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.


  1. Of course the press intrusion into this may not have caused Miss Meadows to take her own life - but it was enough for her to write emails to friends about her distress and complain to the PCC.

    What actually sits at the heart of this matter is why the press think such things are news in the first place and therefore believe it is appropriate for people's lives to be put on display at what is evidently a difficult time for them. I appreciate that the 'won't somebody think of the children' is the excuse used in this case - but really, do any of you sensible journalists think that those children couldn't handle their teacher's transition? Seriously? Children are the one group I am always confident can do so. It is some adults who have issues - and stories like this just pander to their prejudices and ignorance.

    The date of any previous attempts is irrelevant as the real issue here is not whether the coverage was the cause of her tragic death but whether it was right in the first place, regardless of any consequences it may or may not have had.

  2. "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. "

    Isn't it, though, entirely plausible that she didn't realise this? I wonder how many of the general public even know what the PCC stands for, let alone what, if anything, it can do?

  3. You're right. We should give journalists the opportunity for the same balanced and fair viewpoint afforded to transsexuals that they have harrassed, pursued, intimidated and ruined over the last three decades.

  4. " previous attempts " - rumour ?

  5. Well, that's nice. An "anonymous national newspaper hack", with "more insight than most into the events" that have been in the news over the last week or so. Except, that i suspect "insight" probably does not extend to the human condition itself - or to how it might have felt for an ordinary member of the public to be in this sort of spotlight.

    But no matter, because Mr anonymous is happily knocking down the straw men, as his/her bosses at the various national papers have been doing, without addressing the issues that those of us complaining about have been raising.

    So let's try. First is the question of why and whether this should have been a story at all. If some parents complained...that makes it a story. Which is total bollocks. Some peope are complaining about the parking outside my local school.

    Is that national news? Local news, even? Nope.

    And the story here is teacher changes name and a couple of parents don't like that. End of.

    And they were upset? Mmmmm. I'm sure you could find parents who disliked their child being taught by someone of another race. Or by a gay teacher. But unless that spilled out into real, as opposed to staged action, it still ain't a story.

    Humans being taught by humans. End of.

    Lucy's treatment by the press? Oh, yeah. She was only mobbed for a couple of days at most and then by a small number of hacks. So that makes it OK? It was a "small operation" by Fleet St standards.

    Yes, again. Except the question is about the total coverage. The way the press camped out, however few. The sticking of someone's everyday life into the national press: there's a grotesque lack of insight. Because i suspect most national journalists haven't any idea how that feels.

    And when someone has gone to the press to sell their story, that's one thing. Or when they've actually committed a crime, that's a thing, too. But when they've done nothing and suddenly their life is all over the place and pictures are being stolen, and that means that as an individual you can no longer be sure who to trust.

    No. You have no insight whatsoever. At least, no insight into how those things feel.

    And last up is the way the press have dealt with Lucy in death. Because tabloid after tabloid reported her as "he" or "Nathan" or "male" - which is a matter of simple vile disrespect.

    About as easy to understand as my turning up at the funeral of someone very close to you and peeing on their grave. Bet you'd be upset by that. Or maybe not, since your level of insight suggests emotion is not your strong point.

    The only thing i'd agree with is that Littlejohn seems to be lightning conductor here rather than directly responsible for anything. And, while i was early in this story writing about the press behaviour, i have not called for his dismissal, odious though he is.

    As for the suicide. Funny you should mention that. Most of the "trans side" have been very careful not to use that word. I know i have not spoken of suicide, not least because til we see the result of the inquest we don't know.

    The main people using the word suicide have been the likes of Brendan O'Neil, apologists for the status quo, rather than the critics of the press, with the former all too happy to
    CLAIM that this is what is being said, when it is in fact they who are most guilty of doing so.

    But still, let's get back to this famed insight of your's. (cont.)

