Piers Morgan, the 29-year old editor of The News of the World, was asked in an interview (The Spectator, October 15th) how he justified running sex-scandal stories that ruined people’s lives. He replied: “My ultimate defence of these stories is that they are one hundred per cent true. I don’t make moral judgements.”
Is that so? Well, let’s have a look at one of Mr Morgan’s “100 per cent true” stories. It concerns three ageing vicars who were heartlessly set up by a couple of supposed rent boys at the behest of The News of the World. This, the paper rather disingenuously described as “investigative journalism”, although the only investigation required seems to have been to find the appropriate cheque book.
“We snare vicars in gay vice ring” screeched the headline (October 30th) over the story which had been brought to The NoW by two pathetic young men of dubious morals — Simon Vallard and his lover Kingsley Graves. Fancifully described as “£500-a-night rent boys”, the two men “opened their address book to News of the World reporters” — for a fee so far undisclosed. The whole piece is based on the uncorroborated evidence of this treacherous pair, who took kindness and friendship from the clergymen and then used it as a money-making scam.
The first question left hanging by The NoW is how vicars, on £12,000 a year, are supposed to be able to afford the services of £500-a-night rentboys.
Simon Vallard claims in The NoW that one of the vicars named in the piece, Canon David Haslam, “liked me so much that I ended up staying at the vicarage for a week.” But Mr Mark Porterfield, a friend of Canon Haslam, told Gay Times that Vallard and his boyfriend Graves had been friendly with the vicar for some considerable time and had been accommodated at the vicarage by Canon Haslam for over a year until they became “a damned nuisance and wouldn’t move out”.
He also believes that The News of the World provided the two men with an expensive camera in order to get “incriminating” photographs of the clergymen. Certainly the article was decorated with pictures of a high quality and low cunning — they certainly weren’t taken with an Instamatic.
At present Canon Haslam is suspended, awaiting an investigation by Church authorities. He has received death threats and his car has been decorated with such messages as “Fuck off, you faggot bastard.” All the same, he says he forgives Vallard and Graves for what they have done.
It’s a sorry tale of lonely men being exploited, first by mercenary little rats who I’m ashamed to share a sexuality with, and then by a ruthless money-grabbing scandal-sheet that justifies its exploitation with the dubious claims of “truth”.
This story — like so many in the past — has been brought to you by Mazher Mahmood, the so-called “chief investigative reporter” of The News of the World. Regular readers will recognise Mr Mahmood’s name. This is the man who takes the easy option, outing defenceless clergymen (most of them on the verge of retirement after decades of selfless service) on the say-so of greedy youths, and then justifying his copy with sickeningly self-righteous phrases like “In secret these ‘men of God’ are perverts who lust after young boys.” Vallard, by the way, is 29, Graves is 22 and so is another man emotively described by the paper as “a college lad”. No one involved in the story could be described as “a boy” or even a “youth”. Everyone involved is over the age of consent. [Note: Mazher Mahmood was jailed for 15 months in 2016 for perverting the course of justice while carrying out one of his so-called “exposés”.]
The Church of England is, of course, also in the dock over this. Its ridiculous policy towards its gay clergy actively promotes the isolation of these men and makes them vulnerable to this kind of nasty abuse.
Attitudes are changing, but the Church is not keeping pace. Andrew Brown, writing in The Times about the Bishop of Durham, said: “Before the storm, the lives of gay clergy were to a surprising extent shrouded by camp and ambiguity (within which) they were able to lead useful and productive lives, with their natures quietly acknowledged by their bishops.” In other words, it was OK to be a gay vicar so long as you were dishonest about it. This is no good. If they were allowed to live openly and with dignity there would be less scope for The News of the World to inflict such cruelty on the Church’s “good and faithful servants”.
But then, perhaps Piers Morgan has secretly set himself the Higtonian task of ridding the Church of all “unrepentant” homosexuals. Or perhaps he just sees these vulnerable old men as an easy way to line his pockets.
As Jacqueline Tratt wrote in The Guardian’s Face to Faith feature (October 29th): “The Church’s preoccupation with sexual matters at the expense of more important issues is a historical perversity. Self-appointed sexual arbiters have too easily hijacked the term ‘morality’ that should encompass the whole range of people’s relationships one with another — political, economic and social as well as emotional, personal and sexual… The Church needs to point out that morality is not synonymous with sexual conformity. Then it should get out of people’s bedrooms and into the market place where the real corruption of souls takes place.”
Before leaving the hypocritical environs of the Church of England, it should be recorded that Sebastian Sandys, an ex-Franciscan friar and now a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, managed to effect the first successful gay-inspired “outing” in Britain. On the day before the Bishop of Durham was enthroned (and wasn’t the frock lovely?), Mr Sandys named three clergymen at a debate at Durham University union. Reports of this “outing” were carried in several papers, but only The Guardian and The News of the World printed the names. Given the amount of hysteria which is usually generated at the prospect of gay people doing the “outing” (“a cruel witch hunt”, “dreadful invasion of privacy” etc.) this first successful one passed unremarked by the commentators who are usually so anxious to make a fuss. Perhaps they’ve realised: outing can’t work without the collusion of the media which purports to condemn it. Whether Mr Sandys’ outings were any more justifiable than those of The News of the World is a matter for debate.
What does the British public really think about gay people? Has our agitation and demand for justice over the past few years made any dent in their celebrated homophobia? Perhaps for the answer we should steer clear of opinion polls and start looking instead at Fleet Street. After all, if Francis Williams, a Fleet Street tycoon of old, was correct when he said that “newspapers indicate more plainly than anything else the climates of the societies to which they belong” then our daily papers should act as a barometer of public opinion.
So, let’s see the kind of story that newspapers have been carrying about us and the kind of comment they’ve been making.
A survey by the Health Education Authority (reported in The Times, November 1st) showed that “Schools should teach children about sex but should be wary of tackling homosexuality too early.” The report revealed that a quarter of parents believed that “lessons on homosexuality” should only be given to pupils aged 16 and over. “Seven in ten said they would not withdraw children from sex education classes but one in eight said they might if they included ‘sexual preferences’ or matters they considered Inappropriate’.”
On that front, it seems that those of a Section 28 frame of mind still hold sway.
The other great wall of bigotry surrounds the issue of adoption and fostering. The Guardian reported (October 28th) that The Children’s Society is operating a policy “which prohibits homosexuals from acting as foster carers”. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement condemned the Children’s Society, but Teletext asked its viewers to ring in to say yes or no to the question “Was the Children’s Society right to ban gay foster carers?” It received 2,047 calls of which 73 per cent said yes, the ban was right.
Oh dear — a lot (and I mean a very great deal) of work is still needed in that field.
As we’ve already seen, the Bishop of Durham’s sexual activity, if not his sexuality, provoked a great deal of comment last month. Pundits had a field day with it. Philip Crowe of The Times (October 22nd) made the point that if Michael Turnbull had divorced and married again, he could not have become a Bishop, but the fact that he was once “grossly indecent” in a public lavatory meant that he could be completely forgiven and rehabilitated.
Peter Tatchell will be gratified to learn that Fiona Webster, a columnist on The Daily Star (October 27th) nominated him her “man of the week” for his now famous sprint across the cathedral grounds. “The reason young people are turning away from the Church,” she says, “is not because there might be gays in its ranks. It’s because the Church’s hierarchy preaches one thing and practises another. And to anyone not too blinded by their own self-importance, that’s hypocrisy.” I think we can say that satisfactory progress is being made on that front.
Nevertheless, we’re making progress with the Labour Party, aren’t we? That nice Mr Blair even went so far as to take his clingy little wife, Cherie, to the Stonewall Equality Show at the Albert Hall. Not that he escaped without criticism. Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher’s ex- propagandist and now an even more miserable old bastard, wrote in The Daily Mail (October 27th): “If Mr Blair is seeking to establish a new image for the Labour Party he would do better than to associate with perverted exhibitionists who have nothing in common with its solid, decent bed-rock.”
More intelligent journalists, however, are struggling to overcome their own personal homophobic demons, a task in which they should be encouraged. The help of those in the media — both print and broadcast — is, unfortunately, essential in our push for justice. But for many of them, as for the country at large, it is a long, hard struggle.
For instance, interviewing Holly Johnson for The Daily Telegraph (October 31st), Martyn Harris was trying hard to shake off the standard journalistic approach that it is wrong to feel sympathy for people with HIV and Aids. Despite himself, he still harbours the “they’ve brought it on themselves” kind of attitude which makes Holly Johnson “in many respects, a nightmare figure to the respectable, middle-class reader of this paper.” Before he even arrived at the interview he was coaching himself “to be casual about the handshake, the shared bottle of wine, even the air-kiss. You know perfectly well there is no way you’ll get Aids from a speck of spit, but it’s never absolutely 100 per cent certain, is it? I mean, these doctors can be wrong…” Finally, Mr Harris ends up liking Holly Johnson and feeling mean about his prejudice.
Meanwhile, over in The Observer (October 30th), another heterosexual, Column McCann, was recalling rather sweetly “the first time he saw two men kiss”. It happened in New Orleans where he was befriended by a gay couple who gave him a job and a home. Mr McCann now feels vaguely ashamed of the lurid fantasies he conjured up about the two men’s life together. He had convinced himself that they led an alien existence, completely removed from his own. Despite their kindness to him — and all the evidence to the contrary — he still suspected that out of sight they were living a life of unspeakable sexual depravity. Only after he came to know them well did he realise that “in truth [theirs] was a very prosaic and loving and uneventful world… no different from mine” and that he had created “a stereotype of them from my own fear”. He has since returned to New Orleans to try to locate his two friends and share his new understanding, but sadly they are no longer to be found. Mr McCann, though, is grateful for the profound favour they did him. They ridded him of his homophobia.
If only more heterosexual men — journalists and non-journalists —could make that leap from fantasy to reality, the world would be a happier place for us all.