An open letter to the Lord Chancellor

An open letter to the Lord Chancellor

The Right Hon Chris Grayling MP
Ministry of Justice
102 Petty France
London
SW1H 9AJ

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.

Yours sincerely,
Gavin Drake.

  • Quote: “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”. Sorry Gavin but where is your case supporting that statement. The correct area for concerns, if any, to be addressed is for parents – and it is only their concern that is relevant – is to the Head Teacher and Governing Body. If they aren’t happy with that there is a recourse to the LEA or, in some cases, the Diocesan Board of Education. It was not a matter for anyone outside the school to be concerned with.

  • Shameful, slimy support of journalistic monstering based on prejudice.
    Horrid stuff.
    Bob

    • I haven’t commented on “journalistic monstering” because I haven’t read the criticised articles.

      This open letter is about an inquest and the way it was conducted…

      …based on prejudice against the media.

      • So, you attack the coroner, without researching the comments properly, then launch this tirade, without reading the original articles.

        This is shamelessly about Gavin, not Lucy,a person driven to take their life by one of the worst pieces of scum ‘journalism’ I’ve ever seen.

        Unedifying, and instructive. I suggest you do a bit more reading.

        Bob

        • I have done lots of reading about the inquest.

          It heard NO EVIDENCE that media coverage contributed to the suicide; but did hear evidence that it didn’t.

          And an inquest is not allowed to address questions of blame.

          This coroner blamed the media, contrary to inquest rules, and contrary to the evidence. That’s what I’m criticising here.

          • No, what you’re doing here is shamelessly attacking an official, based on very possibly incomplete reports from news media on a case you clearly know very, very little about.

            I suggest you Google ‘Jack of Kent’ and read David Allen Green’s commentary on this.

            I’d drop you the link, but you clearly need practice in researching articles.

            Bob

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  • As an intelligent thinking being (which I presume you are), you have said that the transgender population are 25 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. So do you not think that the pressure applied on her by the press (eg Richard Littlejohn’s horrific comment piece in the Mail) and having the press parked on her doorstep for weeks on end caused severe depression. Transitioning is difficult enough as it is, without this added stress.

    • Carol, this is about the inquest, at which it was affirmed that Lucy was in a good state of mental health at the time of her choice to end her life. You are writing in August as if this is March and the inquest had not taken place in May.
      Mercia McMahon

    • What I think, what you think, what the coroner thinks is completely irrelevant. The purpose of an inquest is to go beyond what people think and explore the EVIDENCE in a way that can be tested.

      The coroner didn’t do that. He expressed a personal opinion, developed on the basis of private research, rather than a judicial finding based on the EVIDENCE.

      I understand that transitioning is difficult – and I can well imaging that the difficulties experienced by transgender people begin much earlier than any decision to transition. I also know (I’ve been door-stepped myself on more than one occasion) that media attention can be upsetting. But that is not what was shown by the EVIDENCE at the inquest.

      Whether or not it caused severe depression is only guesswork on your part and my part, so I prefer not to guess. A therapist who knew Lucy Meadows gave EVIDENCE at the inquest. The EVIDENCE was that media coverage did not play a part in Lucy Meadows’ depression.

      • You seem to be criticising the coroner for undertaking what you deem to be ‘private investigations’ into Miss Meadows’ death. However it is part of the duty of the coroner to investigate any possible reasons for the death – which he did.
        Coroner: Job Description

        Coroners are quasi-judicial, medico-legal professionals. They are appointed by local government authorities, but carry out their duties under the aegis of the national judicial framework.

        The main responsibilities undertaken by coroners involve investigating instances of abnormal, violent or prison-based deaths. These cases may be referred to coroners by various authorities or agencies, such as the registrar of deaths, prison authorities, local police or medical personnel.

        The coroner’s first-level task is to determine the nature of death, i.e. natural, accidental, deliberate or uncertain/unsubstantiated. This is accomplished by liaising with the victim’s personal physician and asking them for information on the deceased’s pre-existing conditions. They may also ask them for their professional opinion based on their knowledge of patient history and the symptoms or conditions which are likely to have affected the actual cause of death.

        Where natural or accidental causes are determined to have caused the fatality, the coroner will be required to send a report to the reporting entity and the registrar of deaths.

        Where the attending doctor is unable to provide any clarity, the coroner refers the case to a state-approved pathologist, who in turn, performs an extensive autopsy, comprised of diagnostic and forensic tests to resolve causation issues. Where a definitive decision is made, i.e. determining the cause of death to be natural or accidental, the coroner will file the necessary reports.

