe and supportive workplace.
We believe that the tribunal's judgement was wrong.
Your money will allow us to bring in an expert QC and take my case to the next level.
What happens if we win?
It will change the law and force newspapers to put facts and accuracy above propaganda and prejudice.
As employers, it will make them think twice before demonising and misrepresenting minorities.
It will oblige the Times to respect my 14 years of professional dedication and, above all, learn that they cannot use redundancy as an excuse for dismissing those who speak out for accurate journalism and against bigotry.
What you can do
Please help us to raise the funds to take this case to appeal.
Share this story widely.
How will the funds be spent?
The purpose of the fund is to meet the legal fees and expenses that will be entailed by taking my case to appeal.
The most significant of these costs will be meeting the fees of a QC expert in appeals in the Scottish Employment Tribunal. These will be for assessment, preparation and representation.
Additional costs are expected to include barrister and solicitor fees and travel expenses and administrative support.
When do we need the funds by?
As soon as possible. Time is very limited and we need to get the appeal underway
Who will administer the fund?
The fund will be administered by me and I will keep a record of all expenditure. At the conclusion of the appeal process any unspent funds raised will be donated to Equality Network, a leading national charity working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) equality and human rights in Scotland.
Many former Times staff came forward to give evidence on my behalf, including Tom Wills, journalist and former Data Journalism Editor of The Times
Katherine O’Donnell is a brave journalist who stood up to her bosses at The Times over their dishonest reporting around transgender people.
Speaking up for truth and fairness cost Kathy her career. After being sacked, she took the Murdoch-owned newspaper to an employment tribunal.
Kathy’s legal case revealed explosive evidence of a culture of bullying, misogyny and transphobia, but her claims were dismissed.
Kathy is ready to keep fighting. Winning an appeal would mean not only justice for her but would force The Times to reconsider a newsroom culture that produces prejudiced coverage that does harm to trans people, Muslims and other minorities. The case upholds the primacy of truth and accuracy in journalism.
This is a rare opportunity to push back against bigotry in the mainstream press. Please give generously so Kathy can appeal the tribunal’s decision.
Want to know more? Settle in for a short film and the long read ...
Until January 2018, I was employed by The Times as Night Editor of the Scottish edition.
Since the installation of John Witherow as Editor of The Times in 2013, I noticed the newspaper becoming ever more deeply antagonistic and dishonest in its reporting on transgender people.
I happen to be a trans woman and was the only trans person on the paper’s staff.
I documented the distortions, untruths and journalistic failures around The Times’ and Sunday Times reporting and commentary on trans issues and protested to John Witherow, and to Rebekah Brooks, CEO of parent company News UK.
I told them how damaging this misrepresentation was for the welfare of trans people, especially young people, as well as its implications for the integrity and reputation of the paper. I called on them to reconsider their approach and uphold the primacy of truth and accuracy.
They took little notice. Indeed, the attacks on trans and non-binary people intensified. More than 140 problematic pieces containing distortions, inaccuracies and plain untruths were produced within 12 months.
The Times and Sunday Times are unique in the UK press in that as newspapers of record they are legally bound by an Undertaking to the UK Government, signed in 1981 by Rupert Murdoch when he purchased the titles. The Undertaking exists to prevent Murdoch exercising editorial control. It binds the two papers to the highest standard of accuracy and integrity and to political neutrality.
My case presents clear evidence that under John Witherow’s editorship these key conditions of the Undertaking are frequently broken.
Three years from when I had first given warning to Witherow and Brooks of problems with the paper’s editorial attitudes towards trans people and a year after I had warned the Managing Editor and the head of HR about the growing anti-trans culture within the workplace, in November of 2017 I was told that my job was to cease to exist. In the consultation period that followed, it became clear that the Times had no record of any cost/benefit analysis of the termination of my role because none had been carried out. Even more astonishing, the assistant managing editor responsible for the redundancy process demonstrated that she did not know what I did or what my responsibilities were.
Instead of my senior editorial role, The Times offered me a junior job in advertising and finally, in the last moments of the consultation, a relocation to London with a demotion in seniority that, with two teenagers of exam age in school in Scotland, they knew I could not possibly accept.
After losing my sole income and any prospect of continuing my career in journalism, I took Times Newspapers Ltd to an Employment Tribunal.
My witnesses, who included four former Times staff, came forward to give evidence. They revealed:
· open antipathy to trans people by the Editor;
· intimidation and bullying in the workplace, especially directed at women;
· the physical assault by the Editor of another journalist who stood up to him;
· how the Editor pushed a senior journalist to publish an incendiary front page story about Muslims despite knowing it was factually flawed;
· a history of sexism, misogyny and bullying in the workplace culture.
Other witnesses with expertise in LGBT equality rights gave evidence of the very deep concerns felt by the LGBT community and others over The Times and Sunday Times’ onslaught on trans people and equality and its impact on, health, employment, housing and the rising level of violence and hate crime directed towards them.
