What Passes For Knowing

Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain tells the story of a brilliant classicist, Coleman Silk, who is fired by his university because he uses the word ‘spooks’, about a couple of black students, while taking register. The word is not used as a racial epithet (Silk says about the two perpetual absentees that ‘Do these students really exist, or are they spooks?’) but nevertheless the professor is railroaded out of his job.

I love the novel, but always thought Roth’s hook was farfetched. Then, the journalist Suzanne Moore wrote a long essay about the position of women in the 2010s. In it, she threw this line: ‘We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.’ For three solid days, Twitter went insane. It seems that Moore had used a stereotypical phrase to describe trans women and was therefore guilty of transphobia. The reaction was intense. Twitter went for her like she was Nick Griffin. Moore left the site temporarily, complaining that ‘They say I haven’t apologised enough and I probably haven’t. No one has apologised to me for saying that I should be decapitated and I support the English Defence League.’ People in Britain like to feel morally superior to others. The method of so many on the left is to quotemine mainstream journalism for taboos and then unleash the dragons.

And now Lucy Meadows is dead. Meadows was a trans woman and primary school teacher who a few months back made the decision to live as a woman. This was picked up by the tabloids, with obvious results. Hacks camped outside her house and ransacked her social networks. Particularly nasty was a column by the Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn, who wrote: ‘He’s not only in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job … The school shouldn’t be allowed to elevate its ‘commitment to diversity and equality’ above its duty of care to its pupils and their parents’.

We don’t know that Meadows killed herself because of the coverage, although that obviously wouldn’t have helped. The MEN is full of supportive local community voices, but maybe they weren’t so supportive when Meadows was alive. We don’t even know for sure that Meadows committed suicide.

Sometimes you can make that environmental link. Suicides have gone up because of the recession. And politicians make decisions that destroy people’s lives. The poet Paul Reekie was found dead with DWP letters left on his desk, telling him that his sickness and housing benefits were being cut. I have no doubt that welfare reform kills. When the government takes away your ability to support yourself, suicide becomes a valid option.

Saying that Richard Littlejohn killed Lucy Meadows by writing a stupid column is a big leap from that, although one that plenty of people are prepared to make. One blogger rants: ‘Well, now Dicky Windbag has his scalp and I hope he and his legendarily foul mouthed editor are happy about it. Lucy Meadows is dead, and those impressionable young children are having to deal with one of their teachers no longer being there, as the actions of another fearless pundit cause them to have another of those challenging realities of adult life forced down their throats.’

Don’t get me wrong. Littlejohn is a scumfuck piece of shit, one of the worst in the business, who is not only vulgar and offensive, but isn’t funny and can’t write. Only in Britain could this guy get rich from writing. In any other country he would have starved to death long ago. Still, I don’t see the point in signing a petition calling for him to be fired. Why? He will only be rehired by some other scumfuck yellow newspaper. Once someone’s so deeply entrenched in the British establishment, it is almost impossible to fall from grace.

It would only compound this tragedy to make Lucy Meadows into a Leveson martyr. Changing your gender is the ultimate leap of faith. It takes balls, so to speak. The process is long and difficult. The trans comic Bethany Black has a brilliant in depth post about the transgender journey:

When I came out to my mother I’ll never forget her response, she said ‘But we’ve just had a conservatory built!’ at the time I didn’t understand what she meant, and I talked about it in my comedy set years later, it was only then that she fully explained to me.  ‘When you told me you were trans, the only think I knew about transsexuals was what I’d seen in the media, that you’d be sad and lonely, and that people would want to attack you for being weird and different.  I’m you’re mother, and I love you and I wanted to protect you and even though we’d just spent a massive amount of money on the house I was prepared to move away and start somewhere new with you as long as you were protected.’

This is human experience. This is life as it’s lived and sometimes it ends in tragedy. When we marshall these tragedies into political goals, we turn human beings into political ciphers. Meadows deserves better.

Suicide’s a tricky thing. People say ‘He seemed like the last person to kill himself’ for a reason. People who kill themselves often have everything going for them on the surface, and they tend to be good at concealing their emotions. And once someone’s got themselves into a certain place in their head, it’s hard to get them out. As Zuckerman says in The Human Stain: ‘Nobody knows, Professor Roux':

What we know is that, in an uncliched way, nobody knows anything. You can’t know anything. The things you know you don’t know. Intention? Motive? Consequence? Meaning? All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.

Update: David Toube has recommended this piece, by Paul Canning.

According to Canning, the media harassment of Lucy Meadows began with a story in the Accrington Observer, part of the MEN/Trinity empire.

The journalist who first ‘monstered’ Meadows is Stuart Pike of the Accrington Observer.

He was the one who went out of his way to find controversy and an angry parent, which was the picture accompanying his story.

Pike’s story is then what was repeated by the Daily Mail, which was then covered by Littlejohn. Yet Pike’s possible breach of journalistic ethics has had no consequences, for either him or his Trinity Mirror owned Newspaper.

There’s no evidence that Meadows referenced Littlejohn at all.

It just shows the arbitrary and sporadic nature of these web campaigns.

The targeting of Lucy Meadows was very much a local affair.

Further update: Paul Canning has written a follow up post, and links to another in depth post by former news agency hack Dan Waddell.

The question for me is: what happened at the Accrington Observer?

What was it about this story that Stuart Pike thought the world needed to know?

From what I’ve read about the profession, it seems like journalists are under a lot of pressure. Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News features hard pressed regional journalists who have to fill quotas for stories. Maybe Pike was getting hassled by his editor for story ideas. Then the phone rings. It’s Wayne Cowie the angry parent who’s angry that his kids are going to be taught by a trans woman. Pike could have said ‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re cis or trans or whatever, it’s whether you can do the job.’ He could have written about something else that day.

That’s supposing that Pike was called by Cowie and not the other way around. In my experience people approach the local paper on just about anything. But Dan Waddell, who’d know better than I do, takes the opposite view: ‘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’.

What we do know, Waddell says, is this:

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.

There’s also this comment at Paul’s blog, from Julie Carpenter:

I agree that not enough emphasis has been made on the local and other press behaviour over this, and I tried with my little twitter account to raise that yesterday. I even posted on the Accrington Observer’s comments, but oddly there was a cull of any posts that criticised their involvement and it (and other) posts doing the same disappeared after a few hours.

There is a huge ‘anti-DM’ movement and it’s a shame they have pinned themselves to the coat tails of this. I guess Littlejohn makes a good pantomime villain and it has raised awareness, but there is a risk that the core point about the  on-the-ground behaviour of the press is getting lost in the calls for his sacking.

I wonder what Pike thinks of all this now. He reported Meadows’s death on Twitter, without comment. And apparently he won’t return Waddell’s calls.

I am not a journalist and a lot of this is beyond my knowledge or experience.

But I think that Meadows’s MP, Graham Jones, was probably right that ‘The Leveson debate was too often glowing about the innocence of local newspapers.’

I agree that the role of local media deserves more scrutiny than it has so far received.

This scrutiny has not taken place, because 1) we naturally focus more on national scandal than local scandal and 2) the debate has been dominated by people who think all the suffering of the world would end if Paul Dacre was hit by a bus tomorrow.

Lucy Meadows primary school

(Image: Guardian)

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One Response to “What Passes For Knowing”

  1. Paul Canning (@pauloCanning) Says:

    There is another local news example of doing this right, which I sourced for a follow up post http://paulocanning.blogspot.com/2013/03/follow-up-lucy-meadows-bandwagon.html

    The focus on Littlejohn is about other agendas. I am seeing absolutely no one talking about the local paper’s role.

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