Times withdraws from comment awards over treatment of columnists as it defends ‘diversity of opinion’

The Times has withdrawn all of its entries from an annual comment awards event after one of its columnists who is nominated for a prize was accused of contributing to a rise in transgender suicides by an awards judge.

Janice Turner (pictured) was shortlisted in the Commentator of the Year category at the Editorial Intelligence UK Comment Awards alongside Guardian journalists Marina Hyde and Gary Younge.

However, awards judge Helen Belcher, co-founder of activist group Trans Media Watch, objected to Turner’s nomination and asked for her name to be removed – despite the fact that judging had already taken place.

In a statement, Belcher claimed that since the Times began printing pieces “continually positioning trans people as dangerous sex offenders”, beginning with one by Turner in September last year, “I have heard of more trans suicides than at any point since 2012″.

“These have mainly been of trans teenagers,” she added.

Writing in the Times on Saturday, Turner said the allegation that her work has “caused the deaths of children is the most upsetting accusation I’ve faced in 30 years”.

“For some trans activists to accuse me of causing the deaths of troubled teens shows how toxic this debate has become,” she added.

My Times column from September 2017, which supposedly precipitated a suicide epidemic, described a feminist meeting where a trans activist punched a 60-year-old woman in the face.

“Everything I have written since has been intended to shed light.”

Turner previously tweeted that Belcher’s statement contained a “ghastly accusation” and called them “serious (and libellous) claims”.

In a leader column on Friday, the Times called for a “far broader and far calmer debate” about transgender rights.

It said: “The Times columnist Janice Turner, whose pioneering journalism has highlighted the implications of legal and social change, has been targeted with abuse.

“Tolerance and respect are the ambitions of any civilised society, and for transgender people both are long overdue. Yet other vulnerable groups have a stake here, too. Concerns of biological women must not be silenced.”

The Times has now revealed it has decided to withdraw from the awards entirely over the treatment of Turner and another of its columnists, Melanie Phillips, after two shortlisted Guardian writers protested her nomination.

Nine Times columnists have been shortlisted with 12 nominations across eight categories. They include well-known names such as Caitlin Moran, Hugo Rifkind and Matthew Parris.

A spokesperson for the Times told Press Gazette: “The Times is proud to publish columnists who represent views across the political spectrum.

“We believe in free speech, and that diversity of opinion leaves readers better informed about the issues of the day.

“We have been disappointed by the treatment some of our columnists have received for being shortlisted for these awards. We do not wish to be part of this process.”

The Sunday Times has not joined in the boycott. The weekly paper is nominated for UK Comment Pages of the Year with India Knight of the Sunday Times Magazine shortlisted for Comment Piece of the Year.

A statement released by the Comment Awards organisers on Friday said: “We understand The Times are ordering their shortlisted columnists to withdraw from this year’s awards despite our defence of their writers when they came under attack.

“The votes are cast and counted for this year’s winners and will be announced as planned on 16 November.”

The Comment Awards organisers previously spoke out in defence of Turner, saying it “abhors” Belcher’s statement and adding: “We are crystal clear on our commitment to celebrate a true diversity of opinion, writers, and to freedom of the press.”

The organisers also defended Phillips when Guardian editor-at-large Younge and columnist Nesrine Malik announced they were withdrawing their names from the Society and Diversity category shortlist over her presence on the list.

They said: “Given her record, shortlisting Phillips not only makes a mockery of the category by devaluing the principles of inclusion and diversity themselves, it also legitimises her offensive attacks on immigrants in general and Muslims in particular.

“To nominate a columnist who holds such views undermines the integrity of the award itself and so we would rather distance ourselves from it.”

The organisers responded by saying: “Editorial Intelligence, which puts on the Comment Awards, believes in freedom of expression and in George Orwell’s view that: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.

“Melanie Phillips was eligible to be nominated, and she was judged fairly.”

Picture: Chris McAndrew/The Times

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