Sadism Masquerading As Journalism: The Press And Lucy Meadows

feature image via the guardian

Last Monday, March 25, about three hundred people gathered outside of the offices of the Daily Mail in Kensington, London to hold a vigil in honor of Lucy Meadows, a British school teacher who was found dead at her home about a week earlier. The vigil was held at the Daily Mail headquarters in silent protest of how the UK tabloid (and other elements of the British press) had strewn details of a small-town teacher’s personal life across national headlines – likely playing a role in her apparent suicide. Many of those same members of the press hardly flinched as they continued disrespecting Meadows, even in reporting her death.

On December 19, 2012, the story appeared in the local Accrington Observer that Lucy Meadows, who had formerly lived as a man, would be returning to her teaching duties at St. Mary Magdalen’s School after Christmas break now living as a woman. The story incorrectly gendered Meadows as male throughout and featured a scowling picture of Wayne Cowie, a parent of one Meadow’s pupils, holding a copy of a letter to parents informing them of Meadows gender transition. Mr. Cowie was quoted speaking about his son, “He has had this teacher for three years. All of a sudden [she] is going to be coming to school after Christmas as a woman.” He added, “They are too young to be dealing with that.”

I would argue that children are perfectly capable of dealing with the issue of gender transition; my experience is that beyond perhaps vague curiosity, they usually don’t care very much (if at all). This naturally leads us to a more immediate question: why would anyone, unless perhaps they are directly connected to the school, care about this story? I have difficulty seeing how this story is worthy of any news coverage, even at the local level.

Of course, the press has every right to ask questions when it has some kind of (even broadly-defined) relation to the public interest. Usually that would mean asking questions of public figures or focusing on issues that affect a significant number of people. Lucy Meadows is not a public figure and her gender transition had a direct impact on very few people.

The manner in which the press was obviously bottom-feeding to dig up dirt in this case was a bit unreal. For example, quoting anonymous sources is usually something that is done when there is no other way to move forward on an important story. The present story has virtually no journalistic importance whatsoever, and yet the Daily Mail and others relied on such sources for comment when they piled on shortly after the local story broke. In their significantly more aggressive piece, the Daily Mail featured not only more creative comments from Mr. Cowie, but anonymous comments from other parents, including one who was quoted as saying:

“At first we thought [she] was just borrowing [her] wife’s headbands to hold [her] hair back,”

And another:

“This is totally inappropriate… Any teacher who is going to change gender should also change schools.”

They also trolled Facebook for personal photos and badgered individuals involved in the story for information. The original Daily Mail story included four photos of Meadows before her transition; three of these were taken from her wedding three years previous and two of them featured her recently-divorced wife. Apparently these pictures were lifted directly from the Facebook page of one of Meadows family members in clear breach of both Britain’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC) Code of Practice and common decency.

It’s this kind of treatment that pushes us to ask what, exactly, constitutes harassment. A day after professional diver Tom Daley and his partner suffered a disappointing loss for Britain at the 2012 London Games last year, a 17 year-old boy was arrested for sending Daley a tirade of harassing messages on twitter. To use another example, late last year Gregory Alan Elliot was arrested for months of alleged twitter harassment of a feminist activist in Toronto. He is alleged to have disrupted much of her campaigning activities online; the sheer  volume of the messages resulted in police involvement. What is it that differentiates these cases from how the press treated Lucy? While the former are unquestionably inappropriate (and illegal), the latter is considered… quality journalism?

The media’s intrusion into Meadows’s life wasn’t limited to the Internet; in December when the story broke, the press camped out both outside the school and outside her home. In an email to a friend, Meadows complained the lengths she had to take in order to avoid being photographed by the press. She used a backdoor to avoid them in front of her house, left for work early and stayed at the school until late. She also said that, “many parents have been quite annoyed with the press, too, especially those that were trying to give positive comments but were turned away,” and even more damningly, “I know the press offered parents money if they could get a picture of me.”

While these actions point to a manufactured hunger for these stories among the press corps, the media attempt to paint themselves as asking “essential” questions that we’ve all heard before: how will this affect children. This tired narrative that uses rhetorical questions of “what’s best for the children involved” as a way to deflect criticism of transphobia, homophobia or any other number of social prejudices is pushed on full volume in a second column that appeared in the Daily Mail a day after the first. This column, written by well-known tabloid trash shock jock Richard Littlejohn, expresses blasé rhetorical support for trans people and goes on to ask if “anyone stopped for a moment to think of the devastating effect all this is having on those who really matter? Children as young as seven aren’t equipped to compute this kind of information.”

Many people have responded to Lucy’s death by demanding that Richard Littlejohn being fired (including myself), and there is even a petition to this effect out there with over 200,000 signatures. However, having some time to reflect on the situation and read over  some opinions that have questioned this demand,, I’ve decided that calling for Littlejohn to be fired might feel good but it may actually be overlooking the bigger picture: after all it was the supposed “news” press that hounded Meadows outside her school and her home. If they had never done that, Littlejohn would have never had the opportunity to pile on top of it all in his commentary piece.

The harder truth is that this thing started at the local news level, with a story by Stuart Pike in the Accrington Observer and spread outwards from there. The problem is with the media itself, not one figurehead who happens to pretty openly despise lots of vulnerable people. And it’s very clear that the British media itself has refined this type of public abuse of trans people to almost the level of a twisted art form (see here for details on how the British press and others actually open up trans children’s lives for public abuse; also see here).

It’s not necessarily clear what role her ordeal with the press played in Lucy’s decision to end her life; perhaps some clues to her state of mind at that time may emerge in the future, or perhaps they will not. However, it is clear that these types of stories focusing on the private details of trans people’s lives and bodies serve absolutely no public interest. They only serve to provide trash tabloids, and even supposedly reputable newspapers, massive page hits and advertising revenue. The hounding of Lucy Meadows and other trans people by the press should be viewed for what it is: self-interest and ruthless sensationalism; in short, it is journalistic sadism.

In looking back at the unraveling of the story, we note that the Headteacher of the school stated that Meadows had the full support of the school staff. Meadows was also quoted as saying that her decision had been a difficult one to make; she further requested that her privacy be respected. If only that simple, reasonable request could have been respected from the start.


About the author: Savannah is a queer trans woman and physicist originally from the great state of Carolina (that alone should tell you which one).  She also writes on trans feminism and other social justice issues on her blog leftytgirl, preferably while listening to metal.  Savannah presently lives in Tokyo where her principle hobbies include singing at karaoke clubs and getting lost on the subway.

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Savannah is a queer trans woman and physicist who was unleashed into the cosmos from the great state of North Carolina. She has been active on LGBT diversity issues in physics and also writes on trans feminism and other social justice issues on her blog leftytgirl, preferably while listening to metal. Savannah presently works at a university in Osaka from where she misses her amazing cat Zinfandel back in North Carolina very much. Follow her on Twitter.

Savannah has written 11 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    Suicide is what seems like my entire family’s death method of choice, so I’m always incredibly wary of “this caused so-and-so’s suicide” or “you caused so-and-so’s suicide.” HOWEVER
    the media was absolutely abusive in this situation. The media is full of assholes. I very much hope that Lucy Meadows has found her peace and that her family, especially her children, are somehow able to survive this.
    I do not see the media changing at all, however. McCarthyism, Jacintha Saldanha not too long ago, Amy Winehouse…the media just won’t quit.

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      If what happened to Lucy Meadows happened to me, I have no doubt I would have committed suicide. My transition at work was horrific enough without an attack like that from the press. I would have killed myself. I know I would have.

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        Suicide is just such a multi-faceted decision, and also a very selfish one, when it comes down to it. I didn’t say that the media attack wasn’t a part of what caused her to kill herself, but I don’t think it was the ONLY reasoning behind that decision. Like you just said, your transition was already horrific, and if this happened to you, it would add to the decision. So, multi-faceted.
        I just fucking hate suicide, and she had kids…heartbreaking.

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          I wouldn’t consider suicide as selfish. Because when I have thought about it and went to attempt it, It wasn’t selfish at all. If you have never been suicidal you might not understand this. It is easy for people who have never tried to commit suicide to construct what the attempt was.

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          I’ve been in the hospital three times for suicide attempts, the first when I was twelve, then again when I was fifteen, and finally, when I was eighteen. I’m twenty now.
          Again, my family’s death method of choice is suicide, and in the past, it’s been mine, too.

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          At the same time, none of us are Lucy Meadows. As Savannah said, we can’t know what she was thinking when she killed herself.
          And again, I’m not at all discounting the media attack’s impact on her psychological well being.

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          Suicide is the most unselfish act you can perform. Being selfish would prevent you from performing it.

