Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Hysteria around Lucy Meadows - An Alternative View

UPDATE: The anonymous tabloid hack behind the Lucy Meadows blog - who will henceforth be known by the pen name of Elfin MacKenzie - is in the process of compiling an article on TV's Broadchurch, which should be ready for publication sometime next week. Many thanks to those who - despite holding a less than complimentary view of tabloid newspapers - were prepared to tweet links to this blog so that the public could see both sides of the debate.

The following is a blog written by an anonymous national newspaper hack who - as you will learn from reading it to the end - has more insight than most into the events before, during, and after the tragic death of Lucy Meadows.

'There is a petition in circulation which has now had 180,000 signatures in just a few days. It's entitled: "The Daily Mail: Fire Richard Littlejohn for victimizing Lucy Meadows, possibly leading to her committing suicide.

"You've probably heard about it. Transgender teacher Lucy is widely reported to have killed herself last week after being harassed over Christmas and New Year last by a pack of press - and insulted and belittled by columnist Littlejohn. On Monday there was a vigil outside The Daily Mail's offices demanding his dismissal."

A blog published by The Guardian newspaper earlier this week (26/3) begins: 'Her emails show she was stalked by journalists: "I'm just glad they didn't realise I also have a back door. I was usually in school before the press arrived and stayed until late so I could avoid them going home" Parents were offered money for photos of her. It's a wonder she even got out of bed in the morning – I doubt I could.'

The original report into her death in The Guardian published last week begins: "Lucy Meadows became pretty good at avoiding the press. She slipped out of her back door before the paparazzi arrived and crept round to school long before lessons started, staying in the classroom way after hometime. But it was difficult, the primary school teacher told a friend via email in January, knowing there was a price on her head. "I know the press offered parents money if they could get a picture of me," she wrote on New Year's Day, just before she contacted the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), asking for journalists and photographers to stop hanging around outside her school and home"

(Incidentally The Guardian accompany their article with a photograph of Lucy's school taken by Cavendish Press - the very press agency that they allege were stalking her presumably taken at the very moment they were doorstepping her.)

The Independent's report referred to her being 'hounded' in its headline. "Transgender primary school teacher who 'took own life' had sought protection from media hounding before her death"

Even usually well-balanced influential blogger David Allen Green seemed not to even question the idea that she was hounded by the press. "At the moment we do not know how she died and, if it was the case that she took her own life, what the releveant circumstances were. But what we do know is that Lucy Meadows was monstered by tabloid newspapers when news emerged that she was transitioning from male to female. Suddenly she became...a figure in sensational news reporting."

And Hugh Grant and Alastair Campbell have used the case as yet another stick with which to beat the press, the former retweeting claims that Lucy was 'monstered' and the latter tweeting: "I hope journalists are doorstepping Dacre, Murdoch and Littlejohn for their reaction to Lucy Meadows' suicide."

Yet there are problems with all this assumption of 'monstering' and 'hounding'.

Firstly the dates. Having read a selection of the coverage above, over how long a period would you think Lucy was pursued by rabid packs of journalists and photographers? A week? Two weeks?

In fact the answer seems to be one day, at most two. The story broke via a local newspaper on Wednesday 19 December 2012 and was picked up to be published in a handful of regional and national newspapers - The Manchester Evening News, Metro, The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Star - the following day. Most have exactly the same quotes which suggests they relied on the same agency report and did not send their own staff reporters to cover the story.

It was never, apart form the Littlejohn column the next day, Friday 21st, followed up anywhere - or ever returned to, until Lucy's death.

The school broke up on Friday 21st December - so the maximum number of days when Lucy could have been staying late and going through the back garden to get to and from work while avoiding pursuit was two.
And how many reporters or photographers were involved? A dozen? 20? More?

The news editor of a national newspapers who covered the initial story said: "It wasn't a very big story for us at all. We went out on it for one day only. The local agency, Cavendish, did too. From what I can establish the Mail didn't even send anyone. There was only a handful of people there for one day, two or three. I have no idea where the suggestion that parents were offered bribes for a picture comes from. It just doesn't ring true. We didn't ask anyone to do that and I'm sure no one else did. You'd just get in trouble."

And this suggestion is borne out by the cuttings: the coverage was typically not as high profile or as anti-Lucy as you may have been led to believe by The Guardian and Independent.

The Sun, for instance, carried the story only only page 35. It barely ran to 150 words and was relatively balanced in its view on whether parents were for or against the teacher's decision to come back in the January term as a woman.

Its parental reaction in full was as follows: 'Parents had a mixed reaction to the announcement. Dad-of-three Wayne Cowie, 35, said Nathan [Lucy's name before her announcement], who has taught at the school for four years, had been seen dressed as a woman while shopping in the town.

He added his son was now coming back from school "asking about transvestites. My lad is very confused and upset about it." But Rebecca Briggs, 33, who has two children at the school, said: "There are only three people who have complained. The rest of us fully support Mr Upton and his transition. All the children love him and will continue to do so when he is Miss Meadows.".'

Despite the widespread depiction of the Press Complaints Commission being toothless, in fact newspapers live in fear of having an adjudication made against them and almost invariably leave someone alone as soon as requested.

As the PCC website explains: "In cases where someone is in a particularly vulnerable state and does not wish to speak to a journalist, we can help by sending out a message to editors making clear that the person does not wish to speak, before any such approach is made.." In practice this process takes place in just a few hours. If Lucy had requested 'the dogs be called off', they would have been - that very day.
Finally there is the question of culpability, whether this alleged hounding and the comments by Richard Littlejohn, as the petition puts it, "possibly led to Lucy Meadows committing suicide."

The very underpinning premise of all of this - that Lucy was hounded into killing herself - would itself fall foul of the key media rules on reporting apparent suicides as per The Samaritans' media guidance. One clause here advises: "Avoid simplistic explanations for suicide....although a catalyst may appear to be obvious, suicide is never the result of a single factor or event and is likely to have several inter-related causes.

Accounts which try to explain a suicide on the basis of a single incident, for example unrequited romantic feelings, should be challenged."

I have investigated and written this as a defence of legitimate and lawful news gathering. I make no comment on Littlejohn. But like or loathe him - and from what I have read this week thousands of people want him not just sacked but dead - I think anyone who claims he caused Lucy's death is as guilty of wrong reporting as the very newspapers they hold in such contempt.

Post script: 20 minutes after I finished writing this I read that the inquest into Lucy's death, as is normal, had been opened and adjourned without hearing evidence. But one new fact which did emerge was that Lucy had attempted to take her own life at least twice before. Coroner Michael Singleton told the short hearing: “I understand there have been previous attempts to commit suicide. I don’t know if they are relevant or not.”

It remains to be seen if those attempts pre-date any publicity. I wonder if anyone from The Guardian or Independent will resign if they do.' By Elfin MacKenzie.