Mediawatch has been a fixture in Gay Times since the very first issue (and for a few issues before, in its predecessor Him International). But nothing is forever, and this is the last Mediawatch I will be writing. But fear not (or restrain the cheering – whichever is your preference), it will be replaced next month by a new column, “Faith Watch”.
Why this change? Well, the battle front has moved. In the twenty-odd years that Mediawatch has been monitoring the press in Britain, life for gay people has changed dramatically for the better. What we have now was, back in the early eighties, only a distant dream, a barely credible ambition.
As part of the rapid social changes that we’ve seen, the alarming hostility of the press has eased off. Of course, we will never completely eliminate homophobic impulses from some elements of the tabloids any more than we will from the population at large, but we have come to a sort of accord with them. They can fulminate for the chronically homophobic, but they have found that for many people such crude ranting simply invokes revulsion.
Although occasionally they will revert to type and publish something breathtakingly anti-gay, they will follow up the next day with something completely sympathetic. For every attack on George Michael for his unapologetic cruising and cottaging, there will be a sycophantic report of Elton and David’s domestic life that makes everyone go “aah”. Every time The Daily Mail uses us as a tool in its never-ending campaign to impose right-wing values on Britain, it will be balanced by a feature about how women came to love their husbands all over again when they came out as gay.
To give some idea of how far attitudes in the press have come in those twenty years, here is what the commentator Bernard Levin wrote in The Times in 1987: “Homosexuals are being portrayed – portrayed literally as well as metaphorically – as creatures scarcely human; they are being abused in not just the old mocking way but in the foulest terms, meant with deadly seriousness; they are experiencing an increasing discrimination over a wide range of situations; already voices are being raised demanding the ‘cleansing’ of schools as they have been for the purging of the church.”
And he wasn’t exaggerating.
We were, of course, in the midst of the initial AIDS crisis, when panic-mongering and hate-mongering walked hand-in-hand through our daily tabloids. Kelvin McKenzie, who was editor of The Sun during this period, still stands convicted of spreading lies, fear, distortions and ignorance about AIDS at a time when calm heads were needed to challenge the horror. I will never forgive that man for what he did at a time when, under his editorship, The Sun poured scorn and hatred on a group of people who were victims of a new and little-understood disease that, at the time, had no treatment. McKenzie is my all-time media villain.
But to give a flavour of what Bernard Levin was talking about, here are a few choice comments from tabloid papers during one of the darkest periods for gay people in this country in recent times.
Commenting on Camden Council’s newly-established Lesbian and Gay Unit, Ray Mills of The Daily Star wrote: “These filthy degenerates should be kicked up their much-abused backsides and locked up in their closets”. John Junor wrote in The Sunday Express: “Once again, the London Borough of Ealing is advertising for a child care officer, saying Ealing’s new council will welcome applications from ‘lesbians and gay men’. Isn’t this akin to setting alcoholics free in a liquor shop?”
Mr Mills opined in another edition of The Star: “Insidiously, almost imperceptibly, the perverts have got the heterosexual majority with their backs against the wall (the safest place actually). The freaks proclaim their twisted morality nightly on TV. Where will it ever end? Where it may end, of course, is by natural causes. The woofters have had a dreadful plague visited on them, which we call AIDS, and which threatens to decimate their ranks. Since the perverts offend the laws of God and nature, is it fanciful to suppose that one or both is striking back? Little queers or big queers, Mills has had enough of them all – the lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, the hermaphrodites and the catamites and the gender benders who brazenly flaunt their sexual failings to the disgust and grave offence of the silent majority. A blight on them all”.
An ex-Fleet Street editor, Derek Jameson, told the BBC: “I’ll tell you straight. Fleet Street takes the view that homosexuality is abnormal, unnatural, a bit evil because it’s wrong and so on. The editors are not going to come out and say ‘Be gay, it’s wonderful and isn’t it great?’ They are going to say that gays are not normal, natural people.”
And that is exactly what they said.
When television – which has always been more progressive in its attitudes to gays – started to feature sympathetic gay characters in soap operas and other programmes, the tabloids went a bit berserk. Every time there was any display of same-sex affection on TV, there would be huge headlines on the front pages of red tops.
