The Press Council’s “poof” and “poofter adjudication has reverberated like a ricocheting bullet around the newspaper world. It has opened up a long overdue debate about press treatment of homosexuals and also about the role of the press council itself. [Note: In May 1990 the Press Council, under its new liberal chairman, Louis Blom-Cooper, issued the adjudication we had been pushing for. It said that it was “not within the discretion of an editor to include crude and abusive words to describe an identifiable group.”]
The reactions were predictable. Those who take every opportunity to slander and criticise gays were quick to take this new chance to lay in with the proverbial Doc Martens. “We can no longer describe queers as poofters,” wrote George Gale (Daily Mail, 18 May). “Come to that we probably can’t call them queers either… There is another world, no dissimilar to words like poofs and poofters which well describes members of the Press Council. It begins with a ‘w’ – but I fear to use it for the repercussions.”
Richard Ingrams in The Observer (3 June) had no doubt what was going on. “It is all part of the campaign by militant homosexuals to dictate the vocabulary. On the whole, their campaign has been very successful… It is noticeable how many reports nowadays use the expression homosexual community in the sense of a group of people sharing certain traditions or living in the same locality… But the expression ‘homosexual community’, suggesting a persecuted racial minority, helps lend respectability to the cause.”
This brought a stinging response the following week from Deirdre Blackmore of London SW1 who wrote: “Will I be accused of ‘heterophobia’ if I am disparaging (on moral grounds of Mr Ingrams’s much-advertised heterosexuality? This sort of arrogant, militant, intolerant and boorish behaviour is just what gives heterosexuals a bad name.” And so say all of us.
The papers examined whether or not these words are, as The Sun claims, the language of their readers. There was no doubt in the mind of John Junor, who wrote (Mail on Sunday, 27 May): “The utter idiocy of its solemn decision to ban newspapers from using words… when that is exactly what they are called by 90 per cent of the adult population.” But his view was not shared by Paul Johnson, writing in his usual hysterical fashion in The Spectator (26 May): “’Poof” and ‘poofter’ I have often seen written, but I have never heard them used in speech… My impression is that (manual workers) never refer to homosexuality at all if they can help it. They find it embarrassing, a middle and upper class thing which has nothing to do with them… What they find unacceptable is sheer guesswork. The only reliable judges are readers. If they object they will make their views plain. The rest should keep their middle-class traps shut.”
Mr Johnson, in another of his laughable contradictions, seems to suggest that middle-class opinion is worthless but at the same time promoted it with fanatical zeal.
His point, however, is supported by Philip Howard in The Times (18 May)who said: “Street slang for homosexuals is no longer poof or poofter, if indeed it ever was… The world would be a better place, no doubt, if we were all more tolerant of those poor sods who are unfortunate enough not to be like us in every respect, from string vest to tattooed arms and shaven heads with six packs of strong Danish brew within easy reach. But since we live in a fallen world, the Press Council makes itself ridiculous by stooping to such matters, and the blessed Sun is seriously out of touch with its natural lingo.”
The Sunday Telegraph (20 May), as you’d expect, also raised the issue of class, only in a different way: “The root of the problem lies in the behaviour of some homosexuals who positively seek to give scandal. It has always been thus. Oscar Wilde would never have been persecuted had he not gone out of his way to goad respectable opinion into outrage. Today’s gay lobby is not content with the legalisation of their perversion. They now demand that heterosexuals accept it as natural and normal.”
So, while Paul Johnson thinks we are an outrage to the working class, The Sunday Telegraph imagines we are an affront to “respectable opinion”. It seems we have no friends at all.
As for what words are “really” preferred, we have to look to the telephone poll conducted by The Sun’s sister paper, The News of the World (20 May). It invited its heterosexual readers and its homosexual readers to ring separate numbers in order to nominate their preferred term. Voters could choose from ‘poofter’, ‘pansy, ‘fairy, ‘queer’, ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’. The result, published the following week, was that both homosexual and heterosexual readers (presumably the working class) had plumped for ‘gay’, which settles the argument as far as I’m concerned. So, shut your silly trap Paul Johnson.
In The Observer (20 May), Adam Raphael wrote: “The [Press] Council plunged into the morass of what is good taste… The Council’s excuse for overturning its rulings is that public opinion has changed. Sadly, the council is deceiving itself. What has changed is not public opinion, which remains hostile to homosexuality, but the fact that the council has a new distinguished ‘liberal’ lawyer as chairman… It undermines the council’s work in curbing reallyserious abuses.” (My emphasis).
