Privacy, Monstering and the Press: the case of Lucy Meadows
by Hugh Tomlinson QC
On 19 March 2013 primary school teacher Lucy Meadows was found dead at her home. She is believed to have killed herself. The precise circumstances will not be be known until the inquest into her death. But we do know that she was monstered by tabloid newspapers when the news emerged that she was transitioning from male to female.
A newsletter written by the headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s C of E primary school in Accrington just before Christmas was leaked to the media. In the newsletter, Karen Hardman told parents that Nathan Upton, a popular teacher at the school, should be addressed as Miss Meadows after the Christmas break. Lucy Meadows asked for her privacy to be respected.
There was, nevertheless, a story in the “Sun” – entitled “Sir becomes Miss” – accompanied by a child’s drawing of Mr Upton. There was also a report in the Daily Mail, followed by a column by Richard Littlejohn headlined “He’s not only in the wrong body … he’s in the wrong job“. He asked whether anyone had thought of “the devastating effect” on the pupils of Lucy Meadows’ change in gender. Although others had complained earlier, Lucy Meadows herself complained to the PCC on 4 January 2013.
The PCC has not yet adjudicated. However, as Roy Greenslade reports, more than 3,000 people signed a petition urging the Mail to fire Littlejohn and demanding a formal apology for the stress and pain, the petitioners said had been caused to Lucy Meadows by the columnist, the paper and its readership. A vigil has also been organised outside the Daily Mail offices in Kensington, west London, on Monday at 6.30pm.
The Guardian reports that Lucy Meadows’ death has turned the town against the press. It reports various emails that she sent to friends about the press attention she was receiving. She described the lengths she had taken to avoid being photographed.
I became pretty good at avoiding the press before Christmas. I live about a three-minute walk from school so they were parked outside my house as well as school. 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.
The “monstering” of trans people is a particularly pernicious invasion of privacy which, as may be the case here, can have serious and tragic consequences for the individual involved. The legal writer and blogger David Allen Green has campaigned on this issue for some time. He makes a powerful point in his recent Jack of Kent blog post on the Meadows case, which is worth reproducing in full
Such “monster” pieces are easy for tabloids to produce (especially if they get “before” and “after” photos), and the powerless figures caught up – victims – are unlikely ever to fight back. In a way, the tabloids treat trans people the way they would treat anyone, if they could get away with it.
In December 2011, the group TransmediaWatch made a submission to the Leveson Inquiry (I helped with some of the drafting). It documents the monstering of trans people by tabloids. Anyone with an interest in media matters should read it. The stories are horrific.
A person in transition is likely to be going through intense psychological and emotional changes: the worst thing for them is the humiliation of a sudden tabloid monstering (see more on this here). They are also having the most personal surgery one can perhaps imagine; but no other comparable group of people having surgery – say women having a mastectomy or hysterectomy – would feature in such sensationalist news reporting. Instead such intimate matters are rightly regarded as nobody’s business but that of the person involved.
And this should be the case for trans people. It is a basic privacy matter. The fact that someone is in transtion does not create any automatic public interest in their national media exposure. In fact, their situation calls for a genuine respect for their privacy and autonomy. The monstering of Lucy Meadows and other trans people is wrong on its own terms, regardless of any consequences.
Such monstering pieces really must now come to an end.
Similar comments have been made by a number of other bloggers – including Jane Fae on “Politics.co.uk“, Tim Fenton on “Liberal Conspiracy“. David Allen Green’s “Jack of Kent” blog has a full list of news reports, blog and other resources about the case.
Whether or not the inquest demonstrates that there was a causal link between the press treatment of Lucy Meadows and her death, this case provides important lessons for the current debate on “media regulation”, the Leveson Report and the Royal Charter. It reminds us of a number of important things:
First, it reminds us, once again, that regulation is necessary. The argument that “the law is enough” – which carefully considered and refuted by Lord Justice Leveson – does not withstand scrutiny where press conduct is nasty, unpleasant but lawful. There is no public interest in “monstering” trans people but there are few who think that such conduct should be made a criminal offence. An effective regulator should enforce a Standards Code – which like the press Editors Code – forbids intrusion into privacy (clause 3) “harassment” and “persistent pursuit” (clause 4(i)), “prejudicial or pejorative reference” to an individual’s sexuality (clause 12).
Second, it reminds us that a regulator needs to be effective. The nature and adverse impact of the press coverage of Lucy Meadows was clear in December 2012 when the articles were first published. An effective regulator would have acted at that stage on the basis that the articles were intrusive and there was no public interest justification. The position was even clearer when Ms Meadows complained in January 2013 (more than 3 months ago) but it is not clear what action was taken and the articles remain online (save for the Littlejohn piece which the Daily Mail took down on 12 March 2013).
Third, it reminds us that what is needed is a change in press culture – away from bullying and monstering of vulnerable individuals and onto the areas of activity which are said to justify the privileges of the press: the exposure of wrongdoing by the rich and powerful. Lucy Meadows was not rich or powerful. She held no public office. She was monstered for entertainment and to pander to the prejudices of a small proportion of readers. Lord Justice Leveson proposed that the new regulatory body should
promote high standards of journalism, and protect both the public interest and the rights and liberties of individuals.
The Meadows case tells us that such a body is urgently needed.
Hugh Tomlinson QC is an editor of Inforrm and the Chair of Hacked Off.
This article was originally posted on Inforrm.