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          WOW.
          I could not disagree with you more.
          I don’t know if you’ve lost a close family member to suicide, but…
          in no way in hell is suicide the most unselfish act someone could commit. Not even close. I understand that you believe it to not be selfish, but to call it “the most unselfish”?? Every study on the effects of suicide on loved ones, especially children, tell an ENTIRELY different story.
          Regardless, again, this is a heartbreaking situation and my heart BREAKS for Meadows’ family and ESPECIALLY her children. Absolutely heartbreaking.
          I hope that her family can sue for emotional damages, at the very least.

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          Wow.
          I don’t know if you’ve ever been suicidal but…
          When I was contemplating suicide, it wasn’t always about myself. I felt incredibly guilty over the pain that my issues were causing the people that I cared about most. And part of me thought that if I killed myself, yes they would be hurt, but then they could start to heal. Instead of me being a constant burden.
          I know that might sound kind of twisted, and might not be true in reality. But I was in a pretty dark place, and it made sense to me.

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          Personally, I feel like I get where Sam is coming from here. I think this conversation has come down in a kinda ‘black or white’ way on an issue that often has a lot of shades of gray to it. My feeling is that with these kinds of things, it’s best not to generalize, and just try to look at things on a case-by-case basis. Just my 2cents.

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    I’m finding the British media pretty repulsive at the moment. I used to find the everyday bigotry of the Mail strangely comforting, but with the Guardian/Observer handling recent trans stories arguably even more appallingly, none of the mainstream news outlets seem hugely trustworthy at the moment. Except the Independent, of course, who never report any actual news.

    (As an aside, The BBC’s reporting of any lgbt issues outside of gay marriage seems to have become either buried or non-existent, and every gay marriage piece seems over-weighted with opinion from no-name Tories or clergy for “balance”)

    It’s one thing for the press to prop each other up in the afermath of Leveson, but while Greenslade and co. may defend Littlejohn’s column on the grounds that it was surprisingly less offensive than you’d expect, they are wilfully ignoring the very real damage the whole media has done in manufacturing the story in the first place.

    I totally agree with Savannah: how can the “think of the children” argument hold any water? When the only lesson the kids attending that school will learn from this is that growing up feeling different will probably mean suffering enough suspicion and abuse to drive you to suicide.

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    Maybe firing Littlejohn might not be the answer, but the Press Complaints Commission needs to investigate. Saying that it started from a local news source and that other tabloids were involved means nothing when there’s an overarching body to regulate exactly this kind of behavior.

    The PCC received over 200 individual complaints over Julie Burchill’s article. Why this isn’t happening now is beyond me.

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      A formal inquest has been opened to determine (if possible) the causes/factors leading to Lucy’s death– I’m not sure of all the details, but there should be some update after the inquest resumes on May 28.

      As for the PCC, I think Lucy or someone in her family must have filed a complaint at some point as it apparently did rule that the photos the Daily Mail lifted from Facebook were out of bounds.

      However, saying that the press stealing pictures on facebook is “going too far” isn’t really much comfort, is it?

      I don’t know if there are any further PCC investigations being conducted at the moment on any of the press coverage about Lucy. However, given that they recently ruled that the outright hate tirade from Julie Burchill didn’t breach the editor’s code (on the grounds that it merely targeted trans women as a whole, not an individual trans woman), it’s hard to really have any faith in the PCC whatsoever at this point:

      http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/media/news/a468468/julie-burchill-transsexual-column-no-breach-of-pcc-code.html

      If calling a group of women “shemales” and “bed-wetters” doesn’t cross the line, what does?

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        Good to know. But, in all fairness, this is very different from L’Affair Burchill. A specific trans* woman was targeted, harassed to death in the pages of mainstream press.

        Also, if your sources are correct, a whole neighborhood/school was harassed in the process. I’d love to see a coordinated effort to get neighbors and community members writing complaints of their own. Even if they don’t all go through, the volume would push the PCC to take action. And, I hate to say it, but the voices of straight, cisgender allies (Lucy’s allies) would carry more weight.

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          Oh, I absolutely agree that this is quite different from the ordeal with the Burchill column. My only point in bringing up the PCC ruling in that case was to illustrate the point that even outright, screaming social prejudice can walk right through the gates as long as it doesn’t single any body out. Given that’s the case, when it does come to individuals, it seems that the PCC can, at most, be expected to rein in a few of the particularly extremist forms of harassment (but not even all of those). So the situation from that perspective looks pretty bleak.

