“Shame on you” were the words of Michael Singleton, the coroner investigating the death of Lucy Meadows earlier this year. He reserved his shame for the press and left them in no doubt that he thought they were to blame for her death.
When writing about this for the New Statesman in March I made it very clear that I was not going to blame the press for her death. I did state however that I believe they were a cumulative factor in her death along with variables like prejudice and ignorance. For as my colleague Jane Fae suggested also attempts to provide positive commentary on the story were rejected.
Much like with anything as a hound smells the scent of a fox; the majority of the press had their angle and were running with it.
A commentator today have made play of the fact that even St Mary Magdalen’s school where Lucy Meadows taught have named her by her former name of Nathan Upton. Nick Ferrari this morning on LBC Radio made that very point while debating with the Liberal Democrat councillor Sarah Brown.
By trying to align the school’s use of Lucy Meadows former name with the disgraceful conduct of journalists, Nick misses the point. The school were very supportive of Lucy’s transition and to imply otherwise is an insult to her memory.
School newsletters are intended for dissemination amongst a very small group of people. I believe their intentions were honourable in trying to explain the situation in a way that was relatively easy to understand.
For those who find the dissemination of transition in a school newsletter unpalatable, I ask you to imagine the backlash if the information had not been publicised prior to Lucy Meadows death.
But it was not a news story. The newsletter was only ever intended to be read by a small number of people connected to the school. It was in no way intended to be a national news story. So for some members of the press to claim that the usage of Lucy Meadows old name is somehow justified because it was done in a school newsletter is a really desperate straw man argument. It is very different using a name to provide context and explanation for a group of people to whom Lucy Meadows was known. To then disseminate that name beyond people who would have been affected by the transition of Lucy Meadows is unnecessary.
In this instance it is no different to the kind of standardised explanation a school would give if a teacher was to get married or to have a baby for example I feel all the school wanted was to be a responsible employer to Lucy Meadows and to fulfil its duty of care to its pupils. Once given a proper explanation of something children tend to be very insightful, cope and take things in their stride. I believe that to suggest that a chronological explanation in a school newsletter of Miss Meadows transition somehow reinforces her masculinity is pure mischief making on the part of journalism.
One major lesson that the press can learn is to be at least contrite and humble in the face of criticism. To laugh in the face of the Leveson enquiry and bandy about words like censorship as a bad thing is misguided at best. The British press are in no way strangulated. They are not government-controlled and are free to write pretty much what they like within the framework of the law of the land.
The problem is however, there will always be those who want to push the boundaries and resent deeply having their wings clipped. If it stops innocent people and gifted people from dying then I have all in favour of it. Good journalism is not about being catty, obnoxious and below the belt. It is about illuminating issues and furthering understanding. For me I also believe passionately in speaking up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.
Today is not a bad day for journalism. The majority of responsible journalists have nothing to fear. But presenting somebody’s transition as sensational off the back of bigotry from some of the school’s parents is nothing short of undignified and unnecessary. Yet the most chilling thing is there will be those today who feel not one iota of contrition for the things they have written, and the coroners verdict will have made no difference to them. The question I would put to them is are they in pursuit of journalism or their own ego? When it comes to Lucy Meadows having to leave her home by different entrances to avoid the press endlessly encamped on the doorstep then questions must, should and have rightly been asked.
The conclusion of shame as Michael Singleton came to is the only honourable one. But this goes wider than just an issue for the trans population. It is an issue for humanity. No person should ever be forced into that level of scrutiny in the public gaze. What I’m saying here has implications not only for trans men and women, but for celebrities and ordinary members of the public who find themselves the subject of unwelcome scrutiny.
The main lesson that the press should learn is this. The public are not just puppets to be played with as fodder for a story. They are people with thoughts and feelings too.
The press are not to blame in themselves though. Those who leaked the newsletter to the press must examine their consciences. What they may have thought was just a bit of fun has ended in the most damaging way possible, with a gifted and talented teacher, pursuing their vocation dead. I hope we never see a repeat performance.