Last week, Blackburn coroner Michael Singleton declared that “sensational and salacious” press coverage of primary teacher Lucy Meadows’ gender change was a big factor in her suicide, demanded that the Government implement Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals to crack down on such “ill-informed bigotry” and told press representatives at the inquest, “Shame on you all!”.
And so we slide further down the slippery slope away from press freedom.
Nobody has to like the Daily Mail, and everybody is free to criticise its coverage. But this is different; a state official now feels free not only to blame the Mail and others for helping to cause a tragic death, but also to demand that the Government wash the wicked newspapers’ mouth out with soap.
Through the Leveson circus, anti-tabloid crusaders have used high-profile victims of phone-hacking as “human shields” behind which to pursue their wider agenda of purging the press. Now it seems some are prepared to use a suicide as a weapon in the propaganda war.
Much of the furore has focused on a characteristically forthright Mail column by Richard Littlejohn. Last December’s article complained about the “devastating effect” this teacher’s gender transformation could have on young pupils, and suggested that Meadows should have “disappeared quietly” and gone to teach elsewhere.
To some of us, Littlejohn’s column seemed fairly constrained by his own standards. But for many others Littlejohn had committed a hate crime. After Meadows’ death, protestors gathered outside Mail offices and launched a Twitter onslaught calling for Littlejohn to be sacked.
The gathering storm of outrage culminated in the coroner’s official ruling that such “ill-informed bigotry” must be tamed by Lord Justice Leveson’s rules, to prevent further deaths.
In fact, there was no real evidence to suggest that the press coverage of Ms Meadows’ gender change drove her to her death. She left a long and eloquent suicide note, trying to explain her reasons for taking her own life. It made no mention of the press, focusing on her financial problems, work stress and recent bereavements.
Like many suicides, Lucy Meadows’ death appears to have been the tragic outcome of a complex set of personal circumstances. That did not stop the coroner declaring that the shameful press was to blame. He acknowledged that her note had not mentioned the press, but effectively decided that he knew better.
Even if Lucy Meadows’ note had named Littlejohn, would it really have changed anything? Whatever she had said or thought, the press coverage would remain only words. The ultimate responsibility for taking her own life would still lie with Ms Meadows herself.
The Mail did not make false factual allegations of serious offences against Ms Meadows, as newspapers did against the McCanns or Christopher Jefferies. Littlejohn simply expressed his opinion about the transgender teacher returning to the same school.
That opinion may have offended many but it was not an offence. Yet the expression of opinions deemed outside the respectable mainstream is now apparently considered a suitable case for punitive action by the Government and the courts.
It may seem perverse to defend the principle of press freedom in such a sad case. But these are the hard cases in which it is important to hold the line post-Leveson. Not because we necessarily agree with anything Littlejohn might say, but because we agree with another popular journalist, George Orwell, that “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
You do not have to like the British tabloid press at all. But in a free society, I’m afraid you really should have to lump it.