Press regulation, freedom of speech and the death of Lucy Meadows

In a week where supposed threats to the freedom of the press have been at the top of the political agenda, Jane Fae explores how media intrusion and disrespect in the case of primary teacher Lucy Meadows, who died this week.

This morning, you could almost feel sorry for the British press. For following the death of primary school teacher, Lucy Meadows, there’s a mob out there baying for blood. A cursory read of the #lucymeadows tweets suggests that no paper escapes criticism entirely.

Particular venom, though, is reserved for the Daily Mail ("hateful", "disgusting", "murdering") – and for one writer in particular, Richard Littlejohn – described variously as "a bully", "a murderer" and a “nasty fat evil pus filled hateful cunt of an excuse for a human being”. 

That’s so UNFAIR!

Because at this moment, we have no idea why Ms Meadows is dead. 

And as someone who has taken a lot of flak over the years for my refusal to leap to judgment, sticking up for unpopular causes when the majority has already made up its mind, I say now: “Screw fairness!”

This might be one of the unhappiest coincidences of all time. The press, however, crying foul only this week at legislation that would stop them from exposing Goebbels – though I always thought that when it mattered, various members of our fourth estate were enthusiastic supporters of the man.

Maybe it is not fair. But it is deserved. Why?

Last night, I was given access to emails from Lucy Meadows to a member of the trans community, seeking help back in January. I spoke to others before deciding to write about them: we do not know absolutely if Lucy would have wished them made public – but this is now the only voice left to her.

She talks of her good luck in having a supportive head. But the stress of her situation is also visible. She complains bitterly of how she must leave her house by the back door, and arrive at school very early, or very late, in order to avoid the press pack.

She talks of the press offering other parents money for a picture of her; of how in the end they simply lifted an old picture from the Facebook pages of her brother and sister without permission. A Year 5 drawing removed from the school website was simply recovered through the magic of caching.

Yet this is all about “how”. The big question is “why”: ah, yes – parental “fury” at her gender transition while a teacher. That might be an issue, if it was spontaneous and widespread. Only, Lucy writes of how parents themselves complained that their attempts to provide positive comments about her were rebuffed. The press gang, it seems, were only interested in one story: the outrage, the view from the bigots. The stench of money hangs around - it's widely believed among those connected with the case that money was being offered for these stories.

Why? Where is the public interest, beyond the pro-family moral agenda, proudly proclaimed by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre in front of the Leveson Inquiry? Were this a trans woman stealing money to fund gender re-assignment, there might be a story. Or a trans patient going on the rampage. Though in both cases, the real-and-unlikely-to-be-addressed question might still be: why would an individual act in this way?

And in death, the disrespect, the “monstering”, as some commentators have described it, continues. Ms Meadows broke everything in her life for one desperate reason: to be the woman she knew she was. 

So how was her death reported?  Initially, the Sun wrote about “a male primary school teacher” (they amended that after I phoned and asked them for simple humanity). The Mail talked of “he”. As did many other papers and commentators.

Excuse me? We do not know, yet, how or why her life ended: but since it is quite possible that media intrusion and disrespect played a part, how dare these jackals – reporters who have no idea of the hell that the average trans man or woman must endure on their journey – continue to be so disrespectful now.

Yet it is the same old, same old. In death, the most venial of politicians and press barons are usually airbrushed into almost-sainthood. Not the trans community. For without any possibility of legal retribution, the “tranny freak” is now “fair game”.

Just, I would suggest, as the whining, crocodile tearing lily-livered national press of this country. Maybe they played no great part in this tragedy. But they tried. And for that, they stand guilty as any common thug or thief in the night.

Not fair? No. Nor was Lucy’s death.

For advice about the issues raised in this post, you can read more on the Samaritans website or contact them on 08457 90 90 90

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.