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Monday, March 25, 2013

Here There be Monstering

(Updated - see below)
The tragic and troubling death of Lucy Meadows has been dealt with in great detail elsewhere. For those who aren't aware of it, as a starting point I'd recommend you read David Allen Green's blogthis piece by Jane Fae and this Guardian article. I think it's self-evident to any decent human being that Lucy was appallingly treated. By my reckoning the reporting, the comment pieces and the monstering that followed was in breach of four articles of the Press Complaint Commission's Editor's Code of Practice*. But, despite being a worthy document, the Code of Practice is not worth the paper it is written on because so many newspapers ignore it daily, or only pay it heed when they've been caught breaking it.

While the wider implications of Lucy's death have been discussed, and the comment piece written by Richard Littlejohn has been dissected and castigated, the way in which her transitioning was reported has attracted less attention. But to look at how the story went from a local paper to the news pages and comment section of the nationals is both instructive and illuminating. It suggests that some local newspapers are now copying nationals in presenting stories in a sensational and prurient way, and how nationals stretch a story to give it as much impact as possible and/or fit their agendas. When I was a news agency hack, and we tried to spin stories so they would appeal to certain newspapers, the grizzled, sozzled ex-Express and Mirror hand I worked with had a stock of phrases he used to describe this process. 'Sprinkle it with stardust', 'Give it some topspin,' and the rather more bold, 'Don't let the facts fuck the story,' were just three.

As far as I can discover, the story first appeared on the Accrington Observer's website on December 19th. Here it is. The big question here for me is whether Stuart Pike, the reporter who wrote the story, or the newsdesk who told him to write it, were tipped off about the school's newsletter by Wayne Cowie, the aggrieved parent quoted in the piece. Or did they learn of the letter and decide to confect a row? Starting a row is meat and drink to journalists seeking to sass up a story. As a young agency hack, I remember being asked to rip a story out of the local newspaper. A woman had been cast to play God in the York Mystery Plays. An iteresting artsy piece for the local rag, but no line for us to sell onto a national. My boss asked me to phone the Archdeacon of York, a known right-wing rentagob. I told him about the casting. 'Political correctness gone mad!' he said. I wrote a story about how 'an unholy row' had erupted, and we had a story: it eventually made it into Time magazine. Sometimes tabloid journalism is as much about creating news as reporting it.

I've been in touch with both Pike and Cowie to see who was chicken and who was egg. Neither have replied. Experience tells me it was the Observer that sought out Cowie, and the newspaper thought there was nothing newsworthy about a story with the line 'Male teacher returns to school as female and everyone is fine about it.' They're wrong, as this excellent blog discovered. The editor of the Essex Chronicle agonised for hours over whether to publish a story about a teacher who had undergone the same transition as Lucy Meadows. He did, but rather than seeking out disgruntled parents, he wrote a positive story:

I'm still not sure a story like this warrants reporting. But I wonder whether the Accrington Observer also agonised over whether they should publish, or how they should present the article? I've asked them but, as yet, no reply. Even though they don't mention the shock or anger of any parents in the headline, they quote the school head, and mention the statement from Lucy asking for her privacy to be respected, before we get to Mr Mr Cowie.

'He said: 'He has had this teacher for three years. All of a sudden he is going to be coming to school after Christmas as a woman.

'They are too young to be dealing with that.'

Of course, some might think this says more about the views and prejudices of Mr Cowie than anything else, but even if you disagree with it, you have to admit he's entitled to his point of view and it's one some people would have sympathy with. No other parents or pupils are quoted though there is reference to the 'concerns' of 'some parents.'Are the concerns of one parent enough to warrant the story? I don't think so, and I don't think Stuart Pike does too, hence the hazy reference to 'some parents'.  But as I said, I think the newspaper believed that without some parental shock they didn't have a story. Of course, the right thing to have done here was drop it.

But they didn't. The article appeared on the Accrington Observer website at midnight on December 18/19th. Stuart Pike tweeted a link to the story at 9.57 a.m on the morning of the 19th.

Less than four hours later the story appeared on The Daily Mail's website, Mail Online. I'm going to concentrate on The Mail because as far as I can see it was first to follow up. The immediate difference is the headline, which alludes to 'shock' at the school about Lucy's transition. Then we have one of the famous Daily Mail drop intros. This is where you save the juicy information for the third or fourth paragraph, rather than sticking it in the first. A bit like this:

For editor Paul Dacre it was the stuff of dreams. 
That Wednesday had seemed a slow news day for the foul-mouthed tabloid supremo. But then his news editor let out a squeal of excitement. 
So Dacre, who had been bollocking a news desk underling within an inch of his life to ward off boredom, went to see what the fuss was about.
'A primary school has written a letter home to parents,' the news editor gasped. 'In the 'staff changes' section it says one of their male teachers will be coming back in the New Year as a woman.'
A sepulchral smile spread across the editor's florid face .'Get Littlejohn on the phone,' he barked....

The Mail loves this technique, mainly because it lends itself beautifully to the hatchet jobs they so enjoy. ('She is one of the most famous women in history. Millions of people look up to her as a paragon of chastity and purity. But troubling new evidence has emerged to cast doubt on her saintly image. Now the masses are wondering: was the Virgin Mary really a virgin?' and so on.)

