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August 23, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:15am

Transgender ex-Times journalist loses discrimination claim against paper

By Charlotte Tobitt

A transgender former Times journalist has lost an employment dispute with the newspaper in which she claimed it had a sexist newsroom culture that discriminates against trans people.

Katherine O’Donnell, a former night editor of the Scottish edition of The Times, sued the paper for unfair dismissal and discrimination, harassment and victimisation after she was made redundant in January 2018.

O’Donnell, who spent 14 years at the newspaper group, claimed at an employment tribunal held in Edinburgh this summer that there was a “toxic environment for trans people” at the title.

All of the journalist’s claims have now been dismissed by the tribunal judge.

A Times spokesperson told Press Gazette: “We are pleased this judgment dismisses all the claims made by the claimant and confirms that The Times took reasonable and appropriate decisions and did not show any anti-transgender bias towards its staff.”

O’Donnell said in a statement on Twitter and through her lawyer that she was “disappointed” with the judgment and is considering an appeal.

“To my witnesses and all who have supported me over the past two years, thank you,” she added.

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Times editor John Witherow and a number of senior editorial staff appeared at the tribunal to defend the newspaper’s reporting on transgender issues.

O’Donnell used dozens of examples of stories and columns published over several years as evidence of what she alleged was a deliberate campaign against the transgender community.

While at the Times, O’Donnell emailed the editor and other senior staff, including News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks, on several occasions to share her concern over stories, including columns by Janice Turner and Jeremy Clarkson.

Witherow strongly defended the title’s reputation as “the paper of record”, telling the tribunal: “There is not any trans bias in The Times.

“There is quite a lot of stories picked out, over a couple of years, but we publish about 60,000 stories a year.

“Not all are outstanding pieces of journalism but most are. We take great care in getting things right, in being good reporters.”

In submissions to the tribunal, The Times said the number of articles it published on transgender issues was in line with other broadsheet newspapers and that no complaints about them had been upheld by regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

The tribunal also heard that in August 2013, O’Donnell emailed Witherow to share her “deep appreciation” for the paper’s coverage of Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s transition.

“It makes me very proud indeed of this paper,” she wrote.

In her judgment, Judge Jane Porter said: “In all the circumstances the tribunal considered that it was not in a position to make a finding that articles on transgender [issues] published by the [Times] during [O’Donnell’s] employment were transphobic.”

The judge added that the articles were mainly presented as opinion pieces which “related to matters of legitimate and topical public interest and debate and were supported by research”.

O’Donnell was undergoing gender reassignment when she joined the Times as a staff sub-editor in January 2004 and presented as a man until her probation period had ended.

In her witness statement, she said: “Once I transitioned to a female role in the office, the quality of my work did not lessen but it was immediately obvious to me that a number of the senior men in the office applied unequal standards to male and female colleagues.

“Women who were highly competent in their role and confident of expressing their professional opinion were frequently under-valued and their authority undermined by some of the male executives.

“I saw men of mediocre talent promoted beyond their abilities and women of exceptional talent held back.”

She also claimed that to be a trans woman at the paper “was to experience both systematised sexism and a range of comments and behaviours that were uniquely distressing”.

But Judge Porter dismissed claims of a “boys’ club” at the Times, noting there was a “significant number of senior women in powerful positions”.

O’Donnell joined the Scottish edition of the Times as chief sub-editor in 2007, taking on the role of acting night editor in October 2009, although she claimed she wasn’t officially given the title until May 2013 and never received a pay rise to match the promotion.

However, according to the tribunal judgment, she was deemed unsuitable for a promotion by a colleague in 2011 because of her “performance at conference and her inability to select and discuss appropriate stories for the Scottish edition”.

She was made redundant after she turned down an offer to return to London to work as the Times’ chief sub-editor or take a new role in the Glasgow office.

Her lawyer Robin White claimed during the tribunal the decision had been taken “to remove an effective, hard-working, loyal, committed, transgender employee who did not fit in with the Times’ agenda of not being in the [transgender] supportive camp”.

Rejecting this idea, Jane Callon for the Times said: “If [O’Donnell] had been willing to work in London, she would still be employed”, pointing out that she would have retained the same pay and conditions, as well as assistance with the move.

The tribunal found that O’Donnell’s gender reassignment was not a cause of the newspaper’s restructure and redundancy exercise, which also affected two casual staffers and resulted in the closure of the Edinburgh office.

In fact, her redundancy took place as part of a rolling programme of cost savings which brought various hubs together into the London office.

Altogether, Judge Porter found there was “insufficient evidence” of either a culture of discrimination or of dishonesty within the Times.

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