GAY TIMES December 1998

Terry Sanderson’s autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

It began quietly enough with The Daily Mail carrying a non-judgmental — even friendly — Hello!-style interview with the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, and his lover, Dorian Jabri. “Being gay is simply one aspect of my life,” said Mr Smith.

This would have been remarkable enough in its own right, given the vicious anti-gay rhetoric with which the Mail usually fills its news columns, but, even as we were reading it, Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, was at Downing Street having his now-infamous meeting with the Prime Minister, tendering his resignation over his “serious lapse of judgment”.

Nice Mr Smith and his non-threatening partner were suddenly elbowed aside in favour of dirty Mr Davies and his visit to Gobbler’s Gulch, the fellator’s paradise on Clapham Common.

What followed was not only a grotesquely humiliating ten days for Mr Davies, but what Matthew Norman of the London Evening Standard called “one of the more spectacular news-management cock-ups of recent years”.

But Mr Davies and the Government have no one to blame but themselves for the scale of the explosion. Evasions and waffling simply spurred the tabloid press into a frenzy.

New Labour’s legendary media manipulation skills suddenly deserted them. “We don’t know any more than you do,” said Alistair Campbell to mystified journalists at the press briefing. This, too, turned out to be untrue, and Mr Blair paid the price by having the story extended for three more days and being subjected to accusations of lying. “Downing Street admitted yesterday that it did know about the background to the incident on Clapham Common before Ron Davies arrived at Number 10 to offer his resignation,” reported The Independent (and every other newspaper)

Oh what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive. And oh what pleasure and profit the tabloids gain from unweaving that web.

But Mr Davies’ personal tragedy suddenly became something more significant for all gay people. It unleashed once more the kind of press hysteria about homosexuality that erupts periodically in this country. This time it was slightly different. The Sun even assured us, in an extraordinary editorial, that the days of gay-bashing were over as far as it was concerned and that so long as you behaved yourself, it was OK to be gay.

Only an idiot would believe such an assurance from The Sun. On the same day that it declared a truce on gay-baiting, it carried a grossly homophobic rant from Richard Littlejohn.

But this was only the start. Just as the hysteria was beginning to abate, Mr Davies went to the House of Commons to give a personal statement aimed at halting the speculation about his private life. “We are what we are,” he said, paraphrasing the famous gay anthem (in the same way that Chris Smith oncedidin the House of Commons.)

But having failed to say what it is he is, he left everyone even more baffled. Worse still, he made the fatal mistake of blaming the media for his troubles. When will politicians ever learn?

Every aspect of Mr Davies private life has now been picked over in great detail, even the parts he thought no-one had seen (his many cottaging partners were paraded to tell their tales of fellatio on the M4 in The News of the World.) His first wife gave a full, frank and unnecessarily detailed account of her ex-husband’s many failings. We are also now aware that Mr Davies is well hung. It all made very sad reading.

But the press wasunrepentant. Don’t blame us for your pain, the said, we didn’t make you suck off those three men and then go looking for another one, who turned out to be a mugger and blackmailer.

The moral of this tale is: if you try to blame the media for your downfall, even if it is their fault (and in Mr Davie’s case, it wasn’t), they’ll rub your face in it.

There are sub-plots to this drama, perhaps the most entertaining being the resurrection of the outing issue. Just for the duration of Peter Tatchell’s absence in America,The Times columnist and former MP Matthew Parris, was presented as the chief promoter of outing after he asserted on Newsnight that the Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Mandelson is gay. No-one would have taken any notice if Jeremy Paxman hadn’t had a fit of the vapours over it.

Shrugging off suggestions that he was “sad and bitter”, Parris revelled in his new-found notoriety, writing self-justifying articles here, there and everywhere, insisting that there had been no malicious intention in his actions, he just assumed that everybody knew about Mandelson and that it wasn’t a secret.

There then followed another media spree, as the same mistake that Ron Davies had made was repeated by the high-ups at the BBC. Whereas Ron Davies had tried to stop revelations about his private life by obfuscating, the BBC tried to stop the Mandelson rumour by banning all mention of it.

In both instances, the result was to inflate interest to epic proportions. The ban lead to Alice in Wonderland style convolutions, such as the BBC newspaper review having to tell listeners that the papers were reporting the BBC ban on mentioning Peter Mandelson’s homosexuality – even though they were forbidden to do so on air. The panel on the BBC’s satirical programme Have I Got News for You talked of nothing else.