You also don't have to be Noam Chomsky to realise this story, if presented in a certain way, appeals to the Mail's instincts. Political Correctness gone mad, innocent kiddies in turmoil, hopefully some angry middle-class parents people somewhere, and a chance to make out the modern world is turning into some kind of freak show. All Mail meat and drink. But there was no way the Mail would print the Accrington Observer story as it was. They know that one parent's disapproval does not even register a blip on their outrage-ometer. They needed more.

So, the digging began. Who did this is unclear. I worked for a news agency and I suspect the involvement of one here. That's hardly startling insight: a quick look at the Mail story reveals a photo of the school and copy of the letter, under the copyright of Cavendish Press, a successful Manchester-based agency. Their role in putting together the copy is a mystery. I contacted them and they said: 'I'm afraid we don't comment on our day to day operations.'  When I was at an agency, if a story like this broke, we'd try and get what pictures we could and add as many quotes as we could. We'd speak on the phone to the regional correspondent of the nationals who would ask some questions about the story, whether it stood up, ask for more information, or ask us for the numbers of the people we had spoken to so they could stand up it themselves and get some more information if necessary. But the story we'd written and filed would form the basis for the pieces that appeared in the newspapers the next day.

The other thing to note about a news agency is that they exist to sell stories and photographs. Unlike a local paper they aren't accountable to readers. Of course they have to make sure the information they sell is (relatively) reliable and accurate otherwise the nationals won't use their stuff, but they don't sign up to any code of conduct and their interests are served by selling a story to as many outlets as possible. Concepts of public interest don't really come into it. If a national is interested, then they'll do the work.

We don't know whether Stuart Pike's story was picked up by the agency, whether he tipped off the agency himself, or even tipped off the nationals and they asked Cavendish to dig on their behalf. As I said, Pike hasn't responded to my efforts to contact him.

It's clear, however, that between the Observer and the Mail story appearing online someone had been hard at work. As well as the GV of the school and the copy of the letter, and the photo of Mr Cowie, there's a child's drawing of Lucy when she was known as Mr Upton and which was lifted from the school website.

Someone had also spoken to Mr Cowie because his quotes are different, though oddly no one had got a new photo of him. They use the one that featured in the Observer even though it screams 'local paper!' Cavendish would have tried to get his photo, I guarantee, because an agency make nearly all their cash from photography, and the cheque for that picture went to the Manchester Evening News, owned by Trinity Mirror.

Perhaps Cowie was at work. Maybe he'd had enough of having his picture taken. Maybe he thought a camera could sap his special powers of insight into transgender matters. But he was still angry enough to add: ‘My middle boy thinks that he might wake up with a girl’s brain because he was told that Mr Upton, as he got older, got a girl’s brains...He’s a great teacher, but my kids are too young to be told about the birds and the bees like this.’

This is a far juicier, if more ludicrous, quote than the one used in the Observer. But, colourful though it is, it's tucked away at the end of the story. Instead we have 'a parent' who saw Mr Upton walking around town. Later we have 'another parent' quoted. Unattributed quotes in journalism are controversial. Sometimes they can't be avoided. For their own safety, or fear of losing their job, people don't want to be named. But in this case? Honestly, if someone isn't willing to go on the record or be named then surely leave their quote out of the story, or you risk the suspicion the quotes have been made up to fit an agenda, or make it appear as if more than just one parent is outraged. I have contacted James Tozer, who's bylined above the story, and I haven't had a response (as you can see, the press is all for openness and transparency until it comes to their own actions.)

There's no explanation why these two parents refused to be named, or even a clause that tells they refused to be named. ('A parent, who refused to be named...')  'Another parent' is quoted as saying, 'This is totally inappropriate. Any teacher who is going to change gender should also change schools,' which basically sums up the entire message of Richard Littlejohn's rant in the next day's newspaper.

Meanwhile, the entirely irrelevant but prurient detail that Lucy had been married when she was Mr Upton is included, and we learn that his former in-laws, an elderly couple, have been doorstepped even though Lucy was no longer married to their daughter and they have no connection with the school.

There is also this paragraph: 'A ten-year-old pupil said: ‘He spoke to us and said he’s going to be changing into a woman and wearing women’s clothes after Christmas.'

Article 6 of the Editor's Code of Practice reads: 'i) Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.' Reporters are not allowed to go onto school premises and interview kids - never mind any codes, that would be trespass - or even accost them at the school gates. The story had appeared on the Accrington Observer website at midnight. The Mail piece appeared 1.33pm the same day. The kids were at school that day. The reporter who supplied the story, or that quote, must have got it before the child went into school. At the school gates? As I said, that would break the Code of Practice. In fact, I'm struggling to think of any way that quote was obtained which doesn't break the Code unless it was the unnamed child of one of the unnamed parents already quoted, but even that begs questions of where and how the quote was obtained.

