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May 17, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:48am

Senior Times staff including editor Witherow line up to fight tribunal claims of sexism and trans discrimination

By Freddy Mayhew

A number of senior Times editorial staff, including editor John Witherow, are expected to appear in Scotland to defend the title against claims of a sexist newsroom culture that discriminates against transgender people.

Former Scotland night editor Katherine O’Donnell is suing Times Newspapers, which publishes the Times and Sunday Times, for unfair dismissal and discrimination at Edinburgh Employment Tribunal.

Her case is backed by a number of ex-Times newsdesk and production staff.

O’Donnell, a trans woman, claims to have been overlooked for promotion to Scotland editor because some bosses at the Times “did not want a trans woman to be the public face of the paper”.

“I was considered to be like an embarrassing relative – fine for getting things done in the home but not for taking out in public,” she said in a witness statement, seen by Press Gazette.

A Times spokesperson said the title “is rigorously defending its case that the redundancy was not a matter of discrimination”, adding: “We cannot comment further at this time.”

Among those expected to give evidence in support of the Times are the title’s deputy editor, managing editor, group managing editor, Scotland editor, Scotland HR manager and the Sunday Times executive editor

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O’Donnell began working for the Times as a freelance in October 2003 and took a staff sub-editor role in January 2004.

She presented as male at work, despite undergoing gender reassignment at the time, until her probation period had ended.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

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 claims she wasn’t officially given the title until May 2013 and received no pay rise to match the promotion at either point.

She worked out of the London office until October 2012, when she relocated to Scotland, having been commuting every other weekend to visit her two young children who lived in Glasgow with her ex-spouse.

O’Donnell said she was made redundant in January 2018, having been put on notice two months earlier, following 14 years at the Times.

“To be a woman at the Times during these years was to experience systemised sexism,” she said.

“This was widely complained about among women staff. To be a trans woman was to experience both systematised sexism and a range of comments and behaviours that were uniquely distressing.”

She said that during her career at the paper she had raised concerns with senior editorial staff over its coverage of trans issues, in particular since 2013 when Witherow (pictured) was appointed editor.

In February 2016 O’Donnell wrote to Rebekah Brooks, then-chief executive of Times Newspapers parent company News UK, over a Jeremy Clarkson opinion piece in the Sunday Times in which she said trans people were “characterised as prostitutes and criminals”.

“I said that the culture within the company was faulty when bigoted arguments and inaccuracies went unchallenged by editors, that it contributed towards making life for trans people even harder than it already was and that I found it personally degrading,” she said.

After Brooks referred the issue to Sunday Times managing editor Bob Tyrer, O’Donnell said she had raised concerns about a “problem with the culture in the company as a whole in relation to trans people”.

She added: “My experience suggested that the company could not guarantee me or any future trans employee of the company equality of opportunity in an atmosphere free from discrimination”.

At a meeting with her line manager in 2017, O’Donnell said she had “raised my increasing alarm over the volume, tenor and journalistic failures of the paper’s coverage of trans issues,” saying that she “felt under siege”.

She went on: “The volume of material printed in the Times and the Sunday Times both hostile to trans people and journalistically flawed has increased many-fold since October 2017.

“To have had a senior employee criticise this privately would have been tiresome and potentially embarrassing. To have that employee quit in protest over the output of the paper would have been a clear PR disaster.

“For those reasons I believe that it was deemed expedient to remove my role and offer no other suitable role in Scotland, confident that I would not have been able to relocate back to London.”

Picture: Reuters/Andrew Winning

The tribunal continues.

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