The press commentators then had a field day moralising once more on the rights and wrongs of outing. Stephen Glover in The Daily Mail began his ruminations by saying what just about everybody else said: “It’s none of my business”, but then went on at length about why Mandelson is so reluctant to come out. “One might say that there are Labour voters in Hartlepool [Note: Peter Mandelson’s constituency] and in the nation at large, who would rather Mr Mandelson were not a homosexual. I suspect that there are quite a lot of such people, and believe that Mr Mandelson suspects so too. Why does he not admit his homosexuality? Because he believes it might do him political harm. He understands that many people don’t accept a moral equivalence between heterosexuality and homosexuality. If he were a heterosexual, he would not refuse to talk about it.”

Mr Mandelson’s local paper The Hartlepool Mail, gave lie to that theory by conducting a poll which showed that 94 per cent of his constituents were indifferent to his sexual orientation. (The same thing happened in Ron Davies’s constituency. According to The Sunday Times, “Over 1000 letters of support have flooded into his constituency office… Last week a petition was organised calling for the disgraced Cabinet Minister to remain as an MP. In 90 minutes on a wet and windy Thursday morning in Caerphilly, more than 500 people queued in the main shopping precinct to sign the form.”)

George Walden in the London Evening Standard argued that Mandelson was under attack on all fronts – from the “Stalinists” in the gay community who want everybody out, whatever the cost, and both right and left of the straight community.

I said in Mediawatch in March that it was “only a matter of time before the tabloid hacks go for Mandelson’s sexuality in a big way.” Courtesy of Mr Parris, that time has come, and there can be few people in the country who are not now aware of Pete Mandelson’s sexual orientation, so why doesn’t he do himself — and the rest of us — a favour and stop this undignified spectacle once and for all?

Until he does, his tabloid tormentors will ensure that this story follows him around like a smelly fart. If he has any boyfriends, past or present, Peter can expect to read all about them one day on the front page of the newly “sympathetic” Sun.

This advice is not given in the spirit of “gay Stalinism”, it is sheer pragmatism. The muck-raking (or truth-telling) has started already in a minor kind of way in The Sunday Express, which carried an article headed “Brazilian student who is Mandelson’s close friend” — an innuendo-packed classic which suggested that Mandelson had some kind of “intimate” friendship with a young male student. A spokesman for Mr Mandelson apparently confirmed that the two were not “an item”, but the suggestion was clear — at some point they had been an item.

Mandy Mandelson is reportedly furious about all this. He has been sending his vituperative, threatening letters to all and sundry, according to Alan Watkins in The Independent on Sunday, and Watkins even claimed that Mandelson had demanded the BBC ban, which was ostensibly issued by Ann Sloman.

“At first it was thought that Ms Sloman acted entirely on her own initiative,” says Alan Watkins. “Now it is being claimed that her instruction flowed from a telephone call from Mr Mandelson to Sir Christopher Bland, the BBC chairman.” Why should Peter Mandelson have such power and influence? How did an MP for a small, northern, industrial community get the clout to demand —and get — a BBC black-out on comment on his personal life?

Mandelson continues to keep his silence in public, insisting that his private life is his own business and nobody else’s. Behind the scenes, he berates his influential friends into conspiring with him to keep his closet door locked.

But is he justified in this stance?

I think not, and for two reasons. The first was nicely expressed by the new Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, in an article in The News of the World. “Some people in public life think…what they do in private is none of anybody else’s business. But when people stand for election for public office, they are asking the voters to put their trust in them. Therefore, the character and trustworthiness of the person is a legitimate issue of public interest.”

This is the first (and probably the last) time I will ever agree with anything this nauseating right-wing clergyman says, but he’s spot-on in this instance. If Ron Davies, Peter Mandelson and, later, Nick Brown hadn’t been in the closet in the first place, these humiliations wouldn’t have happened to them or their party. All of them (and every other closet case in Parliament) have based their career on passing for straight, in other words on being dishonest with the people who elected them.

We are entitled to our privacy, they cry. Of course they are — but what exactly constitutes privacy in these cases? Does Tony Blair keep his sexuality “private”? Does he shag Cherie in a darkened room and then lock her away in the attic, hoping that she will never get out to sell her story to The News of the World? Did William Hague attempt to marry Ffion in private, away from the cruel gaze of Fleet Street? Did I just imagine reading about what a great time they’d had on their honeymoon? Is such stuff regarded as “private” for straight politicians? And, if Mr Blair doesn’t want us to know about the sexuality of his political colleagues, would he please stop walking around hand in hand with his wife and showing off his children, which must have been conceived in some sexual way — unless there was divine intervention.

