Take a look at this headline, from Monday’s Daily Mirror online edition. Frank Maloney sex change: Secret double life drove boxing promoter to suicide bid (online edition). It has pretty much everything. There’s a celebrity – albeit a fairly minor one. Then there’s sex – always good in a banner. Then there’s a secret double life. There’s sport. And finally there’s drama – a suicide bid no less.
OK, what might be wrong with it? Yes, you at the back…Embley.
Well, for a start, the person in the picture is not called Frank Maloney. She is called Kellie Maloney, and has been for several months. Second, she hasn’t had a “sex change.” Nor has she “becoming a woman.” She’s not “living as a woman” either. All of those terms are offensive to transgender people. She’s the same person who used to be a boxing promoter, but she has transitioned to the gender she believes she has always been.
But she was living a secret double life, right? Wrong. She was going about her business. It wasn’t secret, it was private – before you came along. Understandably Maloney had planned to keep her private life private for another 18 months until she had completed her transition, allowing her family some time to come to terms with any public announcement. But such was the importance of this news that the lethal conflict in Gaza and the plight of the Yazidis trapped on Sinjar Mountain had to be relegated, whilst this week’s Sunday Mirror covered Maloney’s sexuality on pages 1,4,5,6,7,8 and 9. Still, a tabloid is a tabloid, and a scoop is a scoop.
Frank Maloney (or Kellie, as we shall call her from now on) was a minor celebrity, so we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the means and the timing by which the news was revealed was not entirely of her choosing. A newspaper had threatened to reveal it back in February, and another had repeatedly “door-stepped” Maloney and members of her family looking for comments. Thankfully Maloney had experience of dealing with the tabloids, and enough money to hire lawyers, so she managed to delay the story with a court injunction, and then cut a deal with the Sunday Mirror for the exclusive. But the threat of premature exposure by a hostile newspaper left her “terrified” and unable to leave her house.
You might have thought that editors, who are currently trying to persuade the government that they are competent to regulate themselves by The Editors’ Code, would be on their best behaviour at the moment. But in fact the Code has become almost meaningless. Editors routinely laugh it out of court – or to be more accurate, they refuse to accept any legislation that might take them to court in the first place. Clause 4 of The Code, to which all tabloids are signed-up, says clearly that “journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.” This clause was formulated after the death of Diana Princess of Wales.
When it comes to stories with a hint of sex, every tabloid journalist wants to come first, using as much pressure as they feel they can get away with. Newspapers know that if they don’t publish a juicy celebrity story, someone else will.
The tabloid story arc will no doubt suggest that coming out last weekend has resolved any tensions Maloney might have felt. It certainly marks the climax for the newspapers. I doubt if much has been resolved for Maloney, or for her wife – from whom she is now separated – and daughters. What is the impact on them as human beings, negotiating what must be a very difficult transition for all of them? How is anyone helped by this coverage? But two days after the revelations the story is already getting old. The door-stepping will carry on for a while yet, with the papers eager to grab photos of them together, apart, in tears, laughing, or anything that will fill another page. But it has been comprehensively eclipsed by the death of Robin Williams.
Just one more thing about that headline. The suicide bid. Maloney told the paper that the stress of coming to terms with her situation, and particularly the impact on her marriage, led her to attempt suicide. Suicide is covered in more detail in the Editor’s Code than almost any other circumstance. In 2006, following a spate of suicides amongst young people in Bridgend, the Editor’s Code Committee tightened the guidelines after research determined that press coverage contributed to imitative acts. The Code now states that “when reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used.” It’s hard to see how The Daily Mirror squares this with their identification of the precise combination of drugs and alcohol that Maloney used to try to kill herself. Still, maybe consistency is too much to ask at the height of passion. Yesterday ABC News (a US network) ran a story about how Robin Williams’ family had asked for their privacy to be respected…whilst at the same time showing live aerial pictures of their home.