    1. Dear Jane,

      As TT said yesterday - this isn't his blog entry. I hope, however, you will at least give credit to the journalist for trying to address some of the issues when others elsewhere in the media appear reluctant to do so. I also think your use of phrases such as "camped outside" are not borne out by the facts he has presented. But let's wait until the inquest - as you yourself have suggested.

  6. The suicide stats for trans individuals are well known. So no: it wouldn't surprise me to hear that Lucy had attempted it previously. All manner of reasons, from self-disgust brought on by social pressures, to the stress of coming out, to the loss of family and loved ones and the stress of dealing with a medical system that gatekeeps you at every stage.

    Yep: loads of reasons in there for suicide. And one of the reasons that the press is meant to be careful when dealing with vulnerable people. But given your insight, you knew all that. And still you defend a hounding, monstering that as a hack you have thick enough skin to endure.

    But very little thought given to the real person.

    Lucy's story was a non-story. Her treatment was poor - in life and in death. And while it may be a useful rhetorical trick to pick up on the weaknesses of some of the points made by some of the protesters and thereby claim that this is what ALL are saying, that's not the point.

    The approach by the press was shameful. It still is.


  7. Other factors that could have made Lucy Meadows commit suicide is the separation from her wife and that of her child (vague recollection so I could be wrong). You also have to bear in mind that something like 20% over transgenders attempt or manage to commit suicide. Not surprising when they are going through so many emotional and mental issues as they try and work out who and what they are.

    1. I don't believe it has been suggested that the way she was treated by the press was the sole factor behind Ms Meadows' suicide: suicide is caused by the amalgam of all the circumstances of the victim's life, not just one thing. This does not, however, excuse the behaviour.

      As you say, it's common for transgender people to attempt suicide, and it's also common for them to experience mental illness. For those who manage to escape those two horrible pitfalls, most are still in an emotionally fragile state when transitioning.
      This is all the more reason for press, and anyone else, to be particularly vigilant in the way they deal with such individuals. If you know someone is vulnerable and may be struggling with life, you don't go out to make things harder for them.

  8. Thank you for this piece which has been very useful in countering some of the more outrageous comments on the Guardian's latest article on this issue "Lucy Meadows: why her death will not be in vain
    The transgender teacher's death will galvanise a community to end the persecution she faced – what a tragedy that she will never know it".

  9. Those are all relevant points, but does it really matter whether the press caused her death or not? The original matter of this article was the petition created which is calling for Littlejohn's head. He still shouldn't have said what he did; it was a horribly transphobic piece of hate speech. So, Littlejohn deserves to go regardless of the technicalities about press attention.

  10. Interesting piece. I blogged a lengthy response over on my site, where I've already written a couple of pieces about the reporting of the Lucy Meadows story.

  11. It is interesting to read a different point of view but I think that the author is a little jaded if they think that being the centre of a national, but also very personal, story would not have been exceptionally distressing. They key question for any journalist here is what made this story one that is in the public interest rather than it being salaciously interesting to the public?

  12. The writer refers to previous suicide attempts by Meadows, implying that these would weaken the case against Littlejohn if they pre-dated the Daily Mail publicity. They would not, as evidence from the cases of other transsexual people would show if presented at the coroner's inquest. Suicide attempts and self-harm are relatively common among transgender folk, and entirely understandable considering what they go through as a result of such a massive and traumatic life change.

    Declaration of interest: I am a journalist, and the son of a male-to-female transsexual who as a child in the 1970s experienced at first hand the result of public and private prejudice against transgender people.

  13. Of course Littlejohn's column is not the sole reason of the suicide. But this blog is playing down on the harrassment. It was 'only two days', and 'a handful newspapers'. Clearly the author is a little desenzitised to what the impact a media storm upon one's person can have. If you're working in the media, if you are used to exposure, it's very, very different is you are an unsuspecting citizen without much experience with these things. And, obviously, in a very vulnerable state too. Littlejohn's column was horrible. Surely you have heard the expression 'being pushed over the edge?'