Privacy, Monstering and the Press: the case of Lucy Meadows

Posted: March 25, 2013 at 11:04 am

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.

8 comments

  1. Gill Ayres

    It is all very well droning on about Littlejohn and the press blah blah and it is sad about the transgender teacher but you all seem to forget that perhaps some people would not wish to have to explain to a child: I would be one of these, why their teacher Mr Jones is after a holiday break now to be addressed Ms Mann!
    Privacy is precious and the person who leaked it to the Press should be hunted down and severely punished however, perhaps it might have been better for this particular person to resign HIS job at the particular school and resume HER job at another. Please do not; with all your high minded rapping, forget the children who it could affect and some parents whose own views would be offended and perhaps be placed in a very difficult position .

  2. Jennie Kermode

    Just one note on an otherwise excellent article: being transgender is not about sexuality, so the relevant part of the Editors’ Code is prejudicial or pejorative reference to gender.

  3. Reubs Walsh

    Only two criticisms: quoting from, or even providing detailed report from, the private emails of someone who in life requested privacy is kind of vulgar, no matter how good the intentions. Second, it’s the gender section, and not the sexuality section, of the PCC Editors Code that would apply in terms of pejorative reference. Trans identity is routinely sexually exoticised (wrongly, obviously), and our close relationship to LGB people (as in, the LGBT community) also confuses it, but unfortunately some idiotic “scientists” (they are not applying deduction or even induction..! I too am a neuroscientist, and feel comfortable asserting this criticism) classify certain trans people’s identities as a ‘paraphilia’ or fetish, which it most clearly is not. For that reason, some will be offended by the suggestion.

    Otherwise I am delighted to read this and applaud you and your organisation heartily for the work you are doing. If I can ever be of assistance..!

    • Jed Jones

      It’s precisely because of the myth that sexuality is the main or only reason that people seek gender reassignment, that the media is prone to referencing their sexuality pejoratively, and they should have recourse for this.

      Hence, the reason ‘the operation’ is regarded prejudicially (compared with a hysterectomy, etc) is because transgenderism is mistakenly classified as per se a sexual deviation.

      This by itself would still be a non-issue – or at least, less likely to be regarded as newsworthy or sensational than it used to be (just like outing someone famous as gay isn’t quite the bombshell it once was), if it were not for one other little variable in play in Lucy Meadows’ case.

      In one word: children.

      The moment they enter the equation, all that postmodern celebration of sexual diversity evaporates into a cloud of hysterical, paranoid, paedophile monstering, turning us into burn-them-at-the-stake-on-the strength-of-any-false-or-malicious-allegation fascists.

      We can’t let ‘perverts’ and other weirdos/deviants anywhere near our children, now, can we? It’ll sexualise them, destroy their innocence, poison their minds, and turn them gay.

      Be in no doubt that this, and this alone, is the ‘shock horror’ factor that raised editors’ eyebrows to a can’t-not-publish story, guaranteed to sell papers.

      To address this problem at the cultural, not just the legal-enforcement level, we need to campaign for a full stop on the NSPCC and the rest of the child abuse industry sexing up child sexual abuse – to the exclusion of more prevalent and harmful forms of child abuse that need to be tackled.

      Here, television needs to become more accountable for its dismal failure to hold the child abuse industry to account, by failing to question its groundless assertions and arrogance. Why are they allowed to monster people for looking at pictures, equating them with Ian Huntly?

      Why has there still been no redress for the families destroyed by Operation Ore, where the monstering drove fathers to suicide and – to coin a phrase – scarred their children for life?

      Sex offender registers, and laws named after raped and murdered children, are charters for monstering – monstering teens for mooning their mate’s Blackberry and posting it on Facebook; mostering 10-year-olds for playing doctors and nurses with a 9-year-old.

      Say FULL STOP to the hysteria around children, in order to stop the monstering of teachers.

  4. stella beaney

    I think that it is appalling that the press are allowed to pursue people in this way. The poor lady was going through her own private trauma, without the press adding pressure and treating her in such a cruel way. Afterall, she was a human being and has a right to privacy at that vulnerable time. Being born into the wrong body is a very upsetting situation and they have to go through so many hoops to be operated on to become the gender their hormones made them. They have just as much right to be themselves as everyone else. Shame on the press, how can they sleep at night knowing that their actions has murdered a fellow human being.

    • Reubs Walsh

      You don’t cover it better. You prevaricate and miss the point and appropriate. I’m sure your intentions are good but it is wholly inappropriate for you to criticise trans people’s actions around. Tomlinson’s article raises all the important points as regards press regulation without getting bogged down and obsessed about ‘who started it’.