Alongside conventional claims of unfair dismissal, my lawyer and I put forward a ground-breaking argument that in media organisations, a clear editorial antipathy by editors towards a minority – in my case trans people – has a poisonous effect on workplace culture.
In other words, if your boss is an editor who publicly promotes antipathy towards people like you, can you really expect to be treated fairly in the workplace?
The legal challenge was made possible by barrister Robin White, an employment and discrimination specialist at Old Square Chambers, London, who stepped forward with an offer to represent me without fee unless we won. Under Ms White’s guidance I acted as my own solicitor.
The Tribunal began in Edinburgh in May 2019 and concluded with a judgement delivered late in August. The judgement sidestepped our arguments and was full of classic misogynistic and transphobic arguments.
Ms White, my witnesses including Tom Wills and the many organisations and individuals that had supported my case have joined me in condemning the Tribunal’s judgement as incompetent.
We believe that no employer should be able to hide behind a false argument of freedom of expression or an inability to monitor its own output to justify the persecution of minorities or people with protected characteristics and that newspapers and other media are responsible to their staff to provide a safe and fair workplace.
We believe that journalists who stand up for equality and human rights and the primacy of truth in reporting and commentary should not be forced to pay for their principles with their livelihood.
This is why Ms White, Mr Wills and I now begin the task of overturning the Employment Tribunal’s judgement and changing the law.
We are committed to appealing the decision – and for that we really need you to step forward with help and support.
Two years of fighting the case to this point has entirely exhausted my own financial resources. The appeal is likely to take months and we will need to bring in a QC.
My case is about much more than my career.
It is about ensuring that media giants cannot with impunity stamp on the rights of those minorities they dislike.
It is about the primacy of truth and accuracy.
If we can win this case, then not just The Times, but ALL newspapers and media organisations will be forced to think again about bullying and scapegoating minorities.
Who we are
Katherine O’Donnell has been a print and broadcast journalist from more than 30 years. From 2004 to 2018 she worked for The Times, holding the senior role of Night Editor on the Scotland Edition of the paper. She has two children and lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Katherine is a trustee of Equality Network, Scotland’s largest charitable advocate for equality for LGBTIQ people.
Robin White is a barrister at Old Square Chambers, London. She specialises in employment and discrimination law
Tom Wills is a journalist who worked for The Times at the same time as Katherine O’Donnell and also raised concerns about transphobic reporting. He later resigned and is now a freelancer based in Berlin.
1. What’s wrong with The Times’ reporting on transgender people and trans issues?
Common errors included misrepresentation of the Equality Act 2010, the Gender Recognition Act 2004, the aims and operations of charitable bodies set up to support trans people and their families, the fabrication of controversy when none existed, the elevation as ‘experts’ of individuals and groups who oppose the equality of trans people and their access to healthcare but have absolutely no expertise, experience or credentials in the area.
2. Why does Katherine believe her redundancy was based on discrimination?
The usual rules of redundancy were not followed. The Times has been unable to produce a single document, email or record to show that any analysis, cost assessment or discussion of the axing of Kathy’s post took place prior to the notification and its post-fact justifications were based on demonstrable falsehoods.
It is Katherine’s belief that the redundancy was directly connected to her repeated challenges to the Editor over the paper’s hostility to trans people and equality.
Witnesses and evidence
Among the witnesses to appear for Ms O’Donnell was Tom Wills, the former Data Journalism Editor of The Times. Mr Wills’ evidence is clear in illustrating how the Tribunal’s judgement failed to address the issue of a workplace culture at the Times that is prejudicial to trans people.
Compare this extract from Mr Wills’ witness statement with the Tribunal’s findings, in which his evidence is not mentioned [NB Alan Hunter is the Head of Digital at the Times and Sunday Times and was Mr Wills’line manager]:
From the Judgement. The evidence of Tom Wills and other witnesses of discrimination in the workplace at the Times is not mentioned:
On the issue of the Times’ untruthful, inaccurate and misleading coverage of trans issues in news and in commentary, the Tribunal simply ignored the evidence of Mr Wills and of other witnesses, such as James Morton of equality charity Scottish Trans Alliance, Jane Fae of Trans Media Watch and veteran equality advocate Christine Burns MBE that the unrelentingly negative and dishonest nature - rather than the frequency - of the Times reporting and commentary on trans issues is what sets it apart from other newspapers.
To illustrate Ms O’Donnell’s argument: If for example a newspaper pursued a relentlessly white supremacist editorial position, would its only black employee need to be named personally in the racist articles for that employee to have reasonable fears that their colleagues and workplace culture were prejudiced?
Furthermore, the Tribunal fails to acknowledge that IPSO, which does not consider collective complaints, is a voluntary scheme run by and for publishers including the Times and itself the subject of widespread and serious criticism. The Tribunal’s Judgement concludes:
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