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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.