After that fateful summer night in Paris, it was generally assumed that the press would shoulder some of the responsibility for the death of Princess Diana. After all, it was their photographers she had been trying to outrun when her car crashed under the Pont d’Alma.
Earl Spencer certainly tried to make the papers see the error of their ways in his now-famous funeral oration, when he said the press had his sister’s blood on its hands. (He later paid dearly for that criticism when his own private life was unflatteringly portrayed during his divorce action—the British tabloids are nothing if not vengeful).
The country was horrified and disgusted at the press and its ruthlessness. Inevitably, the familiar calls rose up for legal curbs to be introduced. It was obvious, said critics, that the press could not govern itself, therefore Parliament should do the job. Politicians agreed and tried to rise to the mood of the country but, as ever, they were cowed by the power they perceive Fleet Street to have over them come election time.
Enter at this point the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), intent on solving the dilemma for politicians and press alike. Despite its noble words about existing to protect individuals from intrusion by newspapers, the PCC is actually a body set up by newspapers to protect themselves from threats of legislation — and against the anger of their readers.
How often have we seen the following cycle of events unfold? Despite promises, the press disgraces itself with cruel and intrusive activities that appal the whole country. This is followed by angry noises from the Government, which promises to frame legislation. There is much uproar in the papers about the threat to free speech, democracy etc. that such legislation would impose.
The PCC then steps in and says that there will be no need for legislation because it has set up a committee which will “toughen up” its code of practice. It then changes the code in some small particular and the newspapers all make a big ballyhoo of “signing up” to enforce the new, improved rules. The threat of legislation recedes and the press carries on as before.
The last time this little ritual was acted out, David Mellor was the chappy in charge. He coined the memorable phrase “The press is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon.” Within months of uttering those words, Mr Mellor was on the front page of the News of the World accused of shagging a Miss Antonia de Sanchez while wearing a Chelsea football strip. His political career is now over.
Now, once again, the Last Chance Saloon is open for business, and the PCC has “toughened up” its act once more. Its “new” code of practice is effective from January 1st and all the editors have — yet again — signed up to say that they will uphold the code to the letter (just like they did last time).
Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the PCC, says that the code is the “toughest in Europe”. You would imagine from these words that the consequences of violating the code would be swingeing. So, what exactly happens when a newspaper blatantly disregards this voluntary agreement?
Well, first of all, the person or group who feels they have been ill-used by newspapers makes a complaint to the PCC. The PCC then takes a few weeks to decide whether there is a case to answer. If there is, a long exchange of correspondence between the complainant and the newspaper editor follows. Then the complaints panel (which is, incidentally, composed of newspaper editors) decides whether the complaint should be upheld or rejected. By the time this procedure is completed, the issue is all but forgotten, the complainant is totally exhausted and the press continues its irresponsible gallop, as before.
Even if the complaint is upheld, the newspaper simply prints a small paragraph at the bottom of page 32 summarising the adjudication. And that’s that. Big deal. Unless, of course, the paper can find any juicy gossip about the complainant, in which case it will be splashed all over the front page.
Well, given that even the most famous woman in the world, namely Princess Diana, could get no change from the PCC, what chance has Joe Public got? I’ve tried often enough in the past to get the PCC to enforce the Discrimination clause in its code of practice, but without success. The clause goes like this: “The Press must avoid publishing details of a person’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability unless these are directly relevant to the story.”
So will the new, tough and uncompromising code of conduct be more rigorously enforced? I decided to test it at the first opportunity.
I didn’t have to wait long for a suitable case to complain about. On December 31st, The Sun ran a story headlined “Gay nurse ‘in 100 murders’.” The item concerned Orville Majors, a male nurse in America, who is alleged to have done away with up to 100 patients in his care.
Now, what exactly did Mr Majors’ sexual orientation have to do with all this? Did he murder these people because he is gay? None of the other papers thought so. Indeed, every other newspaper in the country ran the story, but not one of them mentioned Mr Majors’ alleged homosexuality. They didn’t think it relevant — so why did The Sun?
A prima facie breach of the PCC’s code of conduct, you would think. So, off went the complaint and I am now waiting to hear whether it will be accepted for adjudication. After all, the editor of The Sun has signed up to the “tough new code” and has gone into print saying that he intends to ensure that his paper upholds it to the letter. Just as he did last time it was “beefed up”.