The Sun's online article doesn't have that quote. Nor does it have a time it was posted, but we can presume it was posted later on their website because it quotes a grandmother picking her granddaughter up from school. That quote, unnamed, is in support of Lucy and the school. Other than the head, the Mail piece has no quotes, named or otherwise, in support. (The Sun also quotes Tory Councillor Susie Charles who refuses to join in any condemnation. 'This is an entirely personal matter for the member of staff concerned. I am reassured that every care has been taken to ensure that the staff member and everyone at the school are fully supported.' These quotes are obviously garnish, a way to try and appear even handed even though the dirty work has been done in the headline, the pictures and the first few pars of the text but it's worth pointing out The Sun used them and The Mail didn't.)

To be fair, the Mail does quote the statements of Lucy and the school head at length, including her request for her privacy to be respected and the head's declaration that it was a 'personal matter.' Both comments went unheeded, as we now know. The Mail and other newspapers had decided it was a very public matter and the public interest outweighed any right Lucy had to privacy, and set up camp outside her house, even though their own code of conduct states clearly that 'Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.' (The full code of practice is here.)

Two other points that have struck me and others as odd: firstly, the Accrington Observer's Twitter feed usually promotes their front page and other stories each week. In the week of the Lucy Meadows story nothing at all was tweeted. Looking through the timeline, I can't find another week where that's the case. Anyone would think there was a story in their newspaper they might be ashamed of. Secondly, as noted by Jeremy Duns in a Twitter discussion I had with him and Archie Valparaiso, Stuart Pike tweeted about Lucy's death. There was no acknowledgement of his involvement, the previous story he wrote, or any remorse. Just a matter of fact link to the news story in the paper.

The story of Lucy Meadows death is a tragedy. The story of how her story was reported in the newspapers is very revealing about how the press operates.

*Since you ask, the four breaches of the code which I think are cut and dried are: children; privacy; harassment and discrimination.

Update: James Tozer has been in touch and apologized for not getting back to me sooner. I'm being referred to the managing editor's office. Watch this space.

Update II: A reader of the blog emailed and pointed out the Mail piece shows it was updated on 13:59, 12 March 2013. Some judicious googling and I found a cached version of the story from December 20th, the day after the story was first posted to the site. I'm not going to link to it because I think it was changed for a reason and that reason was that Lucy, or the women she married when she was Nathan Upton, or a member of their family, had complained because there were three pictures of Lucy's wedding day. There's also a picture of her when she was Nathan, credited to Cavendish Press.

The prurient and irrelevant detail of Lucy's previous marriage was made much more of, pictorially at least, in the original story. It must have made the Mail presentation's even more distressing for Lucy, and constitutes a real violation of her privacy. Here she was trying to move on, with the full support of the school, and the press were delving into her past. I'll check tomorrow to see if it was a complaint to the PCC which had them taken down.


  1. Hi, what an excellent analysis. Thank you for so clearly explaining how this dreadful state of affairs may have come to pass.

    If you ever get hold of Stuart Pike from the Accrington Observer can you also inquire why they removed perfectly respectful comments from their story (from myself and others) that were critical of their role in this?

  2. Hi Julie,

    Do you know when the comments were removed? I'll make sure to ask.

    And thanks Paul!

  3. Hi Dan, it was yesterday (Sunday) - I posted it around midday and noticed it was gone around 7pm. There were two similar posts made after mine... they were gone as well. They were not flagged as 'inappropriate' like some earlier posts... they simply vanished.

  4. Hmmm. You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to know what they're doing. I'm on to them though. I'm only surprised they haven't taken down the original story yet...

  5. Fantastic article, thank you for this. Sharing it like mad right now. Hopefully an eye-opener for the many people who don't often consider how some stories get to the pages of nationals.

  6. No offence Dan but you betray here a fundamental misunderstanding as to how Mailonline works - especially merging it so the print editions news editor and the Mailonline's news editor are one and the same. (2 jobs and 2 different people). Mail news editors also never show excitement - like ever. Online and print don't work hand in glove at all - which is why the content isn't often the same. The two also have done different editors and it's preposterous to suggest Dacre getting involved on a Wednesday afternoon.

  7. HI Dave. I think you know my tongue was lodged firmly in my cheek when I did my little Mail skit...

    So the article that appeared online and the one that appeared in the newspaper are entirely different? I'll check that out.

  8. Now THAT is journalism...

    Doggedly investigated, thoroughly analyzed, with a damning conclusion and the added bonus of being factually accurate... without "fucking the story"

    Chapeau Dan

  9. This is a superb piece, partly through the nicely observed barbs against Dacre and the DM parasites, but mainly because it is so gratifying to have my suspicions supported by someone who has experience and a working knowledge of the reporting media industry. (I have neither).

    For many years now I have for the most part avoided the tabloids due to an overwhelming sense that the majority of their "scoops" were either exaggerated / manufactured or entirely fictional (it was the NOTW's "fake sheih" entrapment of John Higgins that initiated my boycott).

    Unfortunately my love of social networking has made exposure unavoidable and I have - against my better judgement - been following the aftermath of Lucy Meadow's sad passing.

    I have so much more I would love to say on the subject of Littlejohn, the DM etc... however you are the pro writer and can articulate it much better than I. And you have done so.

    Thank you