The newspaper circulation war which is currently being waged in Fleet Street (or, these days, the less dramatic-sounding Canary Wharf) is threatening two of the gay community’s most consistent allies. The Independent and The Guardian are both feeling the pressure, but it seems that The Independent is on the point of buckling. As its circulation plummets towards the crucial quarter-million mark, the alarm bells must be ringing. There is no information at the time of writing as to whether its price cut (to 30p) will stem this haemorrhage of readership, or for how long the paper will be able to sustain the inevitable huge losses.
The Guardian, on the other hand, claims not to be losing readers at quite such a rate and has stated that it has no need to cut its price. It alone among the broadsheets sails serenely on, apparently indifferent to the blood-letting. But then again, at the beginning, so did The Independent.
Architect of this rather sinister power play is, of course, Rupert Murdoch, using the profits from his TV interests to support his now loss-making newspapers as they seek to drive the competition out of business. Murdoch has said that he envisages a future in which Britain has only three national daily newspapers: The Times, The Sun and the Daily Mail. Not only would that development be a disservice to democracy, it would be horrendous news for gay rights. None of the titles mentioned in Mr Murdoch’s scenario can be said to be enamoured of our community — all have been actively hostile towards us. (Although The Times has made some concessions with the employment of Matthew Parris as a columnist and the inclusion of the occasional “other point of view” feature.) But when it came to the crunch — with the age of consent debate — of the national press, only The Independent and The Guardian gave unequivocal support for equality.
Writing about the price war in The Guardian (July 7th), Anthony Lewis foresees Murdoch’s papers becoming “increasingly irresponsible and nasty”. He gave as an example of the downward trend of journalistic values in the Murdoch press, The Sunday Times’ recent campaign questioning the connection between HIV and Aids, and denying that there is an Aids epidemic in Africa. “Until recently, I doubt that even a circulation-hungry tabloid would have run such cruelly irresponsible anti-science.” (In contrast, The Independent marked the tenth anniversary on August 4th of the identification of HIV with a whole-page update of the Aids situation. It also carried an editorial headed: “Aids is not an issue for moralisers”.)
The Government seems unwilling to act to stop this wholesale wrecking of diversity in the newspaper industry, even though it has the power to do so. Many would say its inaction stems from fear of the propaganda power that Murdoch wields.
The loss of The Independent, a friend and ally to the gay community, would represent a major set-back. It has set the pace in its coverage of the gay rights struggle and has carried supportive editorials on most our issues: it called for an end to discrimination against gays in the military, it favoured gay adoption and fostering, an equal age of consent, and more police action to combat queer-bashing. It has been sensible and responsible in its reporting of Aids. It has had the attention of those in power and has taken over in many instances from The Times as the platform for official views on matters of the day.
If the price-cutting continues over any length of time — and there is every indication that it has become a war of attrition — The Guardian, too, will fall under the shadow of Murdoch’s superior cash reserves. What many gay people regard as “our paper” may also eventually disappear. (It editorialised on August 5ththat “dismissing gay service staff is denying them their civil right to fight for their country.”)
We can only do our bit by ensuring we support papers that support us, and encourage our friends and family to do likewise.
But it isn’t all going Murdoch’s way. Sky television has taken a step back from tabloidisation — at least for the moment — with the ungainly departure of oik-in-chief, Kelvin MacKenzie. The ex-editor of The Sun (whom Murdoch once described as “my little Hitler”) failed in his attempts to do for television what he has done for tabloids — take it into the gutter.
MacKenzie just did not understand the difference between the printed word and the televisual image. In the newspapers, you can create demons to attack — as MacKenzie successfully did with gays as well as left-wingers — but it ain’t so simple on television, where people can speak for themselves.
All this upheaval in Murdoch’s empire was music to the ears of his foes in the newspaper industry who were all anxious to report that BSkyB, Murdoch’s great white hope in the heavens, is beginning to show a dramatic slow-down in growth. “Hard though it is to get clear facts and figures on the satellite market — or on News International’s finances — it is clear that the year so far has not been wholly good for the organisation,” wrote Georgina Henry in The Guardian (August 4th) while The Independent (August 3rd) told us that “BSkyB suffered a drop of 18 per cent in average viewing per customer between 1993 and 1994” and that it costs seven or eight times as much to watch a film on satellite as it does on the BBC (45p an hour as opposed to 6p). It then went on to say: “Not long ago publishers thought newspapers were an incurable addiction. Now they slash their cover prices and cut each other’s throats. Mr Murdoch is said to have started the press’s price war believing that only four dailies have the strength and diversity of appeal to flourish in the next century. And perhaps only four big, universally appealing television channels?”
The Sun, in the meantime, hit back at The Independent, saying: “At 30p it is a high price to pay for paper to hang in the smallest room:” Don’t people say the same about The Sun?
Meanwhile, Mr Richard Littlejohn — The Sun’s favourite columnist — assures us that rumours of the cancellation of his proposed nightly show on Sky are greatly exaggerated. In a letter to the London Evening Standard (August 5th), the would-be TV shock-horror merchant says that his satellite programme will be a mix of “hard news, intelligent debate, comment, politics, the arts and sport” and will begin on September 19th. However, if his new London Weekend TV programme (“Littlejohn Live and Uncut”), which aims for the same formula, is anything to go by, it will he just as crappy as everything else on BSkyB.
Given that a couple of days before the first show (July 8th) he had been writing in The Sun about “designer dykes” and the fact that “the NHS has no business wasting time and money impregnating self-centred sexual deviants”, it was almost inevitable that he would open his TV series with the same topic.
Reading the autocue like some sort of zombie, Littlejohn tried pathetically to make jokes about a yoghurt pot, but his uncomprehending audience weren’t quite sure what he was on about. He sniped at the women he’d invited and made the sort of remarks that would have been regarded as crude even in Kelvin MacKenzie’s living room. It rapidly became apparent that saying things like “I couldn’t care less what lesbians get up to just so long as I am not forced to pay for it… the antics of some of them leave a particularly nasty taste in the mouth” might be all right in The Sun, but it’s not quite the same on the telly.
The women he was attacking remained calm and dignified, refusing to rise to his bait. His tactics were transparent: he was being nasty to real, likeable people, and that isn’t quite the same as slagging off the “shaven-headed dykes” he’d demonised in print. He too discovered the hard way that The Sun does not shine in television.
When film director Michael Winner, another guest on the show, was asked what he thought, he opined that Littlejohn was an arsehole. (Round of applause from audience.)
The Evening Standard’s TV reviewer Matthew Norman shared Winner’s opinion, preparing one of the most damning critiques I’ve ever read in a newspaper: “A 90-minute cold collation of simplistic current affairs debate, showbiz chat and nutter-baiting romp, its aim was undisguised — to get maximum ratings for minimum expense by trying to shock. And shock it certainly did — though for no other reason than the paucity of its ambition and the crassness of the execution.”
As for Johnny Littledick, Mr Norman thought that “in the farmyard of humanity” he would “surely occupy a sty”.
The following week, the attention-seeking Littlejohn somehow managed to allow ten seconds of “lesbian porn” to be broadcast —a “mistake” by his technicians, apparently. The week after that, one of his guests, David Icke, could stand the pillorying no longer and walked out of the studio. All grist to the mill for someone who thinks people are interesting so long as they are “barmy” and don’t answer back, and whose humiliation can make money for him. LWT should be ashamed of being responsible for such amateurish, self-seeking bilge and for going along with Littlejohn’s pathetic attempts to build some kind of dubious reputation for himself.
David Nicholson-Ward wrote revealingly in The Independent on Sunday (July 10th) about “factoids”, that apparently “undisputed” data which comes out of research commissioned by vested interests. Often such spurious statistics and “findings” are then obligingly presented in the media as “the truth”. For instance, the Washington Family Institute last year issued a “survey” which “revealed” that “a gay lifestyle reduces life expectancy from 75 to 42”.
This “factoid” was much touted by Christian activists during the age of consent debate — even in the House of Lords. The people who were using the figures were never asked to reveal how they had been arrived at or who exactly the Washington Family Institute is (it is, in fact, a right-wing Christian pressure group).
“Tactical research”, as it is called, is often used to justify the unjustifiable and create confusion in the minds of consumers. For example, is butter any worse for your health than margarine? It depends whose factoids you’ve been reading.
Or, as Mr Nicholson-Ward wrote: “In the new and prosperous world of tactical research, constructed around commercial horizons and compliant media, truth has become a commodity, and one with a limited shelf life. Much more important than truth is what people believe — or what you can get them to believe.”
Another recent use of the “factoid” concerned insurance. The Association of British Insurers announced last month that “insurance companies are to the drop a controversial question about Aids on life assurance proposal forms” (Daily Telegraph, June 27th). Most of the papers reported this piece of blatant public relations guff unquestioningly, failing to mention that “lifestyle” questionnaires will probably still be sent to those suspected of being gay.
Only the Financial Times (July 30th/31st) bothered to find out that: “Even when insurers produce new forms which drop the question about Aids-testing, they will still be able to find out whether you have had an Aids-test from your GP’s medical records.” And you cannot refuse permission for them to contact your GP — if you do they will simply turn down your application.
The hidden influence of the advertising and public relations industry cannot be underestimated, and it is more important than ever that we read our newspapers with a sharp and cynical eye.
And anecdotal evidence was supplied by The Sunday Times (July 3rd) when a 34 year old man told of his own experience in being raised by two women in a lesbian relationship. “Don’t knock lesbian mothers… Any court that obstructs access to a child, or refuses a residence order because a parent is gay is wrong. As a teenager I looked among the parents of friends and could not see one happy marriage. I was raised in a house of love.”