Doubt and confusion over homosexuality continues to reign in the British press. Are they for us or agin us? Indifferent to us or pruriently interested in our lives? Have they finished with outing, or is it just on hold?
One minute the papers are assuring us that being gay is no longer an issue, and the next they have hysterical headlines all over their front pages declaring this minister or that minister is gay (and at the same time assuring us that it’s none of our business).
The Daily Mirror editorialised that: “Everyone is entitled to some privacy in their lives. But those who go into public life should not hide anything as vital as their sexuality.” Interestingly, the paper’s readers didn’t agree. When asked to phone in and say yes or no to the question: “Do you want to know your MP’s sexuality?” 15,648 said “no” and only 9,676 said “yes”.
The public seems to be able to make a clear distinction between the Ron Davies case (with its lying, blackmail attempts and robbery) and the Nick Brown debacle, which was a straightforward News of the World speciality — a gratuitous outing.
In the midst of all this, The Sun told us that a gay Mafia was running the country, but almost immediately regretted doing so, as the rest of Fleet Street turned on the paper as one (something I’ve been waiting to see for a long, long time). “There is no velvet Mafia,” said The Guardian; while The Times assured us, “‘Gay Mafia’ is pure political fantasy”.
To show its contrition for being so stupid, The Sun then promised: “From now on The Sun will not reveal the sexuality of any gays — men or women — unless we believe it can be defended on the grounds of overwhelming public interest. If gays choose to come out, we will report it if we feel it is newsworthy or relevant. Otherwise we will not invade the privacy of gay people.”
This may seem like a breakthrough, but let’s not forget that The Sun signed up to the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Conduct when it was first issued eight years ago. In the clause on discrimination, the PCC’s code says: “The press should avoid publishing details of a person’s race, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation, unless these are directly relevant to the story.”
So, in fact, The Sun made the same promise not to drag gays out of the closet, all those years ago and has continually broken it. Why should it be any different this time?
The Press Complaints Commission itself took a lot of stick over the whole Nick Brown affair. You will remember that Mr Brown, the Minister for Agriculture, was quite gratuitously outed by The News of the World last month. Why was the press watchdog standing by doing nothing during such a period of blatant press disregard for its own code of conduct? Lord Wakeham, the PCC’s chief apologist, said that the PCC can only act if the person actually being persecuted complains. Understandably, the Minister did not feel inclined to put in a complaint, knowing that if he did, the whole thing would be raked over again.
The Press Complaints Commission is a waste of space. But worse than that, while it continues on its ineffectual way, it prevents anything more satisfactory being established.
However, help may be at hand. Erich Barendt, professor of media law at University College London, wrote in The Guardian that press outing may be illegal under the Human Rights Act which will come into force in January 2000. The Act guarantees the right of everyone to “respect for private and family life”, and this may be interpreted to mean that such cruel and unnecessary outings by newspapers may be illegal.
However, during its passage through parliament, the press managed to negotiate for itself a special privilege which gives extra weight to another clause in the Act, which guarantees “freedom of expression”, and so might be able to argue a public interest defence. It would have been interesting to know what a court would have made of the Nick Brown affair in the light of the Human Rights Act.
Meanwhile, the spotlight continues to shine on the fourth gay man in Mr Blair’s cabinet, Peter Mandelson. Unlike the others, Mr Mandelson has refused to comment on the “speculation” that he is gay and has done his best to silence all other public reflection on the matter. His biggest censorship coup — the BBC ban on commenting about his private life — is still in force, although very difficult to maintain, given the amount of newspaper interest.
It seemed for a while that Mandelson had managed to put an end to the murmurings that followed his Newsnight ‘outing’ by Matthew Paths. As far as he was concerned, his closet might have been bomb-damaged, but it was still intact. But then the bombardment started all over again when Punch magazine published a highly controversial account of Mandy’s visit to Rio de Janeiro earlier this year.
The magazine claimed that Mandelson had stayed at the home of British Council chief Martin Dowle and his boyfriend, Fabrizio Guzman. Unnamed “friends” and “chums” said that the three of them had spent a great deal of time cruising around “sleazy gay haunts”. Punch’s justification for the story was that a Minister of the Crown had behaved recklessly and foolishly while on an official visit paid for by the British taxpayer.
The Daily Telegraph was the first paper to pick up and run with this story on the front page of its first edition. But as soon as he heard about it, Mandelson was on the phone to Charles Moore, the editor, assuring him that it was all a tissue of lies. Mr Moore was convinced and pulled the story from subsequent editions.
Another apparent success for the Mandelson suppression-of-information machine.
Over the next few days, none of the other papers picked up the story in a big way, although the gossip columns were reporting that Westminster and Fleet Street were abuzz with gossip about the Punch revelations.
Just when Mandy thought he’d got away with it, William Hague gave the story new impetus, during the House of Commons debate on the Queen’s speech. Hague made reference to “Lord Mandelson of Rio”, an allusion that mystified most people —until the following day, when the papers decided they could maintain silence no longer.
With the excuse of the Hague reference, the papers were able to retail the Punch allegations while passing them off as criticism of William Hague for giving credence to “innuendo, lies and smears”.
Downing Street and Mr Mandelson were furious that the story was gaining wider circulation, and Mr Dowle was wheeled out, from Rio, to rebut the story.
He claimed he met Mr Mandelson from the plane and they’d gone back to Mr Dowle’s home and shared a bottle of wine before going on a sight-seeing tour to a baroque church, where a wedding was being held. “There was no nightclub. He was in bed by 10.30,” said Mr Dowle. He added: “I think that Peter and myself have been victims of a horrendous smear campaign that is like something out of Kafka. It is not clear who has been our judge, jury and prosecution,” he said.
But despite this strong denial, there has been no mention of legal action against Punch.
The Mail on Sunday added fuel to the fire by sending its own investigative team out to Brazil to try and find out what Peter really did in Rio. Being unable to track down any direct witnesses to Mr Mandelson’s alleged activities, The Mail was unable to make the Punch story stand up. At the same time — as Punch jubilantly pointed out —they weren’t able to shoot it down, either.
The Mail on Sunday said: “Mandelson’s dilemma continues. His vow of silence over his private life is born of a simple belief that it is purely his business and no-one else’s. But that may have changed now. For in blurting out those four cruel words, William Hague has ‘half-outed’ the Minister.”
By my reckoning, that means Mr Mandelson has been outed at least seven and a half times — and yet he still thinks he’s in the closet.
As we went to press, the new edition of Punch had just been published, which insists that its version of events is true. “The journalist who brought us the story is a hugely experienced investigative reporter with 25 years’ experience,” it says. “His sources on the story are impeccable and we remain confident that he got his facts right.”
The magazine criticised Mandelson’s “Sphinx-like silence” and thought that the strategy of non-comment was “looking less sound by the day”. It ended its report with the invitation: “Can we tempt you into the open now, Minister?”
The answer, of course, is no. But as I said last month, Mr Mandelson will never have a minute’s peace while his self-defeating stance continues. He will be relentlessly mocked by papers like The Sun, which carried a photograph of him, on an official visit, stepping out of a cupboard with the caption “Mandelson comes out of a closet (He really does!)”, and The Mirror, which showed him lifting a pink dumb-bell in a gym somewhere.
The problem is that Peter is not gay. Not officially, anyway. Perhaps he should give serious thought to this advice, proffered by Raymond Snoddy, also in The Times: “A role model is Chris Smith… who, has been, at least in recent years, open about being gay. Now nobody raises an eyebrow, and his partner is invited with him to attend official functions. He is an example that should be followed by any Cabinet ministers still in the closet. This would instantly remove temptation from the hands of newspaper editors —and, after all, why should consenting adults be embarrassed about expressing their true nature?”
In other words, Peter: for Christ’s sake, stop messing about and get out of that bleeding closet once and for all.