In 1987 when Michael Cashman, who played Eastenders first gay character, Colin, was to kiss his boyfriend Barry, The Sun renamed the programme Bentenders and Eastbenders. “Colin and Barry seem like a couple of nice lads,” wrote one commentator, “and I hope they live happily ever after. But I won’t have any of their homosexual hanky-panky in my living room. Gay lib has become gay fib – that homosexual behaviour is natural and normal. Well, it’s not. It’s still not a fit subject for prime-time early-evening TV soap.”
The Daily Star led the whole of its front page on the day of the kiss with a single-word headline. “FILTH”.
And how about this, from John Macleod, in the Glasgow Herald: “There is a myth of homosexuality, a crafted image of gentleness and civility. The reality is a culture of perversion, obsession and hatred. It is murder, like that of Joe Orton, battered to death by his gay lover. It is homosexual rape… It is paedophilia… It is serial killers like Dennis Nilsen… Streets at night swarm with homosexual prostitutes… homosexuality is unnatural, anti-social and wrong. And if it is madness to say, then I delight in madness.” And just one more, from Roy Kerridge in the Spectator: “Strange are the rules of homosexual ‘love and marriage’. An older man, having persuaded a younger man to live with him, humiliates the boy by bringing ever younger teenage boys to his flat for tea and sympathy. Often the older man and his younger partner indulge voracious and voyeuristic sensations by going out together in pursuit of young boys…”
It now seems almost incredible that such vicious crap could find its way into the mainstream media, but that was only a tiny example of what we were enduring in the eighties, when journalistic gay bashing was the preferred sport of Fleet Street.
Newspapers have lost much of their clout now. Their circulations continue to plummet and many are struggling to survive. I can’t say that I’m particularly sorry. Having been a daily witness over the years to the tabloid press’s malignity, its disregard for the truth, its cruelty and its smugness, I still think British culture would not be harmed if the tabloid press disappeared completely.
We need a fourth estate (as the serious press is called) to protect democracy and to tell us a different story to the official one. And sometimes our tabloids have served the public interest well, when they have applied journalistic rigour to their investigations. But sometimes they have behaved like judge, jury and executioner – destroying lives, particularly gay lives, just for the hell of it. Just because they could.
They had power and they abused it, in a gay context they outed and tormented innocent gay people just for the sheer entertainment value. Remember Russell Harty, Kenny Everett, Gordon (‘Ello ‘Ello) Kaye, Harvey Proctor? Few of them survived their ordeal by tabloid unscathed. Some – like Russell Harty – didn’t survive at all.
Oh, I could write a book about the extraordinary events in the twenty or so years I’ve occupied this space. In fact, I did write a book – “Mediawatch – the treatment of Male and Female Homosexuality in the British Media” which is still available second-hand from Amazon if you want a full account of the disgraceful way that the press has behaved, and the way that it has, recently, reformed itself in line with the way society has moved.
And so the time comes to say farewell to this institution (to which I’ve been committed, so to speak, with the straitjacket never far away) and move on to the next theatre of war.
There is no doubt that, over the twenty years, the focus of our enemies’ attention has moved to the arena of religion. The rights that we fought for so assiduously and so successfully are now under threat not from reactionary politicians, but from reactionary clerics. Both have been aided by the press in their campaigns, and there are signs that the tabloids (particularly the relentless Daily Mail) are running with the religious torch now.
We must turn our attention seriously to this new foe because it is well-organised and increasingly sophisticated in its approach. I used to say that the kind of vicious Religious Right that batters the American gay community so hard could never happen here – we are too cynical, too sceptical, I thought. But I was wrong. It has happened here. All at once, the Church of England is not the abode of slightly bewildered liberal vicars who don’t really believe it. It is now home to fundamentalists of the Nazir Ali and Sentamu persuasion, people who are determined to take this country back to its nasty, small-minded past. We are first in line for putting in our place, and it is clear that alien imported versions of Christianity that involve screaming and shouting and falling on the floor are also gearing up to get us. There’s nothing happy about these clappies – they are dangerous and determined. Islam, too, has a new assertiveness that allows it to direct its primitive ire at homosexuals.
The gay community had better start getting its act together in the face of this new threat, or one day we’ll wake up to find that we’re going backwards instead of forwards.
So – let’s get our battle dress on and it’s forward to the front….