Friday, 22 March 2013

Why I'm not calling for Richard Littlejohn to be sacked

We are a rainbow community in a rainbow world.
There is a petition doing the rounds, even as you read this, calling for the Daily Mail to sack columnist Richard Littlejohn.

The reason for the petition is the death, a few days ago and reported yesterday, of Lucy Meadows.

Lucy was a primary school teacher in Lancashire who had just transitioned over the Christmas holiday.

The school seems to have been very supportive, but the story of the letter that was sent to parents telling them that the teacher they’d known as Mr (Nathan) Upton would be henceforth known as Miss Meadows, was picked up by certain national tabloids.

And so she came in for what is known as ‘a tabloid monstering’.

Littlejohn, who has a prurient interest in trans people (‘how do they pee?') was far from alone in his approach, but the Mail being the Mail, it stood out.

After detailing his sympathy for trans people, he launched into the old ‘but won’t somebody think of the children’ routine, always a great standby in such cases.

His argument – such as it is – centred on the idea that children wouldn’t be able to cope with their teacher changing sex.

But the problem is not children.

Children accept things easily. They’re not worried by two men or two women loving each other, for instance, any more than by the idea that an old geezer lives at one of the poles with a shed load of elves and reads their letters every year.

As the song from South Pacific says:

“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught …

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

No I’m not going to claim that I’ve seen any scientific research on this, but I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence that children are far better at simply accepting people for what they are than are the adults who worry that the children won’t be able to cope.

It’s some adults who can’t cope; who find the issues confusing. Not children.

Now Littlejohn is a bigoted, rent-a-gob bully, but he is not the real problem.

If Littlejohn were sacked tomorrow, the Daily Mail would still be around spreading it’s bile and its bigotry. Jan Moir, anyone?

At the end of the day, Littlejohn is irrelevant.

And the Mail is far from alone.

Earlier this year, after Suzanne Moore (who writes for both the Mail and Guardian, amongst others) made a snotty comment, in effect, about trans women not being real women, in an article about something completely different.

After a Twitter row resulted in Moore storming off the microblogging site, she was ‘defended’ in the next edition of the Observer by Julie Burchilll, in her own best rent-a-gob bigot mode.

Burchill has form on this – and the Guardian/Obs has form on publishing the rantings of ‘radical feminists’ on the subject, including Burchill.

It essentially works along the lines of: ‘I’m a real woman, you’re not – and I will take the piss out of you in a bullying fashion but that will be okay in a way it wouldn’t be if I were bullying you because you’re female or Black or disabled’.

Equality, eh?

But then, that’s the sort of way in which Julie ekes out a living. And we do all have to make a living.

The point here, though, is that attitudes of hate toward trans women (they mostly seem to forget trans men) cross political boundaries, just as seeing organisations as more important than individuals sees the Catholic church defending child abusers and the Socialist Workers’ Party defending alleged rapists.

Trans people may only be a small percentage of the overall population, but they suffer dreadful and way above average persecution and violence and hatred. Hatred, I suggest, that is perhaps mostly about fear and confusion.

And trans people are, simply because of the confusion among many of the public, possibly one of the least likely groups to fight back against media bullying and vilification. Which, of course, simply makes them an easier target for what are, in essence, a bunch of cowards.

But however much Littlejohn himself was bang out of order, he is far from unique and he is not ‘The Problem’. Were Littlejohn to disappear off the face of the Earth tomorrow, transphobia would not be consigned to history with him.

We need a cultural change in attitudes toward trans people – indeed, toward both sex and sexuality as a whole.

We don’t know how or why Lucy Meadows died. It was not in ‘suspicious circumstances’, according to police, which is often code for suicide, but the actual reason is for the coroner to decide.

And, even if it was suicide, we do not know that the newspaper coverage was the direct cause.

We can guess – but we need to understand that that is what it is: speculation.

What we do know for certain is that Lucy Meadows was ‘monstered’ by some of the national media, and that there was NO public interest argument for treating her that way.

It was sensationalism and the invasion of privacy at its worst. And trans people suffer particularly from this.

And whether it directly lead to her death or not, it cannot but have made her life difficult and unpleasant for absolutely no reason other than titillating copy and profit.

