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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Monstering - part 3

In my two previous blogs on the story of Lucy Meadows, I've mentioned that the press have been very reluctant to comment on their reporting of the story. There's nothing surprising about this, even if it's regrettable. That's just the way the press are. Yesterday, however, a blog appeared giving an alternative view of the 'hysteria' surrounding the death of Lucy Meadows, and offered a tabloid take. It makes for  interesting reading. I'll be quoting quite extensively from the blog, but it might be an idea to follow the link and read it first: http://tabloidtrolls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-hysteria-around-lucy-meadows.html.

First a couple of general points. It's a shame the blogger is anonymous and also that the news editor mentioned in the blog is too. I don't doubt the veracity of what's said - it's just preferable when people go on the record.

Secondly, and, for me, very revealingly, at not stage does the writer, or the news editor he or she quotes, address the crucial question of whether the reporting of Lucy's story was in the public interest. I suspect the only reason it was picked up by the nationals was that it tickled them, or fitted an agenda, and as it had already been placed in the public domain by the Accrington Observer, they could help themselves, with some help from a news agency. I doubt anyone stopped to think for a second whether there was any public interest in the story being published. Maybe they did. Our anonymous blogger doesn't help us on that point. The public interest isn't even mentioned even though it's in the PCC Code of Practice which, we are told, the press 'live in fear' of.

But on to the detail.

'Yet there are problems with all this assumption of 'monstering' and 'hounding'. 

Firstly the dates. Having read a selection of the coverage above, over how long a period would you think Lucy was pursued by rabid packs of journalists and photographers? A week? Two weeks? 

In fact the answer seems to be one day, at most two. 

Does it really matter for how long it went on for? The fact is, for Lucy, those one or two days must have been hell. At the time she wouldn't have known the carnival would move on in a day or two. All she knew is that photographers and journalists were at her door and her story was in the national press. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of shock.

The story broke via a local newspaper on Wednesday 19 December 2012 and was picked up to be published in a handful of regional and national newspapers - The Manchester Evening News, Metro, The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Star - the following day.

Yeah, just a handful. With a combined readership of nearly eight million people...and that's before we get to websites and page hits etc.

Most have exactly the same quotes which suggests they relied on the same agency report and did not send their own staff reporters to cover the story.

Would these 'same quotes' be the anonymous ones that seem to have been added to conjure up a greater sense of outrage?  This comment, like others, indicate the amount of power news agencies have. They produce the copy and, apparently, the regional national hacks just re-nose, re-jiggle and in it goes. In my days an an agency hack, the national's regional men and women would often ask for numbers to check quotes or get their own. Not now it seems. It's straight in the paper with a bit of garnish.

The school broke up on Friday 21st December - so the maximum number of days when Lucy could have been staying late and going through the back garden to get to and from work while avoiding pursuit was two. 

And how many reporters or photographers were involved? A dozen? 20? More?'

That's still two hellish days for a very vulnerable person to endure. And just as it doesn't matter whether it was two or twenty days of monstering, it doesn't matter whether it was two or twenty people at her gate. All it takes is one photographer to take a photo (and seven others to stand around talking about lenses and moaning about expenses). A photo Lucy didn't want them to take. As soon as that was clear,  they should have gone.

The news editor of a national newspapers who covered the initial story said: "It wasn't a very big story for us at all....

Which begs the question, 'Why print it in the first place?' This might not have been a big story for you. For Lucy, it was her life.

'... We went out on it for one day only. The local agency, Cavendish, did too. From what I can establish the Mail didn't even send anyone....'

So the Mail just rewrote agency copy without checking it? Was that how the quote from a ten-year-old slipped into their story, even though it's hard to see how it could have been obtained without breaking the Code of Practice?

'There was only a handful of people there for one day, two or three. I have no idea where the suggestion that parents were offered bribes for a picture comes from. It just doesn't ring true. We didn't ask anyone to do that and I'm sure no one else did. You'd just get in trouble."

The suggestion that parents were offered 'bribes' (interesting use of word; the accusation was that they were offering parents money to take a picture) came directly from one of Lucy's email's. I know from experience of being a hack, that when you start digging around and rumours spread that you're digging around, people can become prone to exaggeration. But there's rarely smoke without fire. I can believe that the press were asking for photos of Lucy and might have 'suggested' someone took one. It just rings true.

We're then told that the story wasn't used in the 'high profile' way that The Guardian and Independent said....

The Sun, for instance, carried the story only only page 35. It barely ran to 150 words and was relatively balanced in its view on whether parents were for or against the teacher's decision to come back in the January term as a woman.

Its parental reaction in full was as follows: 'Parents had a mixed reaction to the announcement. Dad-of-three Wayne Cowie, 35, said Nathan [Lucy's name before her announcement], who has taught at the school for four years, had been seen dressed as a woman while shopping in the town.

He added his son was now coming back from school "asking about transvestites. My lad is very confused and upset about it." But Rebecca Briggs, 33, who has two children at the school, said: "There are only three people who have complained. The rest of us fully support Mr Upton and his transition. All the children love him and will continue to do so when he is Miss Meadows.".'

