Earlier this month, The Observer ran a column by Julie Burchill on its website called "Transsexuals should cut it out." The column was, for lack of a better term, one long, insane screed against trans people, in particular trans women, whom Burchill does not think count as "real women."
Only it turns out, when you publish a column that tells an entire group of people to jump up their own asses, people tend to call you out on it. After the paper was flooded with criticism for publishing Burchill's piece, The Observer's editors quickly pulled it and released a statement on the matter, explaining why they decided to take down the post.
Many correspondents pointed out that our own editorial code states "... we should not casually use words that are likely to offend" and cited clause 12 of the national Editors' Code: "The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability." But note, this is a safeguard for individuals; it offers no protection for groups or "communities".
The problem for the editor, and the reason why he took the decision to take the piece off guardian.co.uk, is that he did not feel he could defend it in that form. It also breached the standards that the paper expects others to uphold when they submit comments to the website. They state: "We will not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of hate-speech or contributions that could be interpreted as such. We recognise the difference between criticising a particular government, organisation, community or belief and attacking people on the basis of their race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age."
The editor told me: "This clearly fell outside what we might consider reasonable. The piece should not have been published in that form. I don't want the Observer to be conducting debates on those terms or with that language. It was offensive, needlessly. We made a misjudgment and we apologise for that."
So basically, they have editorial codes in place to ensure that pieces like Burchill's never get published, but they only remembered them after everyone pointed them out.
To give credit where credit is due, they realized that they were in the wrong and admitted to it and are currently in the process of rectifying their mistake, but the simple fact is, they knew what they were publishing was vitriolic and offensive -- seriously, did you read the title? -- and they posted it anyway. I understand posting opinions that are unpopular or contrarian, but there's a difference between giving a voice to differing viewpoints and encouraging stupid, crazy people to be stupid and crazy.
If you have an opinion and you have facts and science and reality to book it up? By all means, speak your mind. But publishing something that's just stubbornly wrong and then trying to write it off as "opening up a debate" is disingenuous at best. Some things just aren't really a debate: trans women/men are women/men, the moon landing happened, vaccines don't give kids autism . . . Without reality or common sense, debates are just two sides screaming at each other until one manages to shame the other into adopting their opinion.