But another reason for not supporting a get-rid-of-Littlejohn campaign is this: that while it is easy and absolutely correct to lay blame for bullying behaviour and sensational ‘reporting’ at the door of the Mail – and the Sun and others – those things do not exist in a vacuum.

There are people who buy those publications or read them online; who lap up the bigotry and the intolerance and the ‘confusion’; who take an almost orgasmic pleasure in reading views that accord with and confirm their own.

Getting rid of Littlejohn – no matter how deliciously pleasant an idea – would change not one jot of that. It would progress nothing at all.

Ultimately, we need education – and we need a big cultural change.

And I would suggest that this is also yet one more example of why we need proper regulation of the media and a proper understanding of the right of privacy and what ‘public interest’ really means.

• To find out more, please follow@ TransMediaWatch on Twitter.

@DavidAllenGreen is also well worth following on Twitter. David is a lawyer who is the legal advisor to Trans Media Watch, and helped with their contribution to the Leveson Inquiry. David’s blog can be found at

Tim Fenton @zelo_street is also well worth reading.

And there are many, many more, so please look for them and see what they’re saying now and will do in the future.

Update Saturday 23 March

It's now clearer about the level of harassment that Lucy Matthews was suffering, as some of her emails reveal.

Both she and others complained about the treatment to the Press Complaints Commission.

Although the Daily Mail has removed the Littlejohn column, it has also defended it, and accused people of creating a "Twitterstorm" about the issue.

It remains absolutely the case that we do not know what happened and whether the Littlejohn column or the general media coverage are linked in any way to Lucy Matthews's death.

What we do know is that she was harassed and 'monstered' for no legitimate reason.

A candlelit vigil has been organised outside the Daily Mail offices at Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, Kensington, London W8 5TT. for Monday at 6.30pm.


  1. As you say, it is disappointing that the radfems like Greer, Burchill, Bindel & Moore cannot accept transpeople into the "sisterhood". This quartet of self-obsessed idiots have done more to set back acceptance of transpeople than Littlejohn ever could, after all even those with simply a modicum of intelligence would expect Littlejohn's attitude.

    At least pennyred has empathy for the plight od transpeople

    1. I think that there are some 'rad fems' who are, in their attitude toward certain groups, little different to the sort of conservative, religious commentators etc that we read about in the US.

      And why anyone imagines that such individuals are 'progressive' is a mystery.

  2. "After detailing his sympathy for trans people ... " you write.

    While you write a lot of sense otherwise, I find it disingenuous ... as it was when Roy Greenslade wrote the same thing ... to take at face value Littlejohn's crocodile tears over the plight of trans people.

    The first line of Littlejohn's comment piece begins: "Look, it can’t be much fun being a woman trapped in a man’s body". Considering his 'special' interest and the incredible number of articles he has published on the subject ... as you correctly point out ... you'd think he might have taken the trouble to discover that trans people's experience is far more varied than this cliche suggests and that in any case being trans is not pitiable. Given freedom from social stigma it is perfectly possible to be happy, fulfilled and trans at the same time.

    How would we react to an article which began: "Look it can't be much fun being gay/black/a woman"? It is othering, stigmatising, invalidating. To suggest otherwise is to indulge in PCC obfuscation. He wrote this paragraph to seem reasonable to the majority of his readers who know little of trans experience before he proceeded to ladle out the bigotry.

    Look, Littlejohn made his position perfectly clear. He considers trans people are weirdos who should be kept away from children.

    1. Thank you for this.

      Several points that I'll endeavour to remember in future – not least, that about the varied nature of trans experience.


  3. Interesting piece, on the observe piece though...looks like they pulled it then admitted it breached their own standards and published at least one piece criticising the authors behaviour. Not perfect but its something.

    Also the link "the level of harassment that Lucy Matthews was suffering" doesn't work.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Colin.

      It's a mixed bag, though, isn't it?

      Yes, you're right – but the 'Mail' has removed the Littlejohn piece too and I doubt any of us are expecting that to signal some major change of approach.

      And as someone pointed out in January, Burchill has form on transphobic articles – and the 'Guardian'/'Obs' has form in publishing them too. And that's before we get to Bindel etc al.

      And thank you for the link mention – I'll look at that right now.