The Daily Mail did not kill Lucy Meadows

A coroner’s ruling that the press helped drive a transgender teacher to her death marks a new low in the culture of ‘You can’t say that’.

Mick Hume
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Topics Politics

Since the UK phone-hacking scandal broke and the News of the World closed in 2011, it has been open season on the popular press. Self-righteous critics have felt free to blame the tabloid newspapers for everything from the recession to rape. Now matters have moved a little further down the slippery slope, with a state official effectively accusing the British press, and the Daily Mail in particular, of helping to cause the death of a transgender primary-school teacher.

Michael Singleton, the coroner for Blackburn in Lancashire, this week told the inquest into the death of Lucy Meadows that the ‘sensational and salacious’ press coverage of the teacher’s gender change had been a big factor in her decision to commit suicide in March. The coroner declared his intention to call on the government to implement Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for controlling the press, to ensure that nobody else was driven to their deaths by such ‘ill-informed bigotry’. Singleton concluded his ruling by turning to the media reporters present in court and declaring, like an Old Testament prophet, ‘Shame on you all!’. (The Guardian headline omitted the ‘all’ from this judgement, perhaps because they were certain he could not be talking to them.)

Nobody has to like the Daily Mail, of course, and anybody must be free to criticise its coverage. But this is different. A coroner now feels free not only to declare that the Mail and others contributed to a tragic death – despite the absence of any real evidence to support that claim – but to demand that the government crack down on the press. That is a sign of how far the lobby to curb press freedom has advanced across British politics and society.

We have seen throughout the Leveson circus that anti-tabloid crusaders have used high-profile victims of phone-hacking as ‘human shields’ behind which to pursue their wider agenda of purging the press. Now it seems that some are prepared to use a suicide as a weapon in the propaganda war over press freedom. What was that about the ‘sensational’ exploitation of people’s lives to make headlines?

The story of Lucy Meadows hit the news late last year, after the head of a primary school in Accrington, Lancashire, wrote to inform parents that teacher Nathan Upton had ‘recently made a significant change in his life and will be transitioning to live as a woman’. Mr Upton returned to the school after Christmas as Ms Meadows, wearing women’s clothes. First the local and then national press picked up on the story after some parents expressed concerns about the effect this dramatic change might have on their children; one father was widely quoted as saying that his three sons at the primary school were ‘too young to be dealing with that’.

Then Richard Littlejohn, the conservative Mail’s notoriously provocative columnist, weighed in with his characteristically forthright opinion on the case. His column, published in December under the headline ‘He’s not only in the wrong body… he’s in the wrong job’, asked whether anybody had considered the ‘devastating effect’ this teacher’s gender transformation could have on the young pupils, and suggested that Ms Meadows should have left the school and gone to teach elsewhere.

In January, Ms Meadows complained to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) about ‘press harassment’ and about the Littlejohn column in particular. As a result, the Mail removed the offending article from its website, and Ms Meadows thanked the PCC for helping to resolve the dispute.

The tone of the Littlejohn article is clear from this extract (worth reprinting since it is no longer available on the Mail’s website):

‘The school shouldn’t be allowed to elevate its “commitment to diversity and equality” above its duty of care to its pupils and their parents. It should be protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats.

‘These are primary-school children, for heaven’s sake. Most of them still believe in Father Christmas. Let them enjoy their childhood. They will lose their innocence soon enough.

‘The head teacher denies that pupils will be punished for referring to the teacher as Mr Upton but added ominously that they would be “expected to behave properly around her”. Nathan Upton is entitled to his gender reassignment surgery, but he isn’t entitled to project his personal problems on to impressionable young children.’

To some of us at the time, Littlejohn’s column about Lucy Meadows seemed fairly constrained by his own standards. For instance, he acknowledged her right to change gender, and to continue to teach – though not at the same school where she had been Mr Upton.

To many others, however, it seemed that Littlejohn had committed a hate crime by criticising Lucy Meadows and the school. The outrage exploded on social networking websites in March, when it was reported that Ms Meadows had been found dead in her home, having apparently poisoned herself after two failed suicide attempts. Protesters gathered outside the Mail’s offices, and launched a Twitter onslaught and online petitions calling for Littlejohn to be sacked. These petitions now claim to have gathered a quarter of a million signatures.