        The second-level task, initiated by the coroner, is to announce an inquest. This happens in cases where the pathologist is unable to positively identify the cause(s) of death, or circumstantial evidence is found, which may or may not lead to a ruling of deliberate or unnatural causes.

        Inquests are quasi-judicial hearings which are presided over by the coroner, to investigate the background and events which led to the death. This is facilitated by obtaining all the relevant records and case reports from medical and police personnel, statements from witnesses and bystanders, family, friends, colleagues and any other individuals who can shed light on the victim’s background or information on the events which occurred before the time of death. Following this, a comprehensive inquest report is prepared by the coroner.

        • I know what a coroner is supposed to do. He is not supposed to do private research.

          To quote from your extract: “Coroners are quasi-judicial, medico-legal professionals [who] carry out their duties under the aegis of the national judicial framework.”

          – English law requires justice to be done openly and publicly. Hearings are open to the press and public. Evidence is presented which can be challenged and tested. This can’t happen if judicial decisions are made prior to the hearing on the basis of private research and evidence which is not only untested; but which is contrary to the evidence that is presented at the hearing.

          If you don’t understand this, I’ll quote again from your extract: “Inquests are quasi-judicial hearings which are presided over by the coroner, to investigate the background and events which led to the death” – how can that happen if the coroner has already made up his mind?

          • I see that you have chosen to completely ignore that part of the coroners requirements that they:-
            This is facilitated by obtaining all the relevant records and case reports from medical and police personnel, statements from witnesses and bystanders, family, friends, colleagues and any other individuals who can shed light on the victim’s background or information on the events which occurred before the time of death.

          • Carol, it does not matter how many times you repeat the regulations, the facts of this case is that the coroner ignored the facts of the case in order to launch into a politically-motivated tirade against the press. The coroner’s research into press coverage, while acknowledging that he had no recourse to summon press members to give evidence (due to the lack of any mention of the press in Lucy’s letter to him), meant that his Section 43 Letter was legally invalid, as it can only be used where the evidence presented to the inquest suggests a danger of another death in similar circumstances. This does not measure up to the coroner’s description of Lucy in her letter as articulate, meticulous, caring for others, not distressed, and not depressed. Your desire to maintain Lucy as a martyr to your Trans Media Watch cause does not change the facts – the coroner acted beyond his powers and has been informally advised by the Office of Judicial Complaints as to where he transgressed.
            Mercia McMahon (the correct website is http://transscribe.wordpress.com sorry for earlier typo)

          • I haven’t ignored it. Of course there are investigations and a coroner typically has an officer who will investigate for him; as will the police.

            Read your quote in full without taking pieces in isolation. The investigation is to facilitate the hearing: this is because the interested parties are supposed to be able to test the evidence. There is no point having a hearing if the coroner has already made up his mind using Google in his back bedroom.

  • Well done, I was waiting for the government response before writing about the coroner’s shameful performance. A Section 43 Letter may only be sent where there is evidence from the inquest that points to a danger of further loss of life. You missed out that the coroner commented in the hearing that there was nothing wrong with Lucy Meadows’ mental health at the point at which she chose to end her life and therefore there was no basis in the inquest evidence for his claim that Leveson must be implemented in full in order to prevent another death. He was grandstanding and thanks to you has been rebuked, but I wonder what the Secretary of State said, she had 56 days to respond, but thanks to your work was probably told by the Lord Chancellor’s office not to do so.
    Mercia McMahon (author of Trans Scribe, http://transcribe.wordpress.com)

  • Mercia:
    ………..and what has Trans Media Watch to do with this, other than try and educate the media into how the press should ethically behave when reporting on matters appertaining to transgender people. TMW is not, I repeat NOT, holding Miss Meadows up as a martyr for the transgender cause in any way whatsoever.

    • Carol, Trans Media Watch has everything to do with it. It was through their Facebook group (of which you are a very active participant) that you learnt yesterday about the informal advice given to the coroner, you then did an internet search and came across this blog. Gavin has expressed his opinion, you should agree to differ. Coming back with accusations of being scurrilous when he has made his views plain is just acting like a troll. The inquest concluded that Lucy Meadows took her own life and that her decision was not motivated by press intrusion or reporting. I will leave you to your trolling and only contribute further if Gavin asks me for further information from my in-depth research on the Lucy Meadows case. If you want to continue the conversation with me I will soon be posting a criticism about the coroner on Trans Scribe and you can comment to me there.

  • To Mr. Drake:
    Your assertion that “…….the coroner has already made up his mind using Google in his back bedroom” is scurrilous nonsense and I would like to hear your evidence as to why you state that this is how he did his research and obtained his evidence.

  • Informal advice is not an official rebuke Mercia, which is how it is being portrayed by Mr. Drake and (possibly by yourself).

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