Newspapers don't like admitting it when they get something wrong. Most have a corrections and clarifications slot, but this is for misspellings of names or inaccurate historical dates. When they get something seriously wrong it generally goes upstairs to the lawyers, who will wriggle a bit and haggle a lot until money changes hands and suddenly it all goes away.
Newspapers almost never admit it when they have done something bad. Something that hurts real people, causing them to lose their jobs, their families or their lives.
So it was always going to be instructive to look at how the Daily Mail reported the Lucy Meadows inquest today.
Lucy Meadows was a transgender primary school teacher who killed herself in March after one term of living as a woman. She was 32.
In a suicide letter addressed to the coroner, Miss Meadows wrote of her sorrow at the deaths of her parents, grandparent and a friend. She had debts. She loved her school and her job, even though it was stressful. She had issues with her trans. But, she wrote, she was dealing with all of these. She was rational and had decided that the path she had chosen was the right one for her. 'I have simply had enough of living.' She blamed no one and, indeed, thanked friends, family and colleagues for their support, concluding 'I wish you all the best.'
The letter is extraordinarily touching and generous, and you might expect the local paper to run it at greater length than I have here. As for the nationals? Probably not, a nib at most.
Except that Lucy Meadows had become a national figure, largely thanks to some loose talk in her home town, which inspired a Richard Littlejohn column in the Daily Mail.
The school had announced at Christmas that a male teacher would be returning after the holidays as Miss Meadows. This had been explained carefully to the children and parents were told via the staff comings and goings section of the school newsletter. Some took exception to the low-key approach, others fretted about how their children would deal with such a concept.
The new term was never going to be easy for Miss Meadows or her pupils. But it was made unnecessarily difficult by the fact that her story was picked up by the national Press and, in particular, by Littlejohn.
Miss Meadows told friends that she had taken to going to school early, leaving late and using her back gate to avoid the press pack waiting for her outside. As her letter to the coroner shows, she was struggling with various problems, and twice attempted suicide in the early part of this year.
It is Littlejohn's job to be controversial. It is not his job to pick on ordinary members of the public, particularly at a time of extreme vulnerability. His column, published in mid-December, was a disgraceful bigoted rant about something he clearly did not understand. On January 3 - the first possible date after the Christmas shutdown - Miss Meadows reported him and the paper to the Press Complaints Commission, accusing them of inaccuracy, harassment and invasion of privacy.
Letters went back and forth between the Mail and the PCC, and on March 11 the paper offered to take the Littlejohn column down from its website. It did so the next day. Exactly a week later, Miss Meadows killed herself.
|Michael Singleton. Photograph: Lancashire Telegraph|
Yesterday the coroner Michael Singleton tore into the paper's attitude to the complaint:
'Having carried out what can only be described as a character assassination, having sought to ridicule and humiliate Lucy Meadows and bring into question her right to pursue her career as a teacher, the Daily Mail's response was to offer to remove the article from the website.
It seems to me that nothing has been learnt from the Leveson inquiry or subsequent report.
Lucy Meadows was not someone who had thrust herself into the public limelight. She was not a celebrity. She had done nothing wrong. Her only crime was to be different. Not by choice but by some trick of nature..and yet the press saw fit to treat her in the way they did.
Had it been in the note she left to me of any reference at all to the press, I would have had no difficulty in summoning various journalists and editors to this inquest to give evidence and be called into account.'
Mr Singleton also told reporters at the hearing: 'To the Press I say Shame. Shame on all of you.'
Such a pronouncement seems odd, given the evidence to the hearing and the letter, which indicated that there were many factors at play and that the press intrusion was not the overriding one. It was also slightly strange to hear him say that he had been looking into the background of press coverage, which he found appalling. I was not aware that coroners went digging for evidence behind the scenes before an inquest.
But while the coroner's behaviour and remarks may seem maverick, that does not mean he was wrong in his assessment.
Today the Mail reported the inquest at length, as its page 10 lead. It is a masterpiece of Mail writing with its self-interested emphasis, juxtapositions and omissions.
The first paragraph, for example, makes sure that we know that three months elapsed between the story appearing in the national papers and Miss Meadows's death. Littlejohn is not mentioned until the last sentence of the 22nd paragraph.
The absence of any mention of the media in the suicide note is emphasised, as is a therapist's evidence that Miss Meadows was more distressed by the death of someone she loved than by the press coverage. That, she said, had been easier to deal with than she had thought.
We are told twice of the previous suicide attempts and twice that Miss Meadows had thanked the PCC for the way her complaint had been amicably resolved.
Yet there is no room for the coroner's remarks about Littlejohn's 'character assassination' or the fact that he would have hauled the paper into court had Miss Meadows made any reference to the press in her letter. Only the middle paragraph of the passage in blue above makes it into print.
And even to the end, the paper refuses to accept that it might have any cause for contrition.
A spokesman for the Daily Mail said last night: "Richard Littlejohn's column emphatically defended the rights of people to have sex change operations but echoed some parents' concerns about whether it was right for children to have to confront such complex gender problems at such a vulnerable young age. Among the many reasons Miss Meadows gave for taking her actions, none blamed the press coverage."
We are familiar with the notion of bereaved families speaking after an inquest, but it seems quite inappropriate for a newspaper to give itself the right of reply in the body of a news report. Reader comments were swiftly switched off the Mail's website, but here are a few that made it before the cut:
To be fair, a number of people have felt the coroner was out of order in his remarks, and the Mail was not alone in seeking to absolve the Press of responsibility. Press Gazette's inquest report attracted a string of comments from journalists accusing Mr Singleton of following his own agenda and grandstanding.
I suppose we are supposed to take this uppercut from the coroner on the chin but he seems to have jumped on the 'blame the press' bandwagon...Mr Singleton seems positively disappointed that there was no reference to the press in the suicide note... It could be that the media coverage simply wasn't the significant motivating factor he'd have liked it to be.
This guy has decided from the outset the angle he is going to take and...focused on the very thing that will maximize the headlines this inquest will receive...What Lucy's friends and family did not need was a diatribe from a man who was clearly not going to allow his moment in the limelight pass him by.
This coroner's comments are simply outrageous. Where was the evidence of press abuse?
In fact, Mr Singleton did not blame the media; he delivered his verdict and then expressed his opinion on the conduct of the Press because he regarded it as a matter of such public concern that it needed to be referred to the Secretary of State. He did, however, weaken his own position with that final sweeping 'Shame on all of you'.
As SubScribe wrote in a previous post, Death of a Teacher, Littlejohn didn't kill Miss Meadows; she wasn't hounded to her death by the Press. If her story had never been reported by anyone, she might still have taken her own life. But she'd have had one less cause for unhappiness.
To reject all responsibility is like a mugger saying 'I may have stabbed him in the stomach, but he died from heart disease, so I did nothing wrong.'
Littlejohn did a bad thing. He brought pain and suffering to someone he had never met and who had never done him any harm. The Mail has today done another bad thing by refusing to acknowledge its part in this tragic story and in its gross misrepresentation of the tenor of the offending Littlejohn column.
They should both be looking to their feet.
Postscript: The Mail might also examine its conscience today over the use on page 4 of the famous picture of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in their Manchester United shirts.
The photograph illustrates a factbox about new rules on who can work in care homes and schools. One of Ian Huntley would have been more appropriate - though less attractive.
The Soham girls' families have specifically asked the media to stop using the photograph so that they can reclaim it for themselves. It is, after all, the last image of their children.
Is that too much to ask?
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