The death of Lucy Meadows

IN the past couple of weeks there has been significant debate over the death of a teacher called Lucy Meadows.

Briefly, Lucy was a primary school teacher, who was transgender, she had previously been Nathan Upton. A letter was sent home to parents last year explaining that in the next term, he would return as Lucy.

This was picked up by local media, and then by national press and a number of articles were run on Lucy.

On March 19 Lucy was found dead. No-one else is being sought in connection with her death. Though there has yet to be a full inquest hearing, the speculation is that Lucy took her own life. Indeed, at the opening of the inquest reference was made to previous attempts Lucy made on her own life. No dates were given for those attempts.

The fact that Lucy’s death followed her exposure in local and national media has led to understandable speculation on the part that exposure may have played in her death. One article in particular, by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail, has attracted particular disapproval. in his column he said, among other things, that not only was Lucy in the wrong body, she was in the wrong job.

There have been calls for his sacking, and a peaceful candlelit vigil outside the Mail’s offices to protest at that piece.

There are two areas on which I feel able to comment. Firstly the speculation about the part press coverage played in Lucy’s death. Secondly, whether journalists have any business knocking on the doors of people like Lucy Meadows.

Some people have been measured in their commentary on the first aspect. While deploring Littlejohn’s column and what they describe as the ‘monstering’ of Ms Meadows, they do not make a direct link between the press behaviour and coverage and her death, until more evidence is heard to establish such a link.

Others have been less circumspect and have made a far more direct causal link between the coverage -the Littlejohn column in particular – and her death.

I think the latter, though I understand their anger, are mistaken.

I have been a journalist for 25 years and have covered many, many inquests. One of the first things you realise when you are sent to cover a day of inquest hearings is how depressingly common suicide is. The other thing you quickly learn as a reporter seeking an answer for your story as to why someone killed themself, is how often it is not explained.

Many of those who take their own lives leave no note, and have not given any indication of an intention to kill themselves. Frequently notes left are equivocal and do not give any clear answers as to why the person too their own life. Almost invariably coroners do not read out notes at the inquest, rather they refer to them and simply say whether they show the deceased had formed an intention to take their own life.

The inquest into Lucy Meadows’ death might give us some answers as to show she died and if she did take her own life, why she may have done that. But it equally might not. Until that inquest it is probably wise to reserve judgement on the part, if any, played by press coverage in her death.

Secondly then, have newspapers and their reports got any business ‘doorknocking’ someone in Lucy Meadows’ position?

Fundamentally, yes.

Firstly, Lucy Meadows has a right to privacy, in what must be an intensely difficult time.

Secondly, as a teacher she holds a position where her actions are going to be scrutinised.

There is a balance to be struck between those two positions and the public interest has to be taken into account.

If a teacher is transgender, that might attract comment from parents, although in Lucy’s case any negative comment seems outweighed by the positive.

But, in my view, it is not wrong to ask the question of parents what they, and their children, think about this. If it is positive, report that. Avoiding the question surely perpetuates the idea that this is something to hide, which it isn’t.

As for Littlejohn’s column. I would like to know, from those who knew her, what Lucy’s thoughts were about it. Was it something she regarded as deeply upsetting, or did she ignore it, indeed, had she even read it? I’m not defending it, but I’m not going to blame her death in it without any evidence whatsoever, which some seem prepared to do.

I would also like to know the extent to which Ms Meadows was ‘monstered’. Was this a pack camped outside the school for days on end, or was it a solitary reporter or agency asking questions at the school gate? I would like to know numbers and duration before I accept that it was a ‘monstering.’

Even those who stop short of blaming Littlejohn for Ms Meadow’s death will say, “We’ll it can’t have helped.” How do they know? They are assigning an effect to the column which is up supposition.

Those calling for Littlejohn to be sacked need to be careful that they do not use a tragic death as a means to attack a paper and writer they don’t like.

I don’t share Littlejohn’s views on transgender people, or pretty much any other minority that features in his columns, but I’m uncomfortable calling for someone to be sacked because they write something I disagree with. Freedom of expression is uncomfortable at times, but it must protect those who express views that we vehemently disagree with, or it’s not a right.

So, for what they are worth, those are my thoughts. If the press coverage did play a part in Ms Meadows’ death then perhaps we as an industry need to look harder at how we cover this issue and those it affects.

