The Defame Game: Can Bad Media Coverage Be Deadly?
When British teacher Lucy Meadows told her employers at St. Mary Magdalen’s Church of England Primary School last year that she was transitioning, she couldn’t have imagined the news would travel further than the school’s Christmas newsletter. Within months, the story of Meadows, her gender identity, and her divorce, along with pictures pilfered from her relatives’ Facebook pages, were splayed over British tabloids, with Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn writing a piece in December using male pronouns to describe Meadows, calling her “selfish,” and proclaiming, “He’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.”
Littlejohn’s piece fed untruths and scare tactics to his conservative readership, saying Meadows’s transition would have a “devastating effect” on her elementary-age pupils, that they should be “protected” from her gender identity, and that Meadows should do everyone a favor and “disappear.” The media harassed Meadows for weeks, hounding her for interviews and pictures; she felt compelled to complain to the U.K.’s Press Complaints Commission.
On March 19, Meadows was found dead, an apparent suicide. LGBT activists heaped scorn on the notoriously nasty and ethically lax British press, especially Littlejohn. Between the social justice group SumOfUs.org and Change.org, more than 200,000 signatures were gathered on petitions demanding that Littlejohn be fired.
“Sack Richard Littlejohn for his disgusting attack piece against Lucy Meadows, apologize for printing it, and institute a[n] editorial review process to prevent this kind of discrimination from ever ending up in print again,” read the SumOfUs petition.
Numerous complaints against the Daily Mail — Britain’s second most popular newspaper, with a daily readership of nearly 5 million — were lodged with the Press Complaints Commission. Before taking further action, the commission is waiting to hear if Meadows’s family will pursue grievances against the newspaper. The Daily Mail’s editors released an initial statement proclaiming the paper guiltless in Meadows’s death, says SumOfUs campaign manager Kaytee Riek.
“They said they were victims of people with an agenda,” Riek says. “Damn right, we have an agenda — someone committed suicide because they were bullied to death, and the Daily Mail led that charge.”
The 2012 Leveson Report, commissioned by British prime minister David Cameron in the wake of other media scandals, found widespread problems in how the U.K. press reported on transgender issues, especially the routine “outing” of transgender people, which Lord Justice Leveson called most “disturbing.”
While Littlejohn is still employed with the Daily Mail, Riek believes Meadows’s death will not be in vain.
“I’m hopeful we’ll see fewer trans people bullied by the media,” says Riek, adding that this treatment happens with similar regularity in the U.S. “People aren’t going to sit back and let the press push people around because they may be different from their writers and readers.”