Although it is supposed to police the newspaper industry, we should not forget that the Press Complaints Commission is set up and funded by that very same industry. Its code of practice purportedly guarantees redress for anyone who feels that they have been mistreated by newspapers. In reality, the code of practice is treated with contempt by newspapers, and the Press Complaints Commission ends up protecting the press from the people rather than the other way round.
Lesbian and gay people often take the brunt of Fleet Street’s lying; our lives are frequently subjected to the grossest invasions of privacy. You would think, then, that we could expect the most protection from the PCC. In fact, we receive next to none. Despite a clause banning the mentioning of a person’s sexual orientation unless it is “directly relevant to the story”, the outing of individuals continues in the tabloids. The PCC does nothing.
One small triumph came in 1998, during the first attempt by the Government to get the age of consent legislation through. American religious groups were flooding the country with bogus, or ludicrously exaggerated, statistics about gay men.
These were gleefully taken up by some newspapers, including The Sun, which allowed the holy-rolling Anne Atkins to say: “This is not opinion, it is fact: the life expectancy of a gay man without HIV is a shocking 43 years” and “a gay man is, alarmingly, 17 TIMES more likely to be a paedophile than a straight man.”
Fortunately, vigilant gay people were quickly on the case and complained to the PCC about this distortion. Ms Atkins and The Sun were found guilty of presenting conjecture as fact and received a rap on the knuckles in the form of a short adjudication, which the paper concealed as best it could.
I had hoped that that would be the end of these stupid statistics being printed as fact in newspapers. But of course, with another skirmish in the age of consent battle looming, our opponents just couldn’t resist the temptation to resurrect them.
A letter in The Daily Telegraph on January 27th, from Dr Hugh Thomson of Birmingham, claimed quite spuriously: “The mean age of death for homosexual males is 57 years (compared with 75 for married men), due to a whole variety of diseases, of which Aids is only one. A gay man is also more than 20 times more likely than others to commit suicide.”
I immediately shot off a letter to The Daily Telegraph, reminding them of the Atkins adjudication, and requesting that they allow me to correct Dr Thomson in their correspondence column. No response. And so I went to the PCC and asked them to intervene.
After prolonged correspondence and negotiation between myself and the paper, The Daily Telegraph eventually published a watered-down version of my letter pointing out that, as sexual orientation is not recorded on death certificates, and no-one can verify how many homosexuals there are in this country, there is no possible method — except guesswork — by which to arrive at the statistics quoted by Thomson.
The PCC succeeded in persuading the paper to publish my response, even though it was almost three months after the original letter had appeared. However, they were not prepared to take action to ensure the offence was not repeated. With another debate about the age of consent imminent, in the House of Lords, and aware that editors were likely to be tempted to employ these “statistics” again, I asked the PCC to remind newspaper editors of the previous ruling and ask them not to repeat the offence. I was told: “Only in cases involving harassment would the Commission be able formally to approach editors before publication. Of course, the Commission is most concerned for accuracy in reporting, but I fear it would be exceeding its function if it took the unprecedented step of guiding editors over their potential coverage of a particular issue.”
Exceeding its function? What exactly is the PCC’s function, if not to protect individuals and groups from spiteful propaganda and unwarranted intrusion? According to its own definition, the PCC’s purpose is purely the investigation of complaints. In other words, it makes no attempt at crime prevention, even if it sees the crime coming a mile off.
In The Guardian, Louis Blom-Cooper (who used to be chairman of the Press Council, the body that preceded the Press Complaints Commission) was asking a similar question. Is the PCC any use to anybody? And isn’t it time we came up with something a little more effective, like an independent organisation not run by newspaper editors?
As Blom-Cooper put it: “Although the Labour Party in opposition appeared to favour some action against the press, in government it has displayed a hands-off approach. Alliance with Rupert Murdoch has dictated a policy of non-intervention. Self-regulation in the newspaper industry has thus proved to be self-serving; it aims to protect the industry from anything that would impose responsible conduct on proprietors, editors and journalists and from an independent agency. It has palpably not served the public interest.”
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From the department of innings and outings, we bring you news of celebrities who have this month exited the closet (or, in some cases, re-entered it).
First through the closet door, albeit posthumously and unwillingly, is travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who died from Aids several years ago. Everyone knew that Bruce was gay, but the man himself denied it to the day he died. Now a biographer has uncovered the whole truth about Bruce Chatwin’s sexuality and presented it for our delectation. His findings have been confirmed by Chatwin’s widow, who gave an interview to The Daily Mail about her husband’s partiality to other men.
Next out of the celestial closet is Camille Saint-Saens, the French composer who wrote The Carnival of the Animals. Unlike Bruce Chatwin, Saint-Saens’ closetry is understandable — after all, he lived in the nineteenth century, when discretion meant the difference between a full life or hard labour.
A new biography of Saint-Saens has just been published and in it the author, Brian Rees, stops short of saying that his subject was gay. But critics of the book are dismissive of such reticence. There is little doubt that Camille was homosexual, and in a review of the book in The Independent, Michael Church wrote: “Consider this letter, which Saint-Saens received when he was 35 and was suffering understandable pre-concert nerves: “Dear Friend, You make me ill with your fears. I used to think you a man; you are merely a coward… I thought I had brought up a man. I have raised a mere girl of degenerate stock.” The author of this tender missive was the composer’s mother, with whom he was still living. No biographer could ask for a clearer signpost.”
