By the time you read this, the matter of the age of consent will probably have been decided. The huge amount of comment, conjecture, speculation and opinion which has appeared in print will, therefore, be irrelevant. But some things should not be forgotten.
In an argument as highly charged as this, people get desperate. Those with the biggest axe to grind are tempted, if they can’t win the argument fairly, to employ distortion, exaggeration and outright lies. This has been apparent in the press during the run up to the parliamentary debate.
Naturally the “we must protect the children” argument was trotted out repeatedly. This is a sensitive area, and consequently was played for all it was worth by “family” groups and other politically and religiously motivated opponents of change.
The News of the World carried an exposé (January 16th) of a kiddie porn ring which it promptly proceeded to link with the age of consent controversy. “Any MP tempted to lower the age of homosexual consent to include schoolboys will benefit from reading today’s News of the World,” it editorialised emotively. “What chance does a 16-year-old boy stand against a confident, adult paedophile set on corrupting him?… Nobody knows for certain what the causes of homosexuality are. But a physical introduction to homosexual behaviour must be among them.” It then goes on to say: “The lobby for reducing the age of consent to 16 argue that parity with girls is fair. They forget that women are protected by a law imposing possible life imprisonment for the dangerous practice of anal sex. No such law protects boys who are more likely to be a target for that particular perversion.”
The idea that girls are “emotionally mature” at 16, while boys are still “children” always strikes me as suspect. The “exploitation” of schoolgirls by adults is an everyday occurrence in this country (as the number of teenage pregnancies proves). The girls-are-fair-game argument is an insidious one that devalues women.
Being such an effective lie, Garry Bushell pushes it like crazy. Using his TV review of “Prime Suspect III” (the theme of which was the exploitation of rent boys), he asked: “Is this why slimeball MPs are keen to lower the age of gay consent?” (Sun, December 22nd).
The Daily Express, meanwhile, distorted the British Medical Association’s support for a lowering of the age of consent to 16 by headlining it: “Teenage Aids scourge” (January 14th). The paper rightly reported that the BMA had found that “those aged 15 to 24 account for nearly a fifth of HIV cases”. But the point of the BMA’s action in calling for reform in the law —that it would be easier to educate younger people about the dangers of Aids if they were not deemed criminals — was difficult to ascertain from The Express’s report. Amid the obfuscation, however, they managed to find room for Tory MP David Shaw to compound the confusion by saying “the move would only encourage homosexuals to approach children outside schools.”
The Sunday Telegraph — surely the last refuge in the British press of so many reactionary old fogies — published a piece by Lynette Burrows entitled “A licence to deprave” (January 2nd). The article was illustrated by a cartoon that Goebbels wouldn’t have been ashamed of. It showed lock gates imprinted with the word “consent” being opened ready to engulf the unsuspecting people below.
Ms Burrows, a woman of extraordinary fanaticism, alarmingly claims in her article that “a homosexual lifestyle reduces life expectancy from 75 to 42”. Where on earth does she get such a statistic? Why, from the Family Research Institute of Washington. And, of course, the Family Research Institute couldn’t under any circumstances be biased could it? After all, other groups with the word “family” prominent in their title are all models of moderation and reason. Take, for instance, Family and Youth Concern or The Conservative Family Campaign. You wouldn’t find them distorting or inventing statistics, would you?
This latest gem about the reduction of life expectancy has been repeated at least twice over the radio by members of these “family” groups, and in neither instance was it challenged. All that needs to be asked is: how on earth could such a statistic be arrived at? Think about it.
Back at The Sun (January 13th), Richard Littlejohn said that “the only argument for keeping it at 21 would be that it would upset professional sodomites such as the odious Peter Tatchell — who holds recruiting drives outside schools.”
This comment is arguably libellous, but I doubt whether Peter Tatchell has the tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of pounds necessary to mount an action against The Sun or Richard Littlejohn to find out. And The Sun knows it, which is why it can afford to be so bold in its insults and slanders.
Such is the hostility surrounding homosexuality that newspaper lying about our lives, is allowed to pass unchallenged. Some of the lies are difficult to pin down, some of them arise from simple ignorance. But some are carefully and deliberately constructed.
During the Back to Basics farrago, it was strongly insinuated that Tory MP David Ashby and his friend Dr Kilduff were lovers. It was discovered that they had shared a bed in a French hotel. On January 11th, most papers carried a photograph of the room in which the alleged congress had taken place. It was the same picture in every paper. Today ran it with the headline “Back to Basics in pink room with a bed called a queen”. And the picture seemed to confirm it. The room was definitely pink: pink walls, pink bedding, pink curtains and, looking through the window, a pink sky. A pink sky?
Let’s look at the same photograph in The Daily Mirror and The Sun. Lo and behold, in each of those papers it is a yellow room, with yellow bedding, yellow curtains and a blue sky.
