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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle