The media’s role in the death of Lucy Meadows

Lucy Meadows, a transsexual woman formerly called Nathan Upton, committed suicide earlier this month, the victim of a media witch-hunt. In December, Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn published an attack on her that aimed to hound her out of her job as a primary school teacher.

Marko Attila Hoare is a British historian who also writes about current affairs

Lucy Meadows, a transsexual woman formerly called Nathan Upton, is believed to have committed suicide earlier this month, following a media witch-hunt.

In December, Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn published an attack on her that aimed to hound her out of her job as a primary school teacher.

He claimed that having a woman teacher they had formerly known as a man would have a ‘devastating effect’ on Meadows’s pupils; apparently, she was trying to ‘project his personal problems on to impressionable young children’, while Meadows’s school, which supported her, was seeking to ‘elevate its “commitment to diversity and equality” above its duty of care to its pupils and their parents.’

Littlejohn concluded that if Meadows ‘cares so little for the sensibilities of the children he is paid to teach, he’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job’.

The ensuing media frenzy involved personal pictures of Meadows being published in the national press, and paparazzi camping outside her home, forcing her to leave for work early and return late to avoid them.

She complained to the Press Complaints Commission about the Littlejohn piece, but ultimately found the harassment unbearable.

This scandal follows another mainstream media assault on trans people earlier this year, when columnist, Julie Burchill, published a transphobic rant in The Observer, involving phrases such as ‘a bunch of dicks in chick’s [sic] clothing’ and  ‘a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs’.

Apparently, Britain’s leading quality liberal Sunday paper considered such bigotry acceptable if the targeted minority was defenceless enough and if its circulation could be sufficiently boosted by the predictable storm.

However, The Observer underestimated the degree of its readers’ disgust that followed, which led it to remove the article from its website and publish an apology. But with wearying predictability, a horde of right-wing Daily Telegraph and Spectator columnists – including Toby Young, William Henderson, Allison Pearson and Rod Liddle – joined by a handful of liberals, waded in to defend Burchill on ‘free speech’ grounds and to condemn The Observer’s ‘censorship’.

There are reasons for suspecting that Burchill’s defenders were not really motivated by concern for ‘freedom of speech’. Her article remained freely available and republished on other places on the internet, including the Daily Telegraph’s own website; critics weren’t suggesting that the state should ban it, merely that the Guardian shouldn’t host it, so the talk of ‘censorship’ was a straw man.

Furthermore, some of them couldn’t resist chipping in with transphobic snipes of their own – Liddle referred to ‘trannies’ and ‘quasi-women’; Pearson humorously suggested transsexual people should ‘man up !’ and accept the insults; Tom Peck, in the Independent, wrote: ‘You’d think the trannies could take it really, their shoulders are broad enough’.

Burchill’s defenders were notable by their silence when a similar ‘free speech’ issue manifested itself immediately after.

Remarks made by Liberal Democrat MP David Ward in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day, and a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, that was also considered by some (wrongly but understandably) to be anti-Semitic, appeared on the day itself in the Sunday Times.

Ward was threatened with losing his LibDem whip, while Rupert Murdoch personally apologized to Netanyahu for the Scarfe cartoon.

The supposed ‘censorship’ of Ward and Scarfe was comparable to the ‘censorship’ of Burchill; it involved disassociation from, not actual suppression of the speech in question. Yet there was no comparable right-wing and libertarian storm in defence of Ward’s or Scarfe’s ‘free speech’.

One suspects that many columnists will only defend the ‘right to offend’ when it is directed against a target which they despise, such as transsexual people, but not when directed against one they like, such as the State of Israel or the Cenotaph (which young Charlie Gilmour was actually sent to prison for swinging from during a demonstration against tuition fees, on which occasion, far from defending his ‘right to offend’, Burchill led the media attack on him).

Hate speech is not just ‘causing offense’; its consequence is not only that people reading it will be upset. Hate speech is about intimidating and disempowering its targets; about making prejudice, discrimination, harassment, even violent assaults on them acceptable.

As the case of Lucy Meadows has brutally demonstrated, the results can be fatal.

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