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Clickbait Endangers Lives

The U.K’s specific brand of transphobia across the political spectrum is a symptom of declining journalistic standards

Sensational headlines are nothing new – eye-catching and attention-grabbing headlines are part and parcel of journalism. However, with the rise of online news content, a new term has come to the fore to describe melodramatic or misleading headlines. Clickbait is the deliberate use of these headlines online to persuade people to click onto the news story, allowing publishers to receive more income from ad revenue due to the increased traffic on their website. 


Clickbait has been blamed for a decline in journalistic standards over the years where a journalist’s job in many newspapers (particularly regional ones) is transforming into writing the most histrionic and scandalous headlines for the sole purpose of generating ad revenue instead of writing with accuracy and integrity. Reach plc (formerly Trinity Mirror) is a publisher of 240 regional newspapers in addition to national publications such as the Daily Mirror, Daily Star and Daily Express. It has introduced ‘click’ targets for its journalists after turning many of its newspapers into mostly online publications, desperately trying to adapt to a digital world and increase profit margins as newspaper circulation declines. 


Meanwhile, in the same period of time that clickbait has arisen, transphobia in the U.K. has reached a boiling point. In 2022, there were 4,732 hate crimes committed against transgender people in England and Wales, a rise of 11% on the previous year, while homophobic and racist hate crimes actually decreased for the first time since records began. Why are trans people being left out of our progress to be a more inclusive and less prejudiced society? These figures seem even more bleak when you take into account that more than 90% of hate crimes against the queer community are unreported. 


The current wave of transphobia in the U.K. is endangering people’s lives and this can be traced to the community’s recent visibility in the press where trans people are dehumanised and targeted by hate-spewing newspapers. It is a recent phenomenon with three and a half times as many articles hostile to the trans community in 2018-19 than in 2012. The press’ fixation on trans people has proved profitable. Many readers are drawn in by the articles’ incessant hostility and are converted to transphobia by the unrelenting waves of clickbait, rage and fear, while some are content to confirm their own biases. Others read to satisfy the masochistic desire to examine the vitriolic drivel and debunk it in their heads. It is true that some national and well-respected newspapers write these transphobic pieces from more of an ideological position than a purely economic but seeing the success that newspapers like The Times and The Daily Telegraph have had with these rage-filled op-eds has prompted other, cash-grabbing newspapers to follow suit. 


The result has been the proliferation of clickbait headlines that have stimulated a moral panic regarding the transgender community. Publishers have realised that stoking a debate about whether certain people should have rights through histrionics and headlines that mislead the reader about the contents of the article generates ad revenue more effectively than accurate and fair journalism when it comes to the trans community. The consequence of the malicious bile pumped out of newspapers has been an increase in hate crimes committed against trans people. There is a direct correlation between hateful words and hateful actions that cannot be glossed over. Even in the Home Office report concerning the rise in hate crimes towards trans people, it was stated that the media was responsible for the increase along with the comments of politicians. 


The systematic persecution of transgender people in the press is a new phenomenon, a symptom of wider clickbait outrage that dogs politics and journalism alike. In January 2016, The Daily Telegraph published ten articles on transgender issues with most actively positive such as Maria Miller, a Tory MP, calling for improved trans healthcare. The newspaper is now renowned for its transphobic tirades – in January 2023, there were 75 articles about the transgender community published with 73 negative, two neutral and zero positive. Similarly, The Daily Mail released 20 articles on trans issues in January 2016 which shot up to 115 in January 2023 with overwhelmingly negative portrayals of trans people. 


It is not just hate crimes that endanger trans lives. The constant barrage of negative press has a tangible impact on the mental health of a whole community. Compared to cisgender people, transgender people are nine times more likely to have attempted suicide. The functionally useless trans healthcare system, the acute distress that plagues many trans people due to their minds’ and bodies’ disunion, and most recently, the press-stimulated moral panic targeting trans people for just existing contributes to the generally poor mental health of transgender people. Improvements to the quality of life of transgender individuals such as much-needed reforms to trans healthcare will not be coming anytime soon with the current hysteria in the U.K., whipped up by the press.


This latest bout of transphobia in the press began in earnest in 2017 when there was an initiative by Theresa May’s government to open a public consultation into reforming the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which has remained unchanged since it was implemented in 2004, to allow people to self-identify rather than having to undergo the long slog to be assessed by a medical professional to ‘prove’ that they really are transgender. The GRA allows trans people to apply for a certificate to change their gender on their birth certificate and have their true gender on their marriage and death certificate after a long, admin-filled process that requires two medical reports. There was a delay between the consultation being announced and its actual opening which gave way to absolute hysteria from the press and social media about how trans rights could threaten the rights of cisgender women.


