An open letter to the Lord Chancellor
The Right Hon Chris Grayling MP
Ministry of Justice
102 Petty France
28th May 2013
Dear Lord Chancellor,
Your colleague, the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, the Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, will shortly receive a letter from Her Majesty’s Coroner for Blackburn and Hyndburn, Mr Michael Singleton, under Section 43 of the Coroners Rules 1984.
Mr Singleton announced his intention to send a letter to the Secretary of State at the conclusion of an inquest into the death of Nathan Upton, who was latterly known as Lucy Meadows. His concern appears to be that reporters may be to blame for Nathan Upton’s death and as a result he proposes that restrictions should be placed on the way that reporters are allowed to work. I am a full time professional freelance journalist and therefore directly affected by Mr Singleton’s proposals.
I was not at the inquest and can only rely on news reports. If these reports are true – and I have seen nothing to cast doubt on the professionalism and integrity of the journalists that covered the inquest -they raise serious concerns about Mr Singleton’s approach to evidence and impartiality; and place a question mark over his ability to operate in a judicial manner.
As you are already aware, there is a growing problem of jurors in criminal cases carrying out their own research using the internet rather than rely solely on the evidence presented during the trial. The risk to justice from such activity is so great that trials have had to be stopped and re-started with a fresh jury; and some jurors have been sent to jail for contempt of court.
So it is alarming that the Guardian‘s report should say: “The coroner said he had done some research into the media reports about Meadows. ‘I have to say, I was appalled.'”
If the coroner was concerned about this, he should have asked his officer, or the police, to investigate in this area and to produce evidence for the inquest. Private research from a judge or coroner should never be part of a judicial process and should not be sufficient to warrant a Section 43 letter.
This is true at any time, but it is especially so when the finding of his private research contradicts the evidence heard by the court. A report which appears on various regional newspaper websites, presumably using Press Association copy, quotes Mr Upton’s wife, Ruth Smith, describing the impact of the media stories on Mr Upton: “She was more annoyed than anything, that there was an intrusion on her life and our life as well.”
This report goes on to say that there had been a number of suicide attempts and that when asked why, Ms Smith replied that: “She said there was not enough to keep her here.”
This is not unusual. There is a much higher rate of suicide and attempted suicide amongst people who identify as transsexual than the wider population at large. An October 2010 study by the National Centre for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in America reported that 41 per cent of transgender people in America had attempted to commit suicide – this is 25 times the rate of the general population, which was 1.6 per cent. In addition, the study found that the suicide attempt rate for the 18-44 year old transgender people was even higher at 45 per cent.
This is not to negate the effect of media coverage on Lucy Meadow’s mental health and well-being; but to highlight that the situation is more complex than simply saying that the press drove Ms Meadows to her death as some campaign groups seek to do. Of course, this fact places an obligation on the press to be sensitive when reporting transgender issues; but it cannot mean that the press should be barred from reporting in this area.
The other concern is about Mr Singleton’s impartiality. Various reports, and here I quote ITV News, say that he attacked the journalists in the press gallery covering the inquest: “Then concluding the inquest at Blackburn Register Office, he turned to reporters and said: ‘And to you the Press, I say shame. Shame on all of you.'”
Did the inquest hear any evidence that all those in the press gallery had been involved in the reports of which he complains? It is outrageous for any judge – yet alone a coroner – to damn a whole profession on the basis of private research. For him to do so when looking directly at individual members of that profession merely adds to the outrage. It is hardly judicial language. Any defendant or witness abusing the press benches, or any other group of court users, in in this way could find themselves in contempt of court.
Mr Singleton adds to his offence when he tells Ruth Smith, according to the Guardian, that he “hoped those journalists present would write ‘sympathetic and sensitive’ reports of the hearing. But, he added: ‘I do not hold my breath.'” On what basis does he attack the professionalism and integrity of the reporters covering the inquest?
According to the regional newspaper (Press Association) reports, “He added: ‘I will be writing to the Government to consider now implementing in full the recommendations of the Leveson Report in order to seek to ensure that other people in the same position as Lucy Meadows are not faced with the same ill-informed bigotry as seems to be displayed in the case of Lucy.'”
Has not Mr Singleton demonstrated “ill-informed bigotry” towards journalists?
There are, no doubt, very serious and important questions to ask about the way the media report transgender issues. An inquest, tasked as it is with discovering who the deceased was, where and when the deceased died, and how the deceased came by his or her death, is not the place for such questions to be aired; especially as an inquest should not deal with “any question of criminal or civil liability, or to apportion guilt or attribute blame.”
The transition of a primary school teacher to a different gender and whether or not that has any effect on the teacher’s children is a legitimate area for reporting. It would be a dangerous position for the government, or the courts, to say that the media no longer have the freedom to cover certain stories.
In conclusion, I repeat that I was not at the inquest and cannot offer first-hand testimony of what occurred. But the media reports of the inquest suggest serious concerns about the coroner’s approach to evidence and his impartiality. I ask you to investigate and if you find wrong-doing, that you take the appropriate action, including bringing your findings to the attention of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to consider as she weighs up Mr Singleton’s Section 43 letter.
The death of Lucy Meadows is a tragedy. It is great shame that a coroner who calls for the media to produce “sympathetic and sensitive” reports should himself resort to such sensationalism.
- Update (1st August 2013): The Office for Judicial Complaints has now confirmed that Coroner Michael Singleton has been rebuked for his private research, attack on the media and the sending of a Section 43 letter based on private research.