Online, the story is more than 350 words. Rebecca Briggs' quote doesn't feature. Neither does it feature in The Daily Mail's story or any of the others I've seen. 

Despite the widespread depiction of the Press Complaints Commission being toothless, in fact newspapers live in fear of having an adjudication made against them and almost invariably leave someone alone as soon as requested.

As the PCC website explains: "In cases where someone is in a particularly vulnerable state and does not wish to speak to a journalist, we can help by sending out a message to editors making clear that the person does not wish to speak, before any such approach is made.." In practice this process takes place in just a few hours. If Lucy had requested 'the dogs be called off', they would have been - that very day. 

It's almost certain Lucy didn't know this. I'd wager few people do. When you're at the centre of a media storm, as Lucy understandably felt she was, it takes a calm cookie to go online or pick up a phone and find out what your rights are according to the PCC (or realise that you have any rights).

And if the PCC explains 'In cases where someone is in a particularly vulnerable state and does not wish to speak to a journalist...' then what the f*** are a bunch of hacks and photographers doing hanging around outside that person's house when she has already made it clear she doesn't want to speak to them. 'Call the dogs off'? Er, how about, 'Don't act like dogs?'

I have investigated and written this as a defence of legitimate and lawful news gathering. 

You've achieved the opposite. It reads like an indictment and no one's explained why the news gathering in this case was legitimate.

I make no comment on Littlejohn. But like or loathe him - and from what I have read this week thousands of people want him not just sacked but dead - I think anyone who claims he caused Lucy's death is as guilty of wrong reporting as the very newspapers they hold in such contempt.

On this I agree: Littlejohn did not cause Lucy Meadows to take her own life. The monstering, appalling as it was, did not directly cause her to take her own life. There were probably many factors. But the simple fact is that being fed into the mangle of the British press couldn't have helped, could it?
Post script: 20 minutes after I finished writing this I read that the inquest into Lucy's death, as is normal, had been opened and adjourned without hearing evidence. But one new fact which did emerge was that Lucy had attempted to take her own life at least twice before. Coroner Michael Singleton told the short hearing: “I understand there have been previous attempts to commit suicide. I don’t know if they are relevant or not.”

If Lucy had made other attempts to take her own life, then is it clear how vulnerable she was. Which makes her treatment by the press even more unforgiveable. Journalists aren't stupid. Despite what journalists might say, photographers aren't either. Their knowledge of transgender issues might not be expert, but they would be aware that a person undergoing the transition that Lucy was would be in vulnerable state. They and their news editors, at the locals, nationals or a news agency, would also be aware there no was defence of public interest in this story. Yet they still hung around at her door, and snooped around the school gates. Or fed what was given to them by a news agency who did all that on  their behalf. All, it seems, without a second thought to the effect it might have on Lucy and her life.

I've attended many inquests as a reporter. They do not exist to apportion blame (one of the few inqusats I've been to when a coroner did was the blog I linked to at the top of this piece - when he directly blamed the press for causing Father Patrick Benjamin to take his own life) and there's every chance the coroner won't in Lucy's case. But even if that were to happen, it wouldn't excuse the behaviour of the press and it wouldn't lessen the terrible damage they inflicted on a vulnerable woman.


  1. I am a freelance journalist, and work both for a news agency and a few national newspapers. I agree with you, and felt so angry about this that I contemplated joining the protest outside Northcliffe House this week (in the end I chickened out, as I sometimes work for papers in that building).

    My view, like yours, is that becoming a transsexual is a private event, and it is hard to conceive of an occasion where a news report wouldn't be unethical.

    But, being the devil's advocate, I wanted to see what you'd think if Lucy wasn't changing gender, but, say, had been convicted of some serious and newsworthy criminal offence the day before. Or had been sacked for giving a lesson that espoused racist views? Would your opinion remain the same, about the intrusion being disproportionate?

    I suppose I'm trying to get clear in my mind whether your objection is based on a) the fact that this isn't a legitimate news story in the first place, and all that follows is therefore unwarranted, or b) that doorstepping, contacting friends and family, etc is always ethically dubious, whether the story is legitimate or not.

  2. The length of the press assault really is irrelevant - the after affects of the story being public stick around for much longer. The sniggering and nudging in the street or even just the perception that everyone in your town has read the story and judged you - this should never have been made public.

    1. This should never have been made public. Yep. Blame the school for that. They sent out the letter. And saying that that is where it should have stopped is not understanding humans.

  3. The only good point that you pick up on is that Richard Littlejohn did not cause Lucy Meadows' suicide directly. other than that, a not very good rebuttal. Eg, that Lucy had attempted suicide previously and you complain that journalists still publicised the case. But how did they know that when it only came out at the inquest?

    1. It's nonsense opinions like yours that lead normally right-minded people to support curbs on press freedom. Blame the school? Seriously? Which paper do you work for? Public interest isn't what's interesting to the public. The sooner you realise that just because it sells in rags like the Sun doesn't mean you should report it, the better.

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