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12 thoughts on “The death of Lucy Meadows

  1. “Even those who stop short of blaming Littlejohn for Ms Meadow’s death will say, “Well it can’t have helped.” How do they know?” Are you suggesting there is an alternative possibility that Littlejohn’s column *did* help Lucy’s mental state? How so?

    I agree with you that Littlejohn shouldn’t be sacked but the anger is not mistaken. The outcry might mean he and others with his privileged platform will think twice the next time before whipping up hatred against this particularly persecuted minority. Freedom of expression means Littlejohn has the right to say whatever he wishes but it also means others have the right to keep on telling him how offensive and dreadfully damaging his words are until his ears bleed.

    “Those calling for Littlejohn to be sacked need to be careful that they do not use a tragic death as a means to attack a paper and writer they don’t like.” The trauma of trans women’s reaction on Twitter was palpable, their reaction was not cynical point-scoring. You are trivialising and misrepresenting their reaction.

    Assuming the reports of Lucy’s emails can be taken at face value and there is no evidence yet to the contrary, if the journalists involved had wished to scrutinise Lucy’s transition with any integrity whatsoever they would have reported how welcomed and supported her transition was by her employers, colleagues, students and teachers. But they didn’t. Her unauthorized Facebook pics were published and supportive parents offering to speak up for her were rebuffed. If there had been any genuine seeking of the truth here by media professionals this case might have been a hugely positive step forward for women like Lucy.

    There is never a single reason for suicide. I’m sorry you feel you need to wait for the coroner’s report before you and your peers can look hard at the obvious wrongness of how your industry treated Lucy.

    • I don’t think I suggested for one moment that it helped, but we don’t know what harm it did until we know Lucy was actually aware of it.

      I’m sure the anger of trans women was genuine and I do not seek to trivialise that at all. Equally though, there were a number of commenters jumping on the bandwagon because this was just another stick with which to beat the Daily Mail, a paper they never buy, but love to hate.

      There have been conflicting accounts of how many reporters we involved in this and how long they were at the school. I think before we decide what part they played we ought perhaps to try to find those things out.

      Sure the press may have things to learn about the way it handles this kind of situation, but before we decide that’s the case, let’s see some evidence. The inquest might give us some, that’s all. Most of what I have seen so far is supposition.

  2. I’m sorry, but your article is full of the standard excuses ‘journalists’ use to enable them to sleep at night after they have ruined some poor sod’s life. This sort of thing is exactly the reason Leveson is going after the media so hard and why the industry is scared to death at the moment.

    No matter what you say, you DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT because you are a ‘journalist’ to publish anything about anyone you like. It may technically be legal, but it is not morally right.

    This story was not in the public’s interest. It was a gossip story run purely at the expense of an already frail individual in a cheap effort to grab a few readers. I hope the guy gets fired and people finally stop buying papers that condone this type of story.

    • I don’t think I’ve excused anything.

      Furthermore, Far from excusing him, I think I’ve explicitly said I do not agree with Littlejohn’s column.

      It clearly isn’t gossip though. you can make an argument for privacy over any public interest discussion if you like, but to dismiss the story as gossip undermines your point a little.

  3. The only alternative proposition to “it can’t have helped” is “it can have helped”.

    Haven’t you already seen some evidence? The screen grab of the school’s website announcing Lucy’s death reads “Inspire. Love. Educate. Reaching our potential together in Christ.” Then the following “It is with great sadness that I have to inform you of the death of Miss Lucy Meadows. Our staff will be working closely with bereavement teams and are here to offer the children and yourselves any support in any way we can.” followed by a downloadable pdf for family flowers donation details.

    Unless the headmistress Mrs Hardman is a liar, this available evidence demonstrates that Lucy was loved and supported in her workplace. And an explicitly Christian workplace to boot.

    • I’m sorry, but that simply doesn’t follow. Littlejohn’s column can only have had any effect on Lucy if she read it, or was made aware of it, and as yet I have seen no evidence that that actually happened.

      • Ok since we’re talking about cause and effect, if I fell and broke my leg, the statement “You didn’t help” includes neutral effect (you walked on by) or negative effect (you broke my other leg). In the case of the insidious and far-reaching effects of nasty pen picture in a national newspaper, “It can’t have helped” covers neutral effect (neither Lucy nor anyone else who had anything to do with her read the piece and/or they all read it and were blithely unconcerned) and negative effect (Lucy and/or others did read it and the impact was not positive). Given Lucy took a complaint to the PCC and we know from Leveson witness evidence that people don’t skip along to the PCC for a laugh, and given Transmedia Watch’s submission to Leveson on the distress caused not just to direct victims but to the wider trans population, common sense should tell anyone where the balance of probability lies on the “It can’t have helped” front.

