Last week the Coroner examining the death of transgender school teacher Lucy Meadows issued a pretty exceptional reprimand to Britain's press.
Michael Singleton, coroner for Blackburn, Hyndburn and Rossendale, singled out the Daily Mail as he accused the paper of "ridicule and humiliation" and a "character assassination" of Lucy Meadows, who took her own life in March.
He urged the government to implement the recommendations of the Leveson report on press intrusion as he criticised the "sensational and salacious" press coverage.
Delivering a verdict of suicide, he told the inquest into her death he was appalled at media reports about Meadows.
As he closed the inquest, he turned to the reporters present and said: "And to you the press, I say shame, shame on all of you."
The Coroner's sharp words have been reported widely in the press during the past week.
Paris Lees, writing for the Guardian's Comment is Free blog suggested that, instead of more regulations (on top of existing ones that are not enforced), press bullies should be made to meet the people who accuse them of bullying (in much the same way that criminals are sometimes required to meet their victims).
The Daily Mail continued to defend their position.
Former Guardian editor Peter Preston, used his Observer column about the Media to suggest that such cases presented "tricky demands for sense and sensitivity" … thereby contributing to a misrepresentation of the actual issues.
Top marks for making sense ought to go to RAF Search and Rescue pilot Ayla Holdom, writing for the Observer's Society section, who provided a clear personal account illustrating that Lucy Meadows' experience was far from unusual.
There is a feeling that the press, in some quarters, continues to be in denial about its behaviour.
Some commentators have sought to diminish or refute the coroner's critical words by arguing that Lucy Meadows had not specifically mentioned Richard Littlejohn's monstering in her suicide note (although she had complained, unsuccessfully, to the Press Complaints Commission).
Others, such as Peter Preston (above) have written as though the Meadows case was a single, atypical (albeit regrettable) event. Treating the Littlejohn article as a one-off avoids discussion of a genuinely systemic problem.
The Daily Mail eventually removed the offending article by Richard Littlejohn from its web site, but denies any culpability and has never reported on the vigil organised outside its offices.
There is a feeling, too, that elements of the press are behaving as though they fear what unforeseeable consequences might ensue if they were to address their behaviour and go about reporting trans peoples' lives (if at all) in a different, informed, and more respectful fashion.
Change, they think, is best avoided … especially when the status quo suits them well.
This raises the question of just what might happen if the press were to abandon their present habitual approach and report and debate trans peoples' issues in an honest, informed, and reasoned way.
Here are some possible outcomes. You are invited to add more in the comments...
- Imagine what would happen if the press were to investigate and report upon the concerns raised earlier this year by the #transdocfail affair? Policy debates concerning all aspects of trans peoples' contact with health professionals have always been conducted until now without the pressures of external press scrutiny … or with the press only offering the kind of reporting that reinforces the status quo. If trans people thought they were receiving backward, unfair or abusive treatment in the system (whether by doctors or commissioners) they had little chance of having that unfairness opened up to public scrutiny by the press. This is unhealthy and could possibly explain why reform in this field has ground on so slowly for decades compared with other areas of health. Put simply, the system has no real incentive to change if the press is not capable of calling out entrenched practice. The consequence of enlightened reporting could be far better health care.
- Imagine what might have happened if the press had been capable and minded to report upon the passage of the Gender Recognition Bill. Could a provision requiring the dissolution of healthy marriages (in return for legal recognition) have had such an easy passage if any newspaper had been prepared to examine how exceptional such a proposal was? For trans people on their own to try and oppose this was a truly David and Goliath match, with no stones for David to throw. As a result, a truly exceptional provision … the only time the Government has ever required citizens to end their marriage for any reason … was passed without comment. Press scrutiny of this move at the time may have changed the debate significantly … even if only to provide a hearing for the non-trans partners harmed by the provision. Press scrutiny in the future may look back upon the incident as a shameful episode in Labour's history, meriting apologies and compensation.
- Imagine what might happen now if the press similarly dissected the Government's attitude towards trans rights in the passage of the Same Sex Marriage Bill … which proposes to charge trans people who divorced for legal recognition to convert their civil partnerships back into the marriages that were stolen from them, and which will allow spouses a veto in future over applications for legal recognition. (The latter is arguably contestable in the European Court of Human Rights). Informed press scrutiny might again change the balance of the debate, so the government didn't have a completely free ride.
- Imagine what might have happened if the press had been around to report on the lengths which the Department for Work and Pensions had been prepared to go to in order to deprive a tiny number of trans women over sixty of a state pension at the appropriate age (or to make back-payments when their right to this had been established). Imagine how a diligent press might have presented the case of a trans man who had to choose between losing his pension (because he was aged under 65) or applying for legal recognition. Press attention might have pressured MPs and senior civil servants to think twice about the inequities of their actions.
- Imagine what might result if the press provided readers with positive role models of trans people living happy and successful lives post transition and reported hate incidents against trans people where they occur. In fairness, this same 'what if' scenario could be applied more widely to the reporting of hate crimes on the basis of race, disability and sexual orientation. Instead, trans people often don't report hate crimes because of the feeling that they will not be taken seriously and, if anything, the press might be likely to make things even worse.
Pie in the sky?
Chances are that some will look cynically at such suggestions and dismiss them as foolish idealism.
Some may argue that similar things could be said about the press reporting of other minorities … as though that somehow makes it OK.
Others might argue that it isn't perhaps the role of the press to be our social conscience or policeman. Fine, but the status quo is hardly neutral, with the press both actively (and by omission) contributing to inequality for many groups.
The above examples illustrate that bad things don't just occur when the press presents a negative portrayal of a minority like trans people. Bad things also occur when the press fails to comment at all.
Bad things happen when people get the idea that they can act with impunity. And this is the message that the press give to people in connection with groups such as trans people. "Do what you want, we won't be looking" is the impression. And the rest is down to human nature.
Please add your own "Imagine if…" suggestions in the comments below.