GAY TIMES October 1996

The Daily Express’s opinion page on September 2nd was devoted to the laudable aim of alerting its readers to the increasing use of propaganda in public debate. “How they stop us thinking for ourselves” announced the feature by Nicholas O’Shaughnessy.

Who “they” are is unclear, but apparently “they” feed us loaded political messages in order to win elections and “they” distort the facts in order to push forward the agendas of pressure groups in “the media”. Mr O’Shaughnessy shows us the methods employed by the propagandists in their attempts to convince us that black is white and up is down.

Among them is “name-calling”. The theory is that if you attach a negative label to something, you can encourage people to “reject it without examining the evidence.” (An example might be Garry Bushell’s review of the EastEnders gay kiss in The Sun on August 28th — ”Queer we go on an Eastbenders outing”).

Then there’s the technique of “transfer” — seeking to have ideas rejected by associating them with something despised. (An approach favoured by that putrid old has-been, Norman Tebbit.) Commenting in The Sun (August 22nd) on the Belgian paedophile horror he concluded: “Before long I am sure there will be a campaign to legalise sex of all kinds with younger children. Already in America there is a campaign to force the Scouts to accept homosexuals as Scoutmasters. Don’t think it won’t happen here.”

Then there’s “testimonial” — seeking the endorsement for an idea from some “respected person” in order to give it validity. (Norman Critchley, leader of the Tory opposition on Bolton council, was asked by The Daily Express to comment on a ceremony to bless the relationship of a lesbian couple at the local town hall: “I am appalled. It is totally and utterly disgusting,” he said. “I have never come across such a blatant abuse of procedure. It makes a mockery of the whole marriage ceremony and lowers the standard of religious belief.”)

After the testimonial we have the “plain folks” trick, whereby propagandists shore up their ideas by making it appear that “ordinary people” applaud them. In tabloid terms this is often where the “mum of two” makes her appearance. She will be quoted as supporting the newspapers’ bigoted position on any given issue so that others can identify with her.

This time round The Sun quoted not a mum of two but a “Gran” from Kent who apparently “stormed” that the gay embrace on EastEnders was “totally irresponsible”. She vowed never to watch the programme again. She was, according to the paper, supported by “a storm of disgusted soap fans.”

After the common people have spoken, there comes the “bandwagon” effect, which consists basically of the theory that “the vast majority believe it, so it must be true.” The Daily Express itself was employing this one — and most of the others — the following day when it reported the case of Bill Zachs and Martin Adams, the two gay men who paid an American woman to have a surrogate child for them.

In an editorial about the case, The Express said: “Just what do you give the homosexual couple who have everything? A child will do nicely it seems — just a little something to round off their dinky lives after the ‘marriage’ has been blessed by some pretend priest or priestess… Responding to this case the churches have for once spoken with one firm, clear voice and reasserted what the vast majorityof us know to be true: Children should be brought up by a married heterosexual couple.” (My italics).

The Times, however, did give Helen Reece, from an organisation called Freedom and Law, space in its letters column to say: “The arrangement that this couple made was an imaginative and creative way of starting a family: the fact that money changed hands is merely an indication of how strong their desire was to have a child… The Reverend Bill Wallace [of the Church of Scotland] argues that these parents have placed gay rights above the child’s ‘basic right to have a normal upbringing in a stable home’: children have no such right — indeed the very idea of a right to be born into a particular environment is quite absurd. In contrast lesbians and gay men make as good parents as heterosexuals and should have an equal right to be parents.”

The tabloids, of course, don’t just use propaganda; propaganda is their raison d’être. It was kind of The Daily Express to give us a behind the scenes glimpse of its own working practices.

***

Has the gay community become a Frankenstein monster, completely out of control and destroying its own creators? Are we in the thrall of commercial interests that have hijacked gay life and transformed it into nothing more than a niche market, forcing us into a frenetic life of boozing, drug-taking and empty relationships? Has the gay community become the gay shopping society, closed to those over forty, those without funds and those without pecs?

Regrettably, these have become legitimate questions, and they were raised by Peter Tatchell in The Guardian (August 29th). “The last two years have been a turning point in gay history,” he wrote, “marked by a fundamental shift in values and attitudes. The idealism, solidarity and activism that was so significant in the first 25 years of the post-Stonewall gay psyche is now being superseded by a new gay zeitgeist of consumerism, hedonism and lifestylism. The shallow, vain, frivolous, amoral, self-obsessed, commercialised trend in gay ‘culture’ is not a pretty sight, and no amount of glamorous beefcake in Calvin Klein underwear can disguise its essential ugliness. Moreover, it threatens to disarm politically a whole generation of lesbians and gay men.”

