Freedom From The Press

'Chocolate teapot' by Dru MarlandBack in January The Observer published a “comment” piece by Julie Burchill which was basically one long piece of hate speech against trans people, full of inaccurate and abusive stereotyping. Many people were deeply offended by it. Over 800 people wrote to the Press Complaints Commission to say so. That includes some of you. I know, because you told me that you did. Personally I didn’t waste my time because, as Dru Marland’s fine cartoon states, the PCC is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Helen Belcher has an analysis of the judgement here, but the guts of it can be summarized in three simple points.

1. The Burchill article was not offensive because it talked generally about a class of people, not an individual, so on one was actually demeaned by it.

2. The article could not be regarded as misleading because was presented as Ms. Burchill’s personal opinion.

3. Newspapers could not be seen as harassing trans people because the complaints were only about a single article.

That may seem like a pile of dishonest weaseling to you, and you would be absolutely right. Take the first point, for example. Back in December the tabloid newspapers, led as usual by the Daily Malice, picked upon an individual Manchester trans woman who worked as a primary school teacher. Richard Littlejohn, as usual, was particularly obnoxious and demeaning. I’m sure some people will have complained about what Littlejohn wrote, and I’m equally sure that the PCC would have defended it as being in the “public interest”.

That teacher’s name was Lucy Meadows. On Tuesday, the day before the PCC ruling on the Burchill case was released, Lucy was found dead at her home. The police say that there are no suspicious circumstances. Friends say that she had talked of contemplating suicide.

As soon as the news broke, concerned members of the media took to the Internet to ask how this could have happened and how further tragedies could be prevented… Wait, no, that was David Allen Green. He’s a lawyer. Concerned members of the media took to the Internet to remind us that we could not know how Ms. Meadows had died, nor was there any obvious connection between her death and what they had done. Don’t people know that wearing dresses while male causes cancer? She could even have been abducted by aliens. In any case, it is far more likely that she would have been distressed by the actions of her neighbors, or parents at the school. None of those people are likely to have decided that she was a disgusting, dangerous freak from reading the Daily Mail, are they?

And the decision of the Mail to remove the offending article from their website was not in any way an admission of possible culpability. They just wanted to give Toby Young an opportunity to re-publish it so that the discussion could be moved on to outrage about how the press is being hounded and censored by a powerful cabal of trans people.

Then they all went off to a well earned lobster and Bollinger dinner and started work on articles for today’s papers in which they could further demean and insult Lucy because, after all, now she’s dead she can’t complain, right?

Sarah Brown said on Twitter today that she’s often asked how she managed to survive being trans. She said she points out that she’s white, middle class, Cambridge educated and well off, which helps a lot. Some of the ways in which privilege works in the UK work for people like her and me. But then again, Lucy Meadows was white, middle class, was well educated and had a full-time job that pays more than I earned in my last tax return. That didn’t help her.

Being outed publicly clearly doesn’t do you any good. What happened to me was very public, but equally far less so than what happened to Lucy. Had I not had Kevin to comfort me, I would have been in a dreadful state. Somehow, I got through it.

For Lucy, as David Allen Green noted, the problem will have been exacerbated by having it happen while she was starting transition. When you first start taking estrogen it messes you up mentally. It’s like having to go through all of the angst of puberty, except as an adult. It would be good if there was a way to protect people during that vulnerable time, but the press much prefers to target people who are just starting transition because that’s when they look most like the he-she stereotype. After a year or two, when the hormones have done their work, trans people are much less interesting to photograph.

I have no idea what was going on in Lucy’s mind, or what persecution she experienced. I can only speak for myself. What I find is that the low level danger is survivable. You get used to the idea that strangers may come up to you in the street and ask intrusive questions, or yell abuse at you. You get used to the fact that you may be randomly mis-gendered or refused service in a shop or restaurant. What gets to you is not the fact that some people are arseholes, because some people will always be arseholes. What gets to you is the idea that you probably have no recourse, because no one cares.

So, for example, when a marriage equality bill is put before Parliament, it is just a bill for lesbians and gays. Amendments to address the problems it will cause for trans people get thrown out without explanation or excuse. And when trans people are vilified in the media nothing will be done, because vilifying trans people makes money, and is fun for the journalists doing it.

Helen Belcher noted on Twitter yesterday that if we ever do get freedom from the press we need to make sure that it isn’t at the expense of another minority group. She’s right, but sadly it is probably the only way it will happen. Trans people may disappear from the front pages for a day or so, because the news coming out of Parliament at the moment is that it is time to stop hating on the queers, and to stop hating on supposed “benefit scroungers”, and start hating on brown people instead.

I might have had my troubles with the US immigration people, but that’s nothing to what the UK Border Agency is doing these days. Students who applied for visas and had them legitimately granted are being told that those visas are being summarily cancelled mid-term because the UKBA no longer approves of the college that supported the visa applications. I’m sure that somewhere in London a concerned journalist is having a lobster and Bollinger lunch with a UKBA press officer and being also fed a shock story that can be used to justify this.

Update: Jane Fae has a wonderful article at the New Statesman. She has been given access to emails that Lucy wrote to a friend over the past few months. This comment is particularly pertinent:

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.

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4 Responses to Freedom From The Press

  1. Cathy Butler says:

    And when trans people are vilified in the media nothing will be done, because vilifying trans people makes money, and is fun for the journalists doing it.

    Also because (unlike LGB people) they are not covered by hate speech legislation.

  2. Judy B says:

    BTW, the cross post to LJ failed because if the teapot, I think – you may want to fix that…