        On the subject of balance, you’ve been accepting compliments on Twitter on the “balance” of this piece. Balance is a good thing when commenting on issues where some people’s rights are in conflict with others e.g. environment vs jobs, net recipients of the exchequer vs net donors. But balance has no place in civil rights. There is no balance to be found between the current situation of trans people being treated as outcasts, scapegoats and freak shows by the media and a prurient public who enables it, and trans people being treated with exactly the same degree of dignity and respect as you or I. There is no balance to be found between people being equal and people not being equal. Any one jot less than equality is inequality.

        Every successful civil rights movement has stemmed from the liberal principle that people has a right to live in peace as long as what they’re doing does not harm others. And that Harm Principle is quite distinct. As long as children’s welfare and education is not compromised the position that anyone can claim mental distress simply because a teacher is black, gay, disabled or, in this case, trans, simply has no validity. Besides, young children are plastic. If you explain that some people are gay, some people are trans, they get it. As for Angry Dad Holding Letter, I wonder was he paid.

        “…there were a number of commenters jumping on the bandwagon because this was just another stick with which to beat the Daily Mail, a paper they never buy, but love to hate.” I’m afraid I can’t offer you any evidence that the solidarity people expressed for their trans fellow citizens was genuine, but neither have you substantiated your claim that it wasn’t.

        “If the press coverage did play a part in Ms Meadows’ death then perhaps we as an industry need to look harder at how we cover this issue and those it affects.” This is an utterly shocking statement. Business as usual unless the coroner conclusively blames the media as a factor in Lucy’s death, is it? Something which, in your considerable experience of inquests, is unlikely to be specified? David, a trans person reading the final line of your post might reasonably ask “Do we have to be dying?”

  4. How is this evidence? Where does it demonstrate she was ‘loved’ other than in a generic Christian sense? All it says is that her death was sad. Even Littlejohn would think that. David’s comments are so measured that they really shouldn’t be treated as a defence of the indefensible. Wait for the inquest, and then draw conclusions.

  5. “Until that inquest it is probably wise to reserve judgement on the part, if any, played by press coverage in her death.”
    That, for me, sums up this argument.
    I abhor the Daily Mail and Richard Littlejohn. I wouldn’t handle that paper with tongs. But the right to freedom of expression is a crucial one. Not only is it wrong to condemn a view just because one doesn’t agree with it, it is utterly unhelpful. Bigotry and intolerant views aren’t rooted out by telling those who hold them they can’t air them, but by debate and discussion which exposes why those views are wrong.
    As someone who has, sadly, had suicidal thoughts, I can tell you that it is always a very complicated issue, with many contributory factors. It might be easy and convenient to blame one person or one thing but that is never going to be anything like the whole explanation – and to argue that it is is to trivialise something which is always going to be not only a searing tragedy, but a completely avoidable one.

    • Thank you for that. If the inquest reveals that the press in general and Littlejohn in particular played a part in Lucy’s death then it is incumbent all of us to face that terrible fact and find a way of addressing these issues better in the future.

  6. I know this is a long comment, so here’s a summary:
    1. Freedom of expression is valuable, but the argument doesn’t apply.
    2. Please explicitly condemn RL.
    3. RL’s column may, and the DM certainly did, have an indirect effect on Lucy Meadows, as on the lives of every trans person in this country. Further, proof of a direct effect is impossible.
    4. The public interest argument does not apply.
    5. Even if it does apply, it does not describe the DM’s intentions.
    6. Condemning and legislating against unacceptable views is necessary, although not in the first instance.
    7. Hate speech should not be allowed to pose as debate.
    8. I see no objection to ‘using’ this ‘tragic death’ to attack RL/the DM.

    1. Journalists seem particularly keen on the ‘freedom of expression’ argument, which is understandable. However, freedom of expression does not imply a right to be published. There are plenty of things that you can’t legally publish. No one is suggesting muzzling RL, just firing him. What is the difference between that and the firing of Robert Kilroy-Silk?
    If you think that these dismissals do constitute an attack on freedom of expression, that needs to be laid out – certainly, I either don’t value *that* freedom, or value it less than other goods.
    The exact same argument was played out over Burchill’s transhate piece. See also: ‘That’s just what he does’/’If you don’t like it, don’t read it’/etc.