Perhaps even clearer signposts were that Camille liked to wear pink tights and sing falsetto at parties, and he once danced an impromptu ballet with Tchaikovsky, on the stage of the Paris Conservatoire. Add to this the later years spent in Algiers, where the climate (and the boys) was much more conducive, and the conclusion is inevitable. (Music lovers please note, Brahms was also outed in his most recent biography, so you can add him to the gay hall of fame, too.)
Over in The Sun, the brutish gossip columnist who goes under the pseudonym “Shaft” last month said that he knew of two gay footballers in the Premier League, and that he would give clues to their identity without actually naming them (outing being against The Sun’s stated policy). After a couple of weeks of teasing, the names were eventually discernible.
Now, the columnist says: “I hope to create more discomfort by announcing one of our most famous soap actresses is a lesbian. As an equal opportunities Shafter, I feel it’s only right that lesbians are given fair representation in my column. So the same rules apply — no names, no pack drill, but over the coming weeks I may be dropping Stan Ogden-sized hints as to her identity. Your starter for ten is that this woman, still a soap regular, once had a fling with Polly Perkins. And no, it’s not Pam St Clements.”
And I don’t think it’s Joy Brook, who plays DC Kerry Holmes in The Bill, either. Ms Brook was the actress who took part in the notorious lesbian shower scene in a recent episode. Those who were taken in by the tabloid hype about this scene were grossly disappointed when it was screened. To put it bluntly, it simply didn’t deliver on the promise — there was little discernible lesbianism!
Joy Brook, though, became so closely associated with the part that interest was stoked in her own private life, and eventually she admitted (in an article in Elle magazine) that she had had a lesbian relationship earlier in her life, with a woman called Alyson.
She describes their relationship as important, and romantic and lovely; and then explained: “Was it an ‘Oh my God, I was bisexual all along’ revelatory moment? I don’t think so. I still don’t think the word bisexual applies to me. It’s a label, a way of keeping people at a distance. I’ve always been with someone because I loved them, whether that person was a man or a woman.”
Now over to The Independent, which managed to secure an interview with Michael French, who played sexy hunk David Wicks in EastEnders and was subsequently outed by the tabloids. One can understand Mr French’s wariness in dealing with the press, but he’s promoting his new play and so it was a matter of needs must.
Has his experience at the hands of the Fleet Street outing merchants made him any less uptight about his sexuality? Not really. He says when he saw that front-page story about him and his boyfriend, he laughed. “I put it in the bin and I’ve never thought about it since. People made such a fuss about it, but have I ever publicly responded to it? No.”
True, he might not have responded to the allegations, but one can’t help but agree with interviewer David Benedict, who was more than a little unconvinced by French’s “bullish self-assurance” — it’s a rare person who could be so blasé about the sort of very public and humiliating outing he endured at the hands of the tabloids.
But French continues: “If I wish to have a relationship with someone, then that’s private and it always will be. They can write what they like. My job is to act, to entertain, that’s it.”
Meanwhile, The Daily Mail told us “The truth about Madonna’s lesbian loves”. According to J Randall Taraborrelli, Madonna told him: “I am not a lesbian” although she “admits to having fooled around with women from time to time”. The most famous pop star in the world added: “I thought it was undignified for me to say I wasn’t a lesbian, so when Sandra Bernhard and I were hanging out, I let people think what they wanted to think.”
The relationship — whether it was platonic or sexual is still not clear —ended acrimoniously, and now Sandra Bernhard says of Madonna: “That’s a woman who doesn’t have the vaguest idea who she is.”
But some gay relationships seem to be working. Both Michael Barrymore and Elton John have given interviews about their respective love lives, now that they’re all settled down with their respective Mr Rights. Michael Barrymore was splashed all over the front page of The Mirror. “My Gay Love. Shaun has made me happier than I’ve ever been. I wish I’d come out years ago,” screamed the headline.
Barrymore credits Shaun Davis with saving him from self-destruction. “Meeting him helped me sort myself out, made me see through all the confusion. He’s an honest, straight-down-the-line kind of guy with no side to him. He has been very strong and supportive.”
It’s a similar fairy tale for Elton John and David Furnish. In an interview with The Express, Sir Elton tells of “The man I love” — he and David have been together for five and a half years now and are still going strong. It was a touching interview, and the affection and esteem in which the two men hold each other came over loud and clear. “No one ever loved me as much as David,” says Elton. “No one ever gave me this kind of support and that’s the nicest thing I can say about him. He’s devoted to me and I’m devoted to him. It’s very hard for me sometimes — but he’s so loving towards me. It’s great.”
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And finally, having started out with faked statistics aimed at demoralising us, let’s finish with more positive, and properly calculated, figures, in the form of a Mori poll of 1,003 people aged 18 and over, which was published in The Sunday Mirror on April 4th. In response to the statement “I would support my child if they told me they were homosexual”, 53 per cent of those polled “strongly agreed”, 29 per cent “tended to agree”, while 4 per cent “neither agreed nor disagreed”. Only 9 per cent definitely disagreed.
I wonder if Baroness Young is listening, and, if she is, whether she gives a toss?