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?
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.