The fact is, in order to support their headline, Today had doctored the photograph to give it a “gay” feel. In other words, it was an outright, carefully premeditated lie. Once again, it may be actionable, and as Mr Ashby is a millionaire (as well as being a buffoon), I hope he’ll pursue it.
Meanwhile, bouquets to The Guardian and The Independent both of which were deeply supportive of change. Their reports were fair, balanced and devoid of deliberate distortion (although, of course, mistakes were made). I know it is no less than we should expect, but in the light of the behaviour of the rest of the press, The Guardian and The Indy deserve an honourable mention.
“Sixty gay MPs face being ‘outed’ by militant homosexuals,” announced The People angrily on its front page (January 2nd). “Various gay groups are threatening MPs who they know are gay,” an unnamed, but “furious” backbencher is quoted as saying. But who exactly are these “militant groups” and individuals? It’s apparent from reading the story that The People doesn’t know and nor, it seems, does anyone else. Could it be that they are a figment of journalistic imagination, invented so that the rumours about gay MPs can be trotted out all over again?
Meanwhile, The Independent (January 15th) editorialised that “Outing is wrong… It would be a bad day for democracy if MPs’ voting decisions were affected by fear of unwarranted intrusion into their private lives.” (Noble words, but am I being naive in thinking that this is a technique frequently employed by Government whips to bring recalcitrant MPs into line?)
But back to “outing”, and who is responsible. Well, let’s take David Ashby, for instance, the MP whose bed-sharing activities with various other men were the subject of speculation during the Back to Basics row. Who outed him? Why, his wife, of course. “The Tories suffered a fresh blow this weekend when the wife of David Ashby… claimed that he had left her because of a friendship with another man.” reported The Sunday Times (January 9th). And when the ST returned to the attack with further evidence of Mr Ashby’s indiscretions (January 16th) it turned out to be his sister who had tipped them off. I don’t think either of these women would take kindly to being described as “militant homosexuals”.
There are rumours, as I write, that further revelations are on the way. I suspect that they will not, however, be emanating from gay magazines or groups, but from straight newspapers. Taking this into account, the newspapers’ moral indignation rings hollow when you realise that although they are always accusing us of being ‘outers’ it is, in fact, they who are guilty.
In the light of all this, the pathetic Press Complaints Commission is said to be on the verge of appointing “leading academic” Professor Robert Pinker, as a “Privacy Commissioner” in order to “bolster the effectiveness of newspaper self-regulation”. This is another attempt by the. PCC to stave off the statutory controls that the Government repeatedly threatens but never delivers.
According to The Guardian (January 10th), “the privacy commissioner will have powers to initiate inquiries into high profile cases… he will also be able to summon editors to explain their conduct and ensure a quick response from the watchdog body. His recommendations will have to be endorsed by the full 16-member commission.” (Many of whom, The Guardian omits to mention, are newspaper editors —their own among them.)
It soon becomes apparent that despite the hype, the so-called Commissioner will have no real powers. He can’t impose fines but can only “urge publishers” to take disciplinary action against erring editors (what kind of action hasn’t yet been specified; probably a smack on the wrist with a feather duster).
All it amounts to is another meaningless plastering over the cracks. The sooner the Press Complaints Commission is given the heave-ho the more confident the public can feel that the Government means business over intrusion into privacy.
And to anybody who says: “Yes, but look what’s happened in France — you can’t say anything about anybody there, there’s no freedom of speech because of their privacy laws,” I will reply: Nonsense.
It’s true that if Tim Yeo or David Norris or Paddy Ashdown had been French politicians they would not have had to endure the public dissection of their private lives. The rigidly enforced right to privacy would have seen to that. Passed in 1970, it bans the publication of words or images which violate the secrecy surrounding an individual’s private life or the life of a family and is especially hard on the use of hidden tape recorders or cameras. None of the exposés of the last few weeks could have happened in France.
According to a report by Patrick Marnham in The Independent on Sunday (January 16th): “The (French) privacy law is founded on the conviction that an equal importance should be given to the freedom of all personal life. As far as the newspapers are concerned, the hotel bedroom is as sacrosanct as the home, because freedom of personal life also requires respect for privacy… As long as there is no issue of legitimate public interest, prominent people in France know that the press will almost always respect their privacy. It is, of course, a different matter where public money is involved, since that can lead to a criminal investigation which will be widely reported and, in subsequent proceedings, the full truth about an individual’s private life may well emerge.”
As Patrick Marnham says: “The French attitude is based on a profound tolerance of human frailty, as well as a profound cynicism about human motives. Which is why the Suffolk woman who departs on a crusade with the ‘moral majority’ for high standards among leaders of the nation, will always seem so foreign to the man in the streets of Paris — who sees no more than voyeurism mixed with good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy.”
Like so much of French culture, this seems civilised and sane, but rather like the baguettes and croissants, it probably can’t be successfully exported.
Statistics Corner: This new feature will bring you the results of some of the many surveys and polls that are being conducted at the moment in relation to homosexuality.
The Sun conducted a “Back to Basics” MORI poll and asked under what circumstances a Government Minister should be required to resign as a Minister. 61 per cent thought that he should NOT resign if he was a “practising homosexual”, whereas 32 per cent thought he should. Similar figures applied to back bench MPs.
More importantly, under which astrological star sign are most gay people born? Well, according to The News of the World’s Mystic Meg, who received 25,000 replies to her recent “Astrosex Survey”, 5 per cent of Aries and Leo men said they liked to make love with both sexes, as did Leo women. Signs with the strongest preference for their own sex were Scorpio men (8 per cent), and Pisces men (7 per cent).
It’s all tripe, of course, and I don’t believe a word of it —even though I am a Scorpio.
Christmas seems a long time ago now, but do you recall the furore in the press over Channel Four’s modest gay programmes over the festive season? Strangely, despite predictions that this was the end of civilisation as we know it, the country seems to have survived the appearance on TV of Quentin Crisp, RuPaul and Julian Clary. Some of the critics actually liked it. Victor Lewis-Smith in the London Evening Standard (December 22nd) objected to the three programmes being presented as a “season”, given it only represented 150 minutes in total. He was also surprised at press reaction, saying: “It is tempting to dismiss all this as petit-bourgeois ranting of a fatuity too intense to bother with: to point out perhaps that whereas millions have been killed in the name of Saturday’s birthday boy (Jesus), few, if any, have been slaughtered in the name of Danny la Rue.”
And replying to John Junor’s opinion that “gays are taking over our culture”, Lynn Barber in The Sunday Times said: “… people who fulminate a great deal about the need to protect other people from awareness of homosexuality are at least halfway to conceding that the notion is so attractive that anyone who encountered it would be tempted to succumb… But anyway, I hope Sir John had a gay Christmas Day.”
A much more familiar account of Christmas for a gay person was written by John Lyttle for The Independent (December 27th). John described how he brought his new boyfriend home to meet his family on Christmas day: “‘And you must be Richard?’ my father says to my significant other. Planted in the doorway, Dad proffers a sweaty palm and flashes the fixed smile of a chat show host. How strange to witness my father attempting to act normal. That used to be my job.
“I don’t know why I say what I’m about to say, but I say it. I say: ‘He prefers Dick’, Freudian or what?”
There followed a catalogue of disaster as Mum tips the sprouts on Dick’s trousers and Dad spills beer on his new shirt. Little sister tries to seduce him and younger brother tells queer jokes. John begins to think about such classic psychological terms as “unconscious hostility”. John Lyttle makes the point that parents’ expectations of their gay children are different to those of their straight ones. “Parents of gay children often expect their homosexual progeny to return automatically to the nest for the Yuletide season, an obligation seldom visited upon their heterosexual siblings.” The reason? Well, the heterosexuals have real lives. “Responsibilities: babies, neighbours, and friends popping in, turkeys to stuff, in-laws to thaw. The unspoken assumption about the gay child is that you have nothing better to do, that you live a marginal existence, that otherwise you’ll be…lonely this Christmas. So you have a partner? So what? It’s not like having a husband or wife, someone you’d mind being separated from.”
The piece had such a familiar ring to it that I found myself not only amused but angry, too.
The fact that serial murderer Colin Ireland decided to plead guilty to all charges spared us a long trial with days and days of sleazy tabloid gloating. The families of the victims did not have to endure the final indignity of having their loved ones’ lives and deaths made into fodder for morbid Sun readers.
Brian Masters in The Mail on Sunday’s magazine (January 16th) refuted Ireland’s explanation that he murdered those five men in order to become famous. “Most people have been prepared to take him at his word,” he wrote, “which demonstrates an extraordinary abnegation of thought.”
In fact, Masters says, Ireland was a man who’s “soul was diseased” and who was “an incomplete human being”, a mad man who could not control his impulse to kill. The people he destroyed were not, in his own mind, real. They were objects. Any attempt to explain his behaviour as logical (“I wanted to be famous”) is nonsense. Other serial killers have had to release some of their intended victims because, once they had seen in them human qualities, they were unable to transform them into objects. Ireland killed all his victims within hours of meeting them, before he could get to like them.
Maybe there was another element in this particular serial killing. The gay element. Did Ireland simply choose gay men because he knew they were vulnerable and easy to pick off? Or did he choose them because they were easy to transform in his mind into the non-human objects that became so easy to kill. Was he, in fact, taking society’s profound homophobia to its logical conclusion?