The gathering storm of outrage culminated this week in the coroner’s official ruling that the press – and the ‘ill-informed bigotry’ of the Mail and Littlejohn in particular – had contributed to Lucy Meadows’ suicide. He called on the government to implement ‘in full’ Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for taming the press, in order to prevent further deaths.

In fact, as the Mail and others have since pointed out, there was no real evidence to suggest that the press coverage of Ms Meadows’ gender change contributed to her death. She left a long and eloquent suicide note, trying to explain her reasons for taking her own life. It made no mention at all of the press.

Instead, she talked about her financial problems, the stress of her job and, most importantly, the way she had been left bereft by recent bereavements, including the loss of her parents. Ms Meadows’ therapist told the inquest that she had found the media intrusion ‘very stressful’ but ‘easier to deal with than she had thought’, because she had been more concerned about the terminal illness and death of somebody she loved. The woman who had previously been married to Nathan Upton, and had his child, said that Ms Meadows had been ‘more annoyed than anything’ about the press ‘intrusion’ into their lives. She said her former spouse had first discussed suicide in February: ‘She said there was not enough to keep her here.’

Like many suicides, Lucy Meadows’ death appears to have been the tragic outcome of a complex set of personal circumstances, difficult for anybody to comprehend from the outside. Such events do not lend themselves to sweeping explanations. That did not stop the coroner, despite the absence of any evidence, declaring that the shameful press had helped drive her to her death. He acknowledged that she had not mentioned the press in her suicide note, but effectively decided that he knew better than her.

It is also worth asking: even if Lucy Meadows’ note had blamed the media coverage, or named Richard Littlejohn, would it really have changed anything? The coroner said that if she had mentioned the press at all, he would certainly have summonsed ‘various journalists and editors to this inquest to give evidence and be called into account’. Yet whatever she had said or thought, the press reports and comments about the transgender teacher would still remain only words. It would still have been her who committed the act of suicide, and the ultimate responsibility for taking her own life would still lie with Ms Meadows herself.

As her suicide note put it, ‘I have simply had enough of living. I am not depressed or mentally ill in some way. I may have different worldviews to others to the point that most may not consider this a rational act. But it is right to me. All the things I have wanted to accomplish I have done. I have no regrets other than leaving behind those dear to me and causing them pain in doing so, for which I am deeply sorry.’

Coroner Singleton complained that the case showed ‘nothing has been learned from the Leveson Inquiry’ into the ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the press. The implication is that the treatment of Lucy Meadows shows that the tabloid press is still free to do what it previously did to such victims as the parents of Madeleine McCann or Christopher Jefferies, who were star witnesses at the Leveson Inquiry.

But from my point of view, this case shows that things have indeed moved on since Leveson – and in the opposite direction. The Mail and others did not make false factual allegations of serious offences against Ms Meadows, as newspapers did against the McCanns or Jefferies. Instead, what Richard Littlejohn did was to express his opinion about the transgender teacher returning to the same school.

That opinion may have offended many, including the coroner who deemed it ‘ill-informed bigotry’. But it remains an opinion, not an offence. Yet the expression of opinions deemed outside the respectable mainstream of polite society is now apparently considered a suitable case for punitive action by the government and the courts, acting on the word of the good Lord Justice Leveson. That is a major change – and one for the worse.

It may seem perverse to some to have to defend the principle of press freedom in such a sad case as the suicide of Lucy Meadows. But these are the hard cases in which it is important to hold the line. Not because we necessarily agree with anything Littlejohn might say, but because we agree with another popular journalist, George Orwell, that ‘if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’. The fact that some might use press freedom for ends of which we disapprove is no reason to allow others to encroach upon it.

No doubt a coroner should be free to express his prejudices about the press, just as a tabloid columnist is at liberty to express his opinions and prejudices and be judged on them. But there is no excuse for demanding state action to curb the expression of opinions that are not to the taste of the bench.

The discussion around the Lucy Meadows case reveals how persuasive the creeping culture of ‘I blame the media’ and ‘You can’t say that’ has become. You do not have to like the British tabloid press at all. But in a free society, I’m afraid you really should have to lump it.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics