Justin Webb and the trans row causing a ‘meltdown’ at the BBC

The BBC's decision to uphold a complaint against presenter Justin Webb for a remark about 'trans women' has inadvertently opened a can of worms that has sparked an “absolute meltdown” in the BBC newsroom.

Justin Webb, the long-time presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was discussing new rules banning transgender competitors from taking part in women’s international chess tournaments when he said, “trans women, in other words males”.

A zealous, time-rich listener then complained that the comment amounted to Mr Webb giving his personal view on a controversial matter in breach of the BBC’s requirements on impartiality. Following an investigation, the BBC’s editorial complaints unit (ECU) agreed, saying it “gave the impression of endorsing one viewpoint in a highly controversial area”.

According to Robin Aitken and Liam Kelly in the Telegraph, this episode has inadvertently opened a can of worms that has sparked an “absolute meltdown” – in the words of a senior insider – in the BBC newsroom. They continue:

BBC sources say that the ruling has gone down like a cup of cold sick, especially among prominent female presenters. Senior BBC women have written to Tim Davie, the director-general, in their droves to express dismay at the way Webb has been treated. They claim that Webb only stated a fact: although gender identity is largely a social construct, biological sex is immutable and cannot be changed.

One wrote: “Clear statement of fact is not ‘one viewpoint’ and the fact that it is ‘a highly controversial area’ makes it more important to be factual, not less. If the BBC is to censure journalists for being factual, we are slipping into very dangerous waters. Once we’ve decided to dispense with public trust, we have nothing left.”

Webb has told colleagues that he feels he has been “unfairly discriminated against by the BBC” and that he thinks “there is another agenda here”.

The ECU did not interview him about what he had said, nor allowed him any direct input into the inquiry it conducted. Webb is seeking to learn from whom the ECU took advice on the issue. The suspicion, sources suggest, is that the views of trans activists were given undue weight.

The ECU’s verdict in its damning judgement of Justin Webb is telling. Its statement reads: “In relation to impartiality, however, the ECU considered it could only be understood by listeners as meaning that trans women remain male, without qualification as to gender or biological sex.”

The point to note is that this statement from the ECU is not impartial itself. The phrasing the ECU chose makes it clear that in its view sex — that is the biological reality of male and female – is quite separate from gender which in this interpretation is the socially constructed idea of men and women.

Is this an impartial stance? Is the supposed distinction between sex and gender now universally accepted? Clearly it isn’t – it is the nub of the whole controversy.

A senior BBC News insider says: “Does this ruling mean that the BBC now considers that sex and gender are independent of each other? If so, that is an important point and if the BBC is going to report these matters from that standpoint it should definitely make that clear to the audience.”

The BBC has long struggled with how to cover transgender stories, as staff clash in the newsroom and social media users criticise the corporation’s output. It was forced to admit that a 2021 online article claiming some lesbians feel pressured into sex by trans women did not meet its standards on accuracy after more than 10,000 complained about it.

The ECU ruling on Webb came in the same week that the BBC was criticised for the way it reported on the conviction of Scarlet Blake, a trans woman who murdered a man in Oxford and live streamed killing a cat with a blender. Broadcast items about the case referred to Blake only as a woman, with no mention of the killer being transgender.

“Why is it that we have said that a cat torturer and murderer is a woman, which is plainly involving ourselves in a controversy? You can argue that she is, but lots of people say she is not,” says a senior BBC journalist. “Now, we are saying that we can’t – or are we saying that? What are we saying? It is absolutely, utterly chaotic.”

Worth reading in full.