Meanwhile, Private Eye reported that The Sun was considering “doorstepping” Mr Blom-Cooper in an effort to find out whether he himself is gay.
Feeling embattled, as I’m sure he did under the weight of all this criticism, Blom-Cooper wrote a piece in The Observer (27 May) about the future of the Press Council if its adjudications were not respected. “These commentators miss the point of the adjudication. The Press Council has said that a newspaper was fully entitled to express as much hostility as it liked towards homosexuals. It could do so even in intemperate language and with evident intolerance. What was journalistically unethical was deliberately to insult a definable class of people in society. Similarly, black people cannot be described as ‘niggers’, Jews as ‘yids’ or Arabs as ‘wogs’… The Royal Commission on the Press in 1977 said that acceptance and conformity to the rulings of the Press Council is the only alternative to the introduction of a statutory Press Council.”
The Sun’s reaction has predictably been petulant and nasty. It has carried a spate of anti-gay stories and comments that would offend anyone with an ounce of sensitivity, gay or straight. It does the press in general a disservice because a self-serving maverick like The Sun could cause legislation to be enacted that would affect every newspaper, even the responsible ones. So, it is up to other newspapers as well as readers to put pressure on The Sun to stop its disgraceful antics lest they all end up tarred with the same brush.
But has the adjudication been effective or, as Paul Johnson clamed, will The Sun take no notice?
The answer is s far that after an initial bout of vengeance-seeking The Sun has stopped using “poof” and “poofter” as terms of abuse for gays although it has tested one or two alternatives “dyke”, “bender”, “shirtlifter” – subject of another Press Council complaint – “fairy”, “iron hoof”). The ruling covered not only The Sun, of course, but all British newspapers. This message does not seem to have reached The People, whose columnist John Smith wrote (3 Jun) about The Gay Pride Carnival. “The highlight will be a procession. With all those poofs on parade, I’ll bet it’s going to be a real bitch choosing a Carnival Queen.”
By making a complaint about this, I have asked the Press Council to reinforce its adjudication.
The Independent has been taking very seriously the increasing violence being suffered by gay people in Britain. It devoted a half page on 14 May to presenting the subject to its readers. Reporter Heather Mills revealed that the police are not taking attacks on gay people seriously enough and that the catalogue of violence and murder is increasing alarmingly.
An editorial in the same issue said: “The persecution of homosexuals is spiritually akin to anti-Semitism. Hitler proved the point by despatching homosexuals as well as Jews and gypsies to his concentration camps. It is intolerable that people should be persecuted for not belonging to the same race as the majority. It is no less excusable that they should be vilified and assaulted because their sexual orientation differs from the norm. A report on our news pages, and a Press Council ruling which breaks new ground, come as a reminder today that in this particular form of aggressive intolerance the British are among the worst offenders.”
The leader then goes on to blame the problem on an inadequate education system which has created an underclass of “resentful youths whose lives seem to have no meaning. Left with only their maleness to believe in, their anger focuses on those who diverge from their own narrow view of the norm.”
This may be part of the problem but it isn’t the whole answer. What about those other gay-bashers, George Gale, Richard Ingrams, John Junor and Peregrine Worsthorne? Hardly the underclass.
Don Milligan agreed with the Independent’s theory in a letter to the editor (16 May) “In have been beaten up twice… The first attack carried out by a group of male university students… The second was the work of two middle-aged men – both of them overwhelmed by the free drink dished out at a gallery opening… the educated are just as likely to sanction discrimination in the workplace and social life as the uneducated.”
The class theory of homophobia doesn’t really hold water. Bigots come from all walks of life. Disaffected youth may actually do the beating up, but their elders are less likely to disapprove if they know their victim was gay.
This certainly seems true of The Sun’s vulgar columnist Richard Littlejohn who wrote in support of that other well-known (and far from under-privileged) group of gay-bashers (21 May): “I am glad police in many areas have decided to target public toilets used by homosexuals as singles bars, despite inevitable allegations of harassment.”
The Sunday Mirror seems to be trying to make up for its previous nasty ways. Over the past couple of months, it has carried a series of very pleasant articles about gay celebrities. Michael Cashman was given a double page spread to talk – on his own terms – about his relationship with his boyfriