Things are changing fast in the media and the development of the “information highway” is proceeding apace. Satellite and cable television promise an almost unlimited choice of viewing, and computer and telecommunications technology will give access to an almost endless stream of news, information and entertainment. Soon the number of options will be so enormous that it will be difficult for the government — or any other body — to effectively regulate them.
In theory this is a good thing. Traditionally the means of mass communication have been tightly controlled by a small number of people, and access to the public prints and airwaves has been off-limits to some minority voices. Certainly, gays have frequently complained that our voices have been kept off TV and radio as well as being distorted in newspapers. As far as broadcasting is concerned, we cannot make that claim any more. The airwaves are thick with gay voices, whether in mainstream schedules or in “ghetto” programming— such as Radio Five’s news programme, GLR’s Gay & Lesbian London or Channel Four’s Out series.
In the past month we’ve seen programmes about gays in the military, a chat show about coming out and a critique of lesbian lifestyles. A French friend of mine, over here on a visit, was astonished by the amount of national broadcast time given over to gay issues. In France, she said, the subject is hardly ever mentioned.
While the tabloids continue to provide the usual diet of distortion, spite and lies, the quality press take gay life altogether more seriously — although not always uncritically. Hardly a day passes without The Guardian or The Independent carrying a piece that would not look out of place in Gay Times. The Times and The Daily Telegraph, too, will occasionally include features that are surprisingly sympathetic and well-informed.
Samples from last month: The Independent and The Guardian reported on Home Office bias against gay couples — April 27th; Mark Simpson explored the developing influence of gay culture on straight men — The Guardian, April 28th; The Independent did Greta Garbo’s lesbianism — April 23rd, while The Guardian started a new series by a gay man — Oscar Moore — living with Aids, April 16th. The gays-in-the-military issue got a full-page airing in Scotland on Sunday, April 17th; while on the same day, The Sunday Times praised the blossoming of gay theatre. Both The Guardian and The Evening Standard have featured developments in the gay press.
But there are clouds on the horizon. What we are experiencing now may turn out to be a “golden age” of gay representation, which we will look back on with wonder. The traditional liberalism that has dictated much of television’s approach to homosexuality will soon be challenged.
Commentators like Garry Bushell and Paul Johnson complain constantly that critical presentation of homosexuality is never seen on British TV. Bushell calls it “poofter propaganda” and Johnson blames it on the influences of what he sees as the “liberal fascists” who control broadcasting. There is evidence that their views are shared by many other people — one opinion poll after another shows that the appearance of lesbians and gay men on television is not popular. As William Rees-Mogg, the first chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, said when he was conducting research into the values held by viewers: “One hears much more antipathy to homosexuals than might be expected in a tolerant society. Scenes of men kissing do not seem to promote tolerance; they were invariably commented on unfavourably, sometimes with sharp hostility.”
To its credit, the BSC has rejected just about all anti-gay complaints from the religious Right and other bigots trying to push gay images off the screen.
Now that the right to broadcast is being carved up and shared out, and as the tradition of “public service” broadcasting gives way to unfettered commercialism, we may see more pandering to what the public “really wants.” As TV and radio are deregulated, we are likely to witness a mad scramble for the finite number of listeners and viewers. Just as the tabloids’ race for readers dragged standards of journalism to the sewers, so competition in broadcasting may lead the same way. And just as homophobia became a staple diet of popular newspapers, so it may become in the rapidly growing world of tabloid television.
It is already happening in America, where half a dozen nightly programmes compete for the “tabloid TV” market — perhaps the most successful being Hard Copy and A Current Affair which concentrate on intrusion into private lives, sensational “human interest stories” and disasters. Ironically, just about all the reporters working on these shows are imported from Britain. The Americans needed the ruthless, amoral skills of Fleet Street’s tabloids in order to make these shows work.
Wendy Henry, who began her tabloid training on The Sun and went on to become the first woman editor of a national paper (The News of the World) is prominent in this new arena of trash television.
US commercial radio stations also employ “shock jocks” to boost their ratings. These men — like Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh — are invariably ultra right-wing, pushing out a constant stream of reactionary opinion, much of it based on racism, sexism and homophobia. The formula is successful, because it is something quite new for radio, and if you aren’t on the receiving end of the hate, I suppose it is quite entertaining. No one knows what a constant diet of this kind of broadcasting might do to public perceptions of gays.
Because such provocative presenters get huge audiences, all the stations have to have one. As the competition hots up, they each must try to outdo each other in outrageous opinions, pushing the limits of decency ever downwards.
It was only a matter of time before the idea was imported into this country.
The Sunday Express (May 1st) carried a profile of “Caesar the Geezer” who broadcasts every weekday on Kiss FM. Described as “the most aggressive person on radio”, Caesar is a bit of a pussy cat when compared with his American counterparts. He doesn’t like racists and homophobes (although he does think it’s a disgrace for gay people to be allowed to adopt). His speciality appears to be personal abuse and rudeness. He is bringing in audiences, and soon others, slicker and less restrained, will follow.
In January, Kelvin MacKenzie, long-time editor of The Sun, was elevated by Murdoch to managing director of Sky Television, and soon after that, Richard Littlejohn — the paper’s resident columnist and homophobe — was given his own five nights a week show on Sky, and was also signed up for a weekly programme on London Weekend Television. This may be the first step in the serious “tabloidisation” of Sky. And if it is, can it be long before the other channels are forced to follow suit?
Littlejohn was recently censured by the Radio Authority for comments he made on his LBC morning show. The first complaint referred to his suggestion that the women’s movement had been “hijacked by hatchet-faced, shaven-headed dykes in boiler suits, who despise men.” The second concerned comments he made the morning after the age of consent debate. He said on air: “Curious woman, Edwina Currie. A couple of years ago she wanted to ban all eggs on the grounds that they’re a threat to health. Now she demands legalised teenage anal sex — the surest and quickest way of transmitting Aids… I couldn’t care less about (the age of consent) but I think the decision to peg it at 18 was about right. However, after seeing the plankton bouncing up and down outside the Commons last night, if I were an MP I’d probably have voted to raise the age to 65 and banned moustaches and earrings as a basis for negotiation. Anything which that lot outside the Commons are in favour of, I’m against on principle. The police should have turned the dogs on ’em — and if that failed, brought out the flame-throwers.”
The Radio Authority decided that he had incited violence, in contravention of the Broadcasting Act, and that LBC should pay a substantial financial penalty. Unfortunately, LBC is in receivership, so no fine was extracted. Littlejohn walks away from the whole thing laughing, and picking up contracts that will bring his filthy and dangerous opinions to a much wider audience.
In an article in The Sun (May 2nd), Littlejohn moaned that his “bollockings” were nothing more than censorship. “There are already adequate laws to prevent incitement to violence,” he says. Oh really? I’d like to know which ones could have been invoked by the homosexuals for whom he was recommending the flame-throwers.
This, of course, is just the start. Littlejohn is well aware that his anti-gay ranting can bring in viewers and he will use it ruthlessly. The Radio Authority and the TV regulatory bodies will be helpless when faced with a torrent of yobbo programming — what are a few piddling fines when you are coining millions from flouting the law? It’s the same principle as the libel laws — the fines extracted for slanderous newspaper attacks are as nothing when placed against tabloid profits. Murdoch will laugh all the way to the bank as he leads the way in degrading broadcasting in the same way that he has degraded print journalism.
When the telly ratings war starts in earnest, we can expect gay lives to be used and abused in the same ruthless way that they are in the tabloid circulation battles.
The Sunday Express and The Daily Star quite gratuitously “outed” the solicitor who is defending Frederick West, the man at the centre of the Gloucester “House of Horror” case.
As this contravenes section 15 of the Press Complaints Commission’s code of conduct (“The press should avoid publishing details of a person’s sexual orientation unless it is directly relevant to the story”), I made a complaint. The Commission decided that there was no case to answer. “As someone who is involved in a highly publicised case which is in the public eye, the Commission considered that the reporting of the man’s personal life did not raise a breach of Clause 15 of the Code.”
Can someone — especially someone at the Press Complaints Commission —please tell me where this all ends? Are gay people (even those in the public eye) entitled to no privacy at all? This man’s sexuality has no bearing whatever on his job as a solicitor, it is totally irrelevant to his involvement in this case. He has broken no laws and he made it plain that he wanted the matter kept out of the public eye. So what possible justification can there be for “outing” him — or even more so, his partner, who was also named in the article?
The plain truth is that, as far as ordinary people are concerned, the Press Complaints Commission’s code of practice isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. It seems it can be successfully invoked only by members of the royal family.