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Monstering by the Press

Must we accept vicious, bigoted attacks on trans people as "the price of a free press"? Why should a person who has never sought publicity or public office be monstered in the press because of their trans history or their gender identity?

the press

Lucy Meadows was a popular primary school teacher at a Lancashire school. She was found dead at her home on 19th March: the inquest found a verdict of suicide, and the coroner at her inquest told the press who had monstered her and her gender reassignment "Shame on all of you."

Bethany Black wrote on her blog:

Lucy was about to begin her transition, she was going to do what the doctors call "the real life test" which is to live in your new gender role for a period of time, usually no shorter than a year more often two years, before you'll be referred for surgery.  She'd told the school she worked at, and with the support of the staff, the governors and the parents she'd kept her job, so far so good.  Until the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn decided to write a hate piece about her.

A lot of trans women have had their lives pawed over by the media when they transition, their privacy invaded at a time which is massively stressful anyway.  I remember the first time I went out dressed in female clothes.  The fear that I had was almost unbearable, I was convinced that every person I saw would know, and would hurl abuse at me or attack me.  It was terrifying, and it continued to be terrifying for years afterwards, even though there were very few occasions where I was read as male.

I can only imagine what it's like for that fear to become a reality, to be hounded in the press for just being yourself at a time when you're having to deal with incredible mental and emotional pressures.  The 5% of people who seem to still have such a problem with trans people that they'd give them abuse being given this information, where you live, where you work and having their prejudices backed up by a national newspaper.  It's just unbearable to think of.

Legal blogger David Allen Green wrote:

At the moment we do not know how she died and, if it was the case that she took her own life, what the relveant circumstances were.

But what we do know is that Lucy Meadows was monstered by tabloid newspapers when news emerged that she was transitioning from male to female.

Suddenly she became not only a figure in sensational news reporting, but someone ridiculed and criticised by a national newspaper columnist. [Richard Littlejohn] There was, of course, no public interest in any of this.

Such “monster” pieces are easy for tabloids to produce (especially if they get “before” and “after” photos), and the powerless figures caught up – victims – are unlikely ever to fight back. In a way, the tabloids treat trans people the way they would treat anyone, if they could get away with it.

The Daily Mail removed Richard Littlejohn's column after the announcement of Meadows' death (It is still available via a web archive here) but claimed objections to the column were "orchestrated":

In an email written at the New Year, Lucy Meadows said:

"many parents have been quite annoyed with the press, too, especially those that were trying to give positive comments but were turned away".

On 20th March, the Press Complaints Commission ruled that Julie Burchill's article attacking and demonising trans people, first published in the Observer and then republished in the Telegraph, did not break the Editors' Code of Practice:

The PCC’s Editors’ Code of Practice states in a clause on discrimination that the press “must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability”.

However, in its ruling of the Burchill article, the PCC acknowledged that it had caused offence but declared the decision to publish was not in breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

Helen Belcher, a trustee of Trans Media Watch, notes:

On a strict “legal” definition, that’s true, as the Code only specifically restricts discriminatory articles against named individuals, and accuracy more generally.  However, in a meeting between Trans Media Watch and Lord Hunt, Chair of the PCC, in September, he categorically stated that complaints from groups on this clause could already and should continue to be accepted.

The Daily Mail this week published a story about prisoners who are transitioning continuing to receive NHS treatment while in jail.

Helen Belcher adds:

Let’s put this in context.  The press has been shouting very loudly about the freedom it must have to hold those in power to account.  It seems to be very quiet about the potential consequences of that freedom to innocent, powerless people.  I’m a believer in a free press.  However I’m also a believer in a responsible press.  I’m not entirely sure we have either.

Trans Media Watch

See The British Press and the Transgender Community: Submission to The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press

"Enough is enough. Research shows how trans people experience unprecedented levels of suicide, yet no health organisations are helping. If change is going to come, it will have to come from us. "

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