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BBC rebukes Justin Webb over comment on Kathleen Stock row

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-02-07
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Justin Webb’s description of the student protesters as abusive was found to be accurate as some of the language they used was ‘incontestably abusive’.

The Today programme presenter Justin Webb has been partially rebuked by the BBC after he suggested students were lying when they accused a university professor of transphobia.

Introducing Radio 4’s newspaper review last October, Webb said: “And quite a lot of coverage still of Kathleen Stock, the academic from Sussex University who’s been abused by students who accuse her, falsely, of transphobia. She says her union has now effectively ended her career. It’s published a statement of support, not for her but for those who are abusing her.”

Four listeners complained to the BBC that Webb’s use of “falsely” was inaccurate and betrayed a personal opinion. Three also complained of inaccuracy and apparent bias in describing the students who had been protesting against Stock as “abusing her”.

Stock left her position as a philosophy professor at the University of Sussex at the end of last year after protests over her views on gender identification and transgender rights. She said she had no choice but to resign after protests from students and opposition from fellow academics.

The BBC’s editorial complaints unit ruled that Webb was not sufficiently accurate when he suggested the accusation of transphobia against Stock had been disproved. This was because the “validity or otherwise of the accusation of transphobia are the heart of the controversy”.

However, the BBC rejected listener complaints that Webb or the Today programme staff breached impartiality rules by expressing their personal opinions on a controversial subject. Instead, they said the word “falsely” was used by the presenter because he was introducing a summary of a Spectator article by Julie Bindel that was supportive of Stock and criticised “extreme transgender ideology”.

The BBC complaints unit also ruled Webb’s description of the student protesters as abusive was accurate because some of the language they had used was “incontestably abusive, irrespective of the merits of the arguments”. Among those who filed complaints to the BBC was Freddy McConnell, a transgender journalist who recently lost his legal battle to register as his child’s father.

The public broadcaster has increasingly struggled with how to cover transgender issues, with editorial clashes between staff in the newsroom as well as rolling criticism on social media of specific articles.

Last year the BBC withdrew from a diversity scheme run by the LGBT charity Stonewall that provided guidelines on running an inclusive workplace. Executives said that although it did not believe membership of the scheme compromised its impartiality, the perception that it could do so was causing problems for the BBC.

At the time the BBC director general, Tim Davie, said his organisation was committed to providing a safe space but insisted “our journalism must be impartial and reflect a range of views” on policy debates such as changes to the law around transgender issues.

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