The editor of the newspaper of record admits that ‘some words’ published in The Times are ‘bound to be inaccurate’ – but denies transgender discrimination in newsroom and stories

THE EDITOR of The Times John Witherow has been cross-examined at an Employment Tribunal in Scotland, writes JAMES DOLEMAN.

Mr. Witherow gave evidence on Friday in a hearing about former Times executive Katherine O’Donnell, who claims that she was discriminated against because she is transgender.

Proceedings commenced at 10.35 am, with counsel for The Times asking for a new bundle of email evidence be admitted.

With reservations, the claimant, Katherine O’Donnell, accepted that these be allowed, and they were entered into the evidence.

Mr. Witherow then came into the court and gave his oath to tell the truth.

Mrs. Jane Cullan , counsel for Times Newspapers , began by asking the witness to confirm that the witness statement he had given the court in advance was accurate, and he confirmed it was.

The Editor was then shown a folder of emails, which he confirmed were examples of those sent nightly to the editorial team in Glasgow, to discuss proposed stories for the Scottish edition of the newspaper.

“It’s pretty well autonomous in Scotland,” Mr. Witherow told the court.

O’Donnell is also suing Times Newspapers, which publishes the Times and Sunday Times, for unfair dismissal.

After freelancing for The Times in 2003, O’Donnell officially went on to the staff roll as a sub-editor in January 2004, while she was undergoing gender reassignment.

Three years later, she joined the Scottish edition of the Times as chief sub-editor, before taking on the role of Acting Night Editor between October 2009 and 2012, when she officially received the title of Night Editor, Scotland.

O’Donnell said she was made redundant in January 2018, following 14 years at The Times, after being overlooked for the Acting Editor’s job.

Mr. Witherow was asked on Friday what concerns he had about the claimant wanting to be Acting Editor of the Scottish Times.

But he said he had no concerns about her being transgender, “none whatsoever.”

However, Mr. Witherow added that he did not think she was the “best person for the job.”

Other editorial staff agreed with this view, he said.

Counsel for the claimant, Robin White, then began her cross-examination.

Ms. White began by noting that “this is a case that “focuses on discrimination.”

Mr. Witherow confirmed he had undergone training on the issue.

“We don’t discriminate, we treat everybody equally,” he said.

Counsel then asked Witherow about his recollections of the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 – the public inquiry into press culture and ethics following the hacking scandal – and his knowledge of the Editor’s Code.

The court was shown a copy of the undertakings, given by proprietor Rupert Murdoch to the UK government in 1981, when he took control of the Times.

These include a paragraph in which Murdoch pledges that only the editor, or those delegated by him, will give instructions to journalists, and another that promises that The Time will remain free from “political bias,” to remain the paper of record.

The witness was then shown a document dated 8th January 2019, which shows a request by parent company News Group Newspapers, to change this agreement.

Witherow agreed that this had been done but said “no decision had been made.”

The Editor said NGN was asking for a relaxation on the rules keeping The Times and The Sunday Times totally separate to allow for a “more efficient,” use of journalistic resources.

The court was then shown the latest edition of The Editors’ Code (2018).

This contains a section stating that the press should not discriminate against any protected group, to ‘avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s….gender identity…’

Witherow accepted this had been included in later drafts of the code.

“It took 16 years for that to get into the code,” counsel suggested.

The witness said, “I can’t really comment,” saying he didn’t know why it was changed.

Witherow also agreed that if an individual had a complaint they could take the matter to the Independent Press Standards Organisation – the self-regulatory body set-up and largely run by newspapers – but a group of people could not.

Counsel then showed the witness a selection of newspaper articles from The Times during his editorship.

The first was referring to a debate about a child’s view of gender.

The article stated that a Government decision has “caused concern.”

Asked to clarify this view, as the UK Government had not taken such a decision, Witherow replied, “I don’t know,” adding “if it was wrong, we would have corrected it.”

“I don’t know the detail,” he said, “the columnists often know it.”

Witherow also said he had no personal knowledge of many of the issues in the article, “if it was wrong we would have corrected it,” telling the court he did not deal with complaints but “we do believe in accuracy and correct things that are wrong.”

The court was then shown an email from the claimant to him covering this issue.

“You haven’t used your resources to find out about this area of life,” he was asked.

The Editor said he had passed the email to a columnist who wrote about this issue.

“You haven’t dealt with the factual inaccuracies in this article,” counsel suggested.

“These are opinions, and people have different perspectives on them,” Witherow replied.

Asked about another piece on gender issues, Witherow said, “The columnists are free to pursue their own lines,” and that there were concerns about young people taking steps they would later regret, such as drug therapy.

“We write 150,000 words a day, some are bound to be inaccurate,” he replied.

Court then took a short break.


More follows in Part 2 of Byline Investigates’ court report from the Employment Tribunal in Edinburgh.