2017 marked the start of the rapid increase of clickbaity, rage-inducing press solely focused around spreading irrational hatred and fear of trans people. Since 2017, there has been an average of 154 articles published every month on trans topics by non-queer U.K. media which is a disproportionate amount of attention given the fact that transgender people make up less than 1% of the population. The Daily Mail alone published 163 articles about the transgender community in May 2022 which averages out at more than five a day. It is one thing to publish transphobic news articles, but it is a massive escalation to then fixate on such a small number of people with the vigour and lack of veracity that they have. This is because of the way that capitalism has sunk its claws deep into U.K. newspapers – moral panics sell. Transphobia is sensationalised fodder for the masses and clickbait, misinformation and melodrama is spouted out at the rate it is because of the greed of these media organisations who are desperate to revive declining newspaper sales and increase ad revenue at the expense of human lives. Such is the moral panic stimulated by some of the avaricious newspapers, that even the most well-respected broadcasters can become caught up in it. 


In 2021, the BBC published an article with the clickbait worthy headline ‘We’re being pressured into sex by some trans women’. The headline has now been changed after it was criticised for its alarmist nature and the rest of the article was also condemned for its poor journalistic standards. It claimed that lesbians were being pressured to have sex with transgender women and used a social media poll from Get the L Out (a transphobic organisation) as evidence which had a low sample size and a self-selection bias, rendering it statistically insignificant. Moreover, it was denounced for who was chosen to be quoted in the article and who was omitted. Lily Cade was included who has since called for the “lynching” of trans women while Chelsea Poe, a trans woman, was interviewed but not quoted in the actual article.


The transphobia of the media has inevitably leaked over into politics after the 2017 GRA consultation announcement. The newspapers in this country have influenced politicians by stoking the flames of the ‘culture-war’ with both the Tories and Labour backtracking on key improvements to trans rights. In September 2020, the Minister of Women and Equalities at the time, Liz Truss, said that proposals to reform the GRA to make it easier for transgender people to legally change their gender would be discarded. This legislation would have led to much less inconvenience for transgender people and its rejection can be traced back to the moral panic that exploded into fruition in 2017. 


The media continued their transphobic frenzies into the 2021 political conference season. Both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson were asked if it was transphobic to say that only women had cervixes by Andrew Marr and GB News respectively. Justin Webb, a BBC radio presenter, asked Lib Dem leader Ed Davey if there should “not be spaces where biological males cannot go.” Nick Robinson from the BBC put it to Labour MP David Lammy that Labour has lost working-class voters in the North because they cannot relate with the cosmopolitan, young liberal urbanites down south who believe that women are people who have vaginas not people who are described as “bodies with vaginas.” David Lammy, in fact, had a perfect, aphoristic response which boiled down his frustration with the media’s obsession with trans people to an essence. He replied, “[You] are choosing to land on this subject that most British people are not talking about in a fuel crisis, and spend minutes on this, because it keeps Labour talking about identity issues and not about the substantive policies.” Why would excessive time be spent on discussing such a small and vulnerable proportion of the population when there are bigger crises to worry about?


Journalists swooping in to ask inconsequential questions in a time of massive economic difficulty distracted discourse away from the Tories’ failings (a welcome strategy to the media oligarchs who donate to the Tory party) and it was just to produce clickbait headlines such as, ‘Wrong to say that only women have a cervix, says Keir Starmer’. Many of these irrelevant ‘gotcha’ questions acted as if there is a large, unionised movement sweeping over the nation under one cohesive agenda to turn children trans, or undermine feminism, or censor those they disagreed with – this is the mythical ‘trans lobby’ which there was no mention of in 2012, while in 2018-19, there were 151 mentions. The ‘trans lobby’ refers to the belief that there are actually powerful trans people behind the scenes, censoring and influencing journalism and politics in the U.K. which is of course, a blatant crack-pot conspiracy theory designed to produce a reaction from readers. 


In 2022, the media rampage culminated in Scotland’s proposed progressive reforms to its gender recognition legislation almost causing a constitutional crisis between the devolved government and U.K. Parliament. The arguments that were used by the press in this particular instance have been cropping up repeatedly since 2017. That trans rights (and particularly trans women’s rights), are a danger to cis women’s rights. 


2017 was a launchpad for British TERFs. An acronym for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, TERFs are biological essentialists, rejecting that an individual can be transgender since they believe in the simplified ‘fact’ that biological sex governs gender even though science disagrees. They see the world in a series of black and white dichotomies – that those with XY chromosomes are the oppressors and those with XX are the oppressed (they have not got as far as intersex people yet). This form of ‘feminism’ is underpinned by reducing women down to their reproductive organs which is distinctly patriarchal as well as transphobic. According to their logic, trans women are actually men who are simply dressing-up in order to gain opportunities to abuse ‘real’ women and trans men are confused women, trying to escape the oppression inherent in their sex by becoming a man. 


TERF logic encompasses many of the arguments commonly trotted out by the media in the U.K. as to why trans people’s lives should be as inconvenient and difficult as possible. For example, trans women shouldn’t be let in women’s toilets since they are men and therefore inherently predatory. That argument was used many times in 2022 in the media regarding the Scottish reforms to the gender recognition legislation even though the reforms had absolutely nothing to do with toilets, demonstrating the lack of critical thinking that many of these TERF journalists exercise. A plethora of  academic studies have concluded that trans rights do not endanger cis rights in any way, shape or form. In fact, trans people are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted compared to cis people.


Trans exclusionary radical feminism and its logic is uniquely prevalent in the U.K., especially in the media. The dangerous facet of this particular brand of transphobia is that it is employed across the political spectrum, even permeating newspapers that are considered left wing. Intuitively, it seems like there should be a positive correlation between trans inclusivity and the left but many TERFs are ostensibly left wing. In the U.K., there is a confluence between right wing transphobes, especially in a conservative country like England, and generally left wing exclusionary feminists who have major positions of influence within the press.


Morning Star is a left-wing publication that has published transphobic columns, trying to convert members of the Labour Party to their anti-trans logic. In 2018, The Guardian followed suit after the open consultation concerning the GRA with an op-ed that was not vitriolic per se, presenting itself as balanced and fair, but it was still sufficiently transphobic to concern the American branch of the newspaper. 


While TERFs still exist in the U.S.A., the left across the Atlantic are less inclined to transphobia, perhaps influenced by the American ethos of individuality so trans people are left to get on with their lives, or because liberal media is more close-knit in the U.K. so a few prominent journalists with exclusionary beliefs can cause significant ripple effects. Whatever the cause, there is undoubtedly a distinctive schism between the U.K. and U.S. left wing when it comes to trans rights. Guardian journalists from the U.S. contacted U.K. editors about their worries regarding the fact that they felt that it was irresponsible to publish an editorial that argued that to give trans people rights, there was a danger that cis women's rights would be taken away. In the US, these arguments are used by the hard right wing who have pushed transphobic bills into law. They were unsettled that The U.K. Guardian's intolerant stance was relatively tolerant compared to other mainstream newspapers over here.


There has been internal pushback in The Guardian with younger journalists disagreeing with transphobic senior columnists such as Suzanne Moore who resigned from the newspaper in 2020. After her resignation, The Newstatesman, another prominent left wing publication, published a short article in support of her, condemning the infringement on free speech when 338 Guardian employees signed a letter protesting against the transphobic content of the paper.


Katherine Viner, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, has stated that “chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy … undermines the value of journalism”. The quote was from 2016, before transphobia in its present form really kicked off and it is true that the Guardian, even in its few transphobic articles, has never stooped to employing clickbait to generate much-needed funds but their op-eds with intolerant opinions not generally characteristic of liberal media fuel the clickbait culture alive in transphobia-filled tabloids like The Daily Mail. 


As leftists, it is essential that we realise the failings of our own side of the political spectrum. Transphobia cannot be tolerated in the movement to achieve the fair and equal society that many of us desire. Journalists who write these transphobic articles aren’t all the classic Homo economicus, incentivised to profit from suffering by the simple economic rationale of a capitalist society, though they aren’t uncommon. Many are influential, ostensibly left-wing, journalists who are motivated by their trans-exclusionary 'feminist' ideology. TERF rhetoric goes beyond transgender issues so it is essential that it is spotted in mainstream left-wing discourse before it blooms into obvious hatred. As well as being keystones of the queer community, trans people are strong allies to have while fascism is on the rise. It is our collective responsibility to hold the press accountable for the lives that they threaten in pursuit of profit. In our fight for a just society, no one can be left behind. 


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A. Wraith is currently studying geography at university where he takes a particular interest in rewilding, peatland and land rights. He enjoys walking, camping and climbing as well as staying indoors with his videogames, books and films.

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