Such ideas are ridiculous. But this is what Peter Mandelson and co are claiming should be private for them. Just the mere fact of their having a sexual impulse of any description is suddenly off-limits. Nobody is asking Robin Cook whether he likes to do it doggy-fashion with Gaynor, or whether she gives head. That, in my book, is private. Anybody should be able to close their bedroom door and be sure that, so long as what they are doing is legal, no paparazzi are peeping through the keyhole. But the mere fact of a person’s sexual orientation is not a scandal. It isn’t for heterosexuals, anyway, and it shouldn’t be for homosexuals. Indeed, for Chris Smith and Dorian Jabri, it isn’t. They are gay, they are happy with us knowing they are gay, and we are happy to leave it there. Nobody, not even The News of the World, follows them into their boudoir to check out precisely what it is they do in there.

This leads me to my second objection. By keeping their sexuality under wraps (and I’m talking about the fact of their sexual orientation, not the details of their sex life), Mandelson and other closet cases in public life are giving out the clear message that they are ashamed of what they are, that homosexuality is something to be kept secret (not private, secret), something unsavoury and disgusting. What kind of message is that for the rest of us, and for those “ordinary people” struggling with their own personal coming-out dilemmas? Peter Mandelson may say that he owes nothing to any other gay person. This is not true, and I know he knows it.

So, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t mind that people know about Ron Davies’s sexual orientation, or Peter Mandelson’s or Nick Brown’s, although I do despise the brutality and hypocritical self-righteousness of the tabloid outers. I’m just sorry that we had to be given so much sordid detail about Mr Davies’s activities.

Peter Mandelson can save himself from similar “exposure” by simply having the guts to say those three simple words: “Yes, I’m gay”. There’s no invasion of privacy there.

Although Matthew Parris was branded witch-finder general for his Newsnight performance, it is still the newspapers who are the chief outers. Tom Cruise and his wife Nicole Kidman won a huge libel pay-out from The Express after it stated that they were both gay and that their marriage was just a sham to protect their careers. Rosie Boycott, who was appointed editor after the articles appeared, then wrote: “As new editor of the Express titles (daily and Sunday), I would like to reassure you that I would not have published the articles.”

Which sounds OK, until you look at The Sunday Express the following day and see the article about Peter Mandelson and the student, which I’ve already alluded to, and which, according to The Guardian, was obtained by deception. We are entitled to expect more consistency from an editor who flaunts her ethical superiority.

And Nick Brown’s outing was not by Peter Tatchell or Matthew Parris, it was — if you look at the facts in a particular way — by Tony Blair.

The story goes that The News of the World was approached by a past boyfriend of Nick Brown’s anxious to sell them lurid tales of paid-for sex. The News of the World were unable to stand these stories up and so didn’t carry them. After the Davies and Mandelson debacle, the man went again to The News of the World and still the paper couldn’t find any evidence to back up what he said, so they went to Downing Street and told the Prime Minister what had happened.

Mr Blair then persuaded Nick Brown to make a statement admitting he was gay. This then became the story. The News of the World were just reporting the statement, see? They had no intention of outing Mr Brown on the say-so of the boyfriend.

Nick Brown was well-known as a gay man in Westminster (he has even been quoted, indirectly, in political news stories in Gay Times). Once again he asked for, and got, the collusion of his colleagues in keeping it private (i.e. secret). Now he’s paid the price.

Perhaps New Labour should take a leaf out of the New Conservatives’ book. According to The Sunday Express, the Tories are now actively encouraging gays to put themselves forward to local Tory constituency parties as potential parliamentary candidates. The Conservative Chief Executive, Archie Norman, has issued guidelines to local branches saying he wants to encourage more gays, blacks and women to be selected. “We want to choose candidates on their ability, irrespective of whether they are lesbian or gay… People have to be braver about it.” Wise words, indeed.

But both Ron Davies and Nick Brown can take heart from historical precedent. If we look back at previous “gay scandals” in the recent past, we see that, although it seems like the end of the world at the time, it seldom has lasting consequences. Indeed, it can sometimes enhance a career.

George Michael has a big new hit album on his hands since his cottaging conviction. And despite a prolonged and painful outing process, Michael Barrymore has just received the award for most popular entertainer for the fourth successive time. Both have been through similar tabloid beatings. They learned the hard way that there is a difference between privacy and secrecy, and in the end they triumphed by embracing two simple qualities: courage and honesty.

  • STOP PRESS: The Sun has announced (November 12th) that it will no longer “reveal the sexuality of any gays — men or women — unless we believe it can be defended on the grounds of overwhelming public interest.” The paper’s editor David Yelland, also revealed that he had sacked gay columnist Matthew Parris, the former Tory MP. Following his dismissal, Mr Parris questioned whether The Sun’s new liberal line would hold next time MPs debate the gay age of consent. “Then MPs’ private lives will be seen as a matter of public interest,” he told The Guardian.

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