I wonder if William Hill the bookmakers would give me odds against this complaint getting any further than the PCC’s office junior? After all, on the form book it should be rejected out of hand. I have made at least five other complaints under the same clause, all of them equally clear-cut, and each of them falling at the first fence.
I’ll keep you informed of the progress of this one.
The horrendous story of Mark Trotter, the Hackney social worker who abused the children in his care and later died from an Aids-related illness, was once more brought into the public arena after the publication of a report into the scandal. No-one doubts that Mr Trotter should have been disciplined, suspended and kept away from children —enough evidence had accumulated to suggest that he had paedophile tendencies. But because the council hadan equal opportunities policy which protected gay people, Trotter was able to manipulate the rules and intimidate people with charges of “homophobia” if they suggested he wasn’t the right man for the job in a children’s home.
The Sun headlined its report “Scandal of the vile, gay Aids riddled pervert that a loony council allowed to care for KIDS”.
Naturally, The Sun blames “the politically correct madness that pervades town halls”. But this so-called political correctness started out as an attempt to bring justice and fairness to traditionally disadvantaged minorities. Regrettably, when they are not tempered with common sense, equal opportunities policies can become weapons of intimidation, easily exploited by people like Trotter.
Hopefully, local authorities, trade unions and personnel departments have learned their lesson from this case. They must continue to ensure that gay people, black people and disabled people who behave properly are protected from discrimination. But they must challenge the political ethos that has allowed equal opportunities to give carte-blanche to abusers and exploiters from those minorities. They must not be afraid to challenge wrong-doing for fear of being called homophobic or racist or whatever.
It is not equal opportunities that are to blame for this incident, it is inadequate and cowardly council officials who cannot operate them properly.
The Daily Mail carried an interview on December 20th with the Revd David Holloway, vicar of Jesmond, on Tyneside. Mr Holloway will be familiar to readers as the resident religious zealot on such shows as Kilroy and The Time, The Place.
Mr Holloway was in the news again last month because he was once more rebelling against what he calls the Church of England’s “mealy-mouthed liberalism” on the topic of gay sex. Now Mr Holloway’s poison has spread to neighbouring parishes.
On an anti-homosexual ticket, these fundamentalists are staging an impressive revival of what they call “traditional values” — which means a more authoritarian approach to sex. Holloway says that if other parishes followed the lead of Jesmond, and took a “moral stance”, they, too, could have congregations running into thousands, just like his. It seems that there’s nothing quite like a bit of spite and hatred to rouse the fervour of upright, traditional Christians. Throw in a bit of scape-goating and watch them flock in.
Up on Tyneside, Mr Holloway’s brigade was arranging for a novice priest to be ordained. Nothing special about that, you might think. But Mr Holloway has declared that his parish does not recognise the authority of its appointed Bishop — who is soon to be installed in Newcastle — and the retired Bishop of Uganda was invited to conduct the ceremony instead. The CoE was forced into the undignified position of having to obtain an injunction in the High Court to stop this blatant defiance.
The reason the Geordie evangelicals didn’t want the official bishop — the Rt Revd Martin Wharton — to perform the ceremony, and why the parish does not recognise his authority, was because he had said on radio that “loving permanent homosexual relationships are not sinful.”
In the meantime, Bishop Wharton — the poor, liberal football in the middle of Mr Holloway’s political machinations — awaits his transfer to the Holy Roller Land on the banks of the Tyne. At present, he resides in leafy Kingston-upon-Thames, where fire and brimstone are a little less hot than they are in Jesmond.
The Daily Telegraph tried to interview Mr Wharton about the controversy, but couldn’t get much out of him. He has been so traumatised by the reaction to his pro-gay views that now “he tends to repeat one anodyne statement over and over, punctuated by long pauses, nervous that any elaboration will get him into hot water.”
The Daily Telegraph says that the Bishop is now “too frightened to speak his mind on gays.” And that just about sums it up. The evangelical wing of the CoE operates by terror and intimidation. Mr Holloway and his mob (and I use the word advisedly) may well get their way in the end, they may force the CoE further to the right, but their aims will be achieved by bullying and coercion.
The time is coming for liberal Anglicans to declare themselves as such, and proudly. They should stop being “mealy-mouthed” and put Holloway firmly in his place. ii