There was support for Peter Tatchell’s view in the ensuing correspondence. Ian Lucas of Coventry wrote: “The saddest thing… is that the debate simply cannot happen in the gay press. A single company now strangles and misreports news, servicing advertisers rather than readers, gossiping instead of reporting. By and large we love it — they tell us how to improve our looks, how to stay young, where to drink and where to shop.”

This is not absolutely true. Gay Times does report news and does air issues, and even The Pink Paper, with its total dependence on advertising and its rather Pollyanna-ish editorial policy, recently carried a piece by Nick Vince, a 39-year-old gay man who “feels like a stranger in the promised land.” He put into personal terms what Peter Tatchell had been saying more generally. “I don’t feel old and I certainly don’t think I look old… and yet the gay scene makes me feel absolutely ancient. Worse than that, it makes me feel excluded, past it, over the hill, on the shelf… It seems that if you haven’t shaved your head or had your nipples or your nose pierced; if you don’t sport a tattoo somewhere about your person; if you don’t get ‘off your face’ with drugs every Saturday night and stay out clubbing until the early hours of Sunday afternoon — then nobody wants to know… Surely there must be an alternative to the high fashion, drug-crazed, pop-music orientated gay scene?” he asks. But is there?

On the other hand, Stephen Coote makes this point in The Guardian: “Openly gay businesses are increasing in numbers and in the range of services they offer, and part of this success story is the economic power it provides our community. If we cannot gain equality through moral argument, then we must use all the resources at our disposal to make our point, and that includes selecting where we are going to spend our discretionary income.”

Sorry, Stephen, but equality can’t be bought in the shops, not even for a pink pound.

***

And so we return to that gay kiss on EastEnders (reduced from two seconds to half a second by those on high). “Get this filth off our screens!” was The Sun’s familiar greeting, together with the mandatory rant from Terry Dicks MP.

Anyway, Tony and Simon’s snog must have been the briefest in the history of the known universe, but it served its purpose in bumping up the ratings. As Geoffrey Phillips, the TV reviewer at The London Evening Standard said: “A year ago Coronation Street and EastEnders were neck and neck in terms of audience figures. The latest ratings show EastEnders four million ahead. Impressive: how has the BBC done it?”

Well, they whip up a storm of moralising in the tabloids to start with, then give as little as possible to the gay audience, and then write the characters out so that they can bring in some new ones and do the same thing all over again. (I think that Geoffrey Phillips must have seen an unedited preview version of the kiss because he said: “When the male lips meet one is irresistibly put in mind of a tug of war with sink plungers.” The version I saw required the eyes to be propped open with match sticks so as not to risk missing it.)

Jo Brand commented on the use of homosexuals to boost soap opera ratings in her column in The Independent: “Women have been snogging on the box for quite some time now, but because that is the stuff of pubescent male fantasy it was greeted with a Phwoah! as opposed to the outraged queasiness announcing two blokes at it.”

And that just about sums it up. Once upon a time, gays were introduced into soaps in the hope of increasing tolerance and understanding. Now the question has to be: are we being served, or are we being used?

***

QUOTES OF THE MONTH:

“Peers are locked in battle over the alleged outing of the World War Two figure Field Marshal Montgomery. During a debate in the House of Lords on homosexuality in the armed forces Lord Wallace of Saltaire recalled how as a young choir boy at Westminster Abbey he visited Monty whom, Wallace claimed, paid too much attention to him. Springing to the war dog’s defence Lord Longford told the The Sunday Telegraph: “I worked with him [Montgomery] for years and he was not that way inclined. It’s a good job Montgomery’s son wasn’t in the chamber, or this Wallace chap would have been lynched.”

“The Princess knows her support for victims of the predominantly gay disease will unleash fury. But she wants to become a global charity figure at any cost,” so editorialised The Daily Express on Diana, Queen of Heart’s decision to become more actively involved in HIV and Aids campaigning. The paper later commented: “She will be criticised for supporting the ‘gay plague’ at the expense of charities she spurned.” Any charities with complaints better get in the queue behind The Daily Express for a start.

“Ten years ago, people calling me names hurt. Now it’s like, well yes, technically you’re right. I am a shirt-lifter!” was what black, gay singer David McAlmont had to say on the issue of the name-calling he’s endured over the years. The interview appeared in London listings magazine Time Out.

“Buxom Barbara Windsor,” The Manchester Evening News revealed in a super scoop, “has warned EastEnders bosses: ‘I’m not getting my kit off!’ As Peggy’s romance hots up in the soap, the star is determined not to let her love scenes get too steamy. Barbara is 60 next year, and finally hopes to shake off those saucy Carry On boobs that haunt her still.” A great trick if you can pull it (or them) off.

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