          As an aside- I guess the only thing that keeps the UK press from being *that* blatant (using slurs, threats, etc.) when targeting other groups (in the generalized sense) is the fear that it would affect their bottom line. I guess maybe that says something about how we should think about the situation from a strategic perspective.

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          I understand your point about the PCC being toothless, but that doesn’t change the fact that the results of a thorough investigation could be used in civil suits, and even criminal charges, if there’s proven harassment and breech of privacy. That’s why it’s important to get as many of the people affected by this involved in the process.

          There’s also a groundswell of support in Britain for a stronger regulatory board, especially in light of the phone hacking scandal. It would be prudent for trans* activists in the UK to add their voices to that cause. I mean, someone died. I can’t say that enough. The fact that there’s was a bigger outcry over Burchill than this is dysfunctional.

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          I agree completely, including your point about priorities regarding the Burchill ordeal, and that kinda disturbs me to be honest.

          But going forward, I guess in some ways it is up to those most directly affected by these events to take up action, meanwhile the rest of us need to keep the conversation going as thing are revealed down the road (e.g. the inquest into the circumstances of Lucy’s passing).

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    He should have been sacked whether or not Lucy Meadows had taken her life. It’s horrific that journalists, the supposed ‘voice of the people’, bully members of the public to write a cheap, haphazard piece for a few brownie points with the barely-literate far-right and some dosh.

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    Who is responsible for transphobia and generalized nastiness in the media coverage of trans people can be a complex issue (and I’m not excusing pondscum like Littlejohn who, btw, lives most of the time in Vero Beach, FL and deserves to be similarly hounded here). As was mentioned by the Savannah’s piece, often local events are covered with embedded transphobia and reprinted in other media outlets who can use the source article as an excuse. Far too often, the cops are responsible for misgendering, misnaming and making trans person’s lives sound sordid and, victim blaming. Reporters can then say “we’re just printing the facts as the officials gave them to us.” Then there are even more complex issues like the families of trans people who, might be ID’d as loving and supportive, but just as often will misgender and mis-name their own trans offspring (it just happened again in the case of a Brooklyn woman whose trans daughter died from diabetic shock after being refused treatment by EMTs). The reporters can use the excuse of ‘trying to be respectful of families’ wishes’ by printing birth gender photos of the deceased and misgendering. Media advocates are loathe to call out such instances although it happens all the time in cases of trans women being murdered.

    Then there is the issue of ‘first distribution’ of stories where preliminary facts are published ‘as is’ from the police or local interviews and transphobia and misgendering is distributed in these initial accounts. Because of the internet and instantaneous digital dissemination of such info, numerous other outlets pick up and republish the info until the transphobia becomes more widespread and even normalized. And then there are people like Littlejohn who can always claim that he was just going by the already published accounts especially if their transphobic narrowness confirms his own. Finally there is the persistant cry of “political correctness” trotted out by certain LGBT members every time there is some attempt at media advocacy (ugh, read this nasty little number: http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/13477/).

    As was mentioned in the thread, we don’t completely know why Lucy finally broke down and felt the need to take her own life and to what extend Littlejohn’s column played into that. It might just as well have had to do with family issues, having child visitation taken away, some interpersonal or legal exchanges we’re not privy too. Many people facing transition are on the edge. I taught elementary school around the time I transitioned, had a less supportive administration than Lucy did and I can attest it’s one of the hardest job environments in which to transition. I was fortunate that, even though there was a certain amount of gossip about me among teachers, district personnel, various schools where I had worked and certainly among parents, I never had to deal the media or the Daily Mail. I might have lost my employment but at least I’m alive.

  6. Thumb up 1

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    I’m always bewildered by people who for some reason think it would be terribly complex or traumatizing to explain the existence of trans people to children. I’m a parent, and I think the topic came up with my son when he was 4 or thereabouts. The conversation went more or less like this.

    Him: “Do girls have penises?”

    Me: “Not usually – most of the time, boys have penises and girls have vaginas. But sometimes a person is born who has boy parts, but feels like a girl on the inside, or who has girl parts, but feels like a boy on the inside. And it’s who someone is on the inside that counts, so in that case, that would be a girl with a penis, or a boy with a vagina. When they grow up, they might have an operation to give them the sort of parts they would rather have. Or they might not. But in either case, it’s who someone is on the inside that makes them a boy or girl, not what parts they have on the outside.”

    Him: “Oh, OK. Let’s play Lego!”

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