    2. Whatever your intentions, the most that you ‘explicitly’ say is that you don’t share RL’s views on trans people. You don’t actually condemn them. NB: This is not an accusation that you condone them.

    3 (a). “Littlejohn’s column can only have had any effect on Lucy if she read it, or was made aware of it”.
    I don’t understand why you’ve ignored indirect effects. The article could have had an indirect effect, viz. contributing to her harassment. In fact, whether she read it seems of little consequence. It is implausible that the DM has not at least contributed to the culture which leads more than a third of trans adults to commit suicide. The link is not, as you seem to suggest, arbitrary.

    3 (b). Words are weapons. The failure to recognise that tends to come from the white/straight/cis, because there aren’t any words which apply to them which are the reason that they might have their head kicked in.

    3 (c). There is no possible proof of a direct connection between the RL article and Lucy Meadow’s death. Such a proof would be impossible, even if RL had called directly for her resignation/harassment/death. To demand such proof is disingenuous and amounts in its own way to a prejudgement of the case.

    4 (a). The publication of any and all truth is not a good. In particular, there is no ‘public interest’ in reporting gender reassignment, since ‘public interest’ and ‘what the public are interested in’ are not synonymous in any way that leaves the former with the necessary significance.
    It’s not even true that all teacher’s actions are scrutinised. In fact, there’s a better (but still awful) case for a teacher’s breast augmentation surgery being in the public interest. (Great photos for a tabloid, too.) I also found my teacher dying of cancer rather traumatic. It’s not very blameworthy, though. Nor is requiring gender reassignment. In fact, it’s less so, assuming my teacher smoked.

    4 (b). I’m assuming you accept that the restrictions on the reporting of those on the sex offenders’ register are sensible. Surely the same protection from harassment is due to someone who is innocent?

    5. “If it is positive, report that.” The utter failure to even attempt to convey what you accept was a generally positive response from the parents suggests that even accepting the ‘public interest’ argument, it does not apply to the intent of the DM piece. The DM’s attitude is encapsulated by their use of a male pronoun in the headline of the article announcing Lucy Meadow’s death.

    6. ‘Debate and discussion’ only convert the reasonable. For the rest, legislation is the only way. Or do you *really* value the right of people to tweet race hate at Stan Collymore?

    7 (a). The notion that all of this is about a difference of opinion (that it’s a matter of a writer that some people “don’t like”) is wrong. Again, see 5. The parallel is not with disagreements over economic policy, but with race hate.
    The best parallel I can think of is Rupert Everett’s views on gay parents. Repellent, but you can print them without being overtly homophobic. RL’s article was overtly transphobic and (see 1 over and over again) such articles shouldn’t be published in national newspapers.

    7 (b). Your response to Fiona Hanley is trivialising and patronising, if not of the reaction of trans people, then of those who “love to hate” the DM. The left ‘loves to hate’ Thatcher. It does not ‘love to hate’ transphobia, racism, sexism, etc. What it does to prejudice is hate it tout court, as every decent human should.

    8. “Those calling for Littlejohn to be sacked need to be careful that they do not use a tragic death as a means to attack a paper and writer they don’t like.”
    Frankly, why? Littlejohn’s scalp would have stopped Burchill’s piece. Stopping hate like that would ease the burden on trans people. Whether Lucy Meadows would have died if RL had never picked up his pen remains speculation. He should have been fired for his piece in the first place. If her death is his bad luck, so be it.

  7. I think this post was measured and sensible. For the record, were I editor I wouldn’t have published RL’s piece and I didn’t like its tone at all. Someone’s personal decision shouldn’t be made into news. But the fact is a lot of people just like to have a go at The Daily Mail and RL. I understand that. I don’t like either of them myself. I’m gay and have found RL’s comments in the past about gay people objectionable. However people really went to town online in Lucy’s name, which I thought was odd when Lucy herself seemed not to like publicity. Furthermore people have got totally carried away. I realise a woman has died and that is a tragedy, but there were tweets I saw calling for manslaughter charges to be brought in the light of the article, which anyone who knows even a bit about the criminal law will see is never going to happen and is just nonsense that helps no-one and keeps the debate in the land of hyperbole.

    Calum – in your 2. above, it may be the way you have abbreviated the point in your summary but why are you asking David to “explicitly condemn RL”? I hope you’re not telling David what to think or write on his blog. I think this running around online telling people the views that they shouldn’t have or air and even the ones that they MUST express is starting to get a bit much.

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