Following the Lucy Meadows case the Press Complaints Commission is drawing up new advice on transgender reporting, but this is a very problematic and difficult area
By Peter Preston, The Observer
The past few days have been vexing ones for reporting guidelines, voluntary or legal. Our attorney general suddenly decides that contempt of court clauses apply to Woolwich, as to everywhere else, and so the events that brought David Cameron scurrying back from France (and Barack Obama racing to a White House podium) must somehow be pushed aside. Politicians and leader writers decide the BBC was wrong to interview hate-filled Muslim clerics in the aftermath of those events. But the toughest case of all stems from the tragic death of Lucy Meadows, the primary school teacher who killed herself a few months after her gender changed and Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail, among others, reached for his laptop.
“And to you the press I say shame, shame on you all,” said the coroner. He planned to write to the culture secretary over “sensational and salacious” coverage, saying that “unless action is taken, it could lead to another fatality”.
There are a few countervailing arguments here. Newspapers, including the Mail, point out the lack of any direct evidence that what was written caused Ms Meadows to take her life; but the industry is drawing up fresh advice on transgender reporting. The problems are being taken to heart anyway.
At the core of the matter, though, is something even more difficult. Over the school holiday when Ms Meadows’s gender changed, the school’s head wrote to inform parents. Such a letter could not be private. It was leaked to the Accrington Observer (whereupon bigger fish joined in). Question: when a teacher’s sex changes, should parents be so advised? And do those parents have the right to ask questions or manifest unease? If so, is this something else that papers shouldn’t report? Or are we talking, more problematically, about areas where journalists have to be sensible and sensitive – and thus, like any of us, can on occasion get it wrong? Not shame on you all, but something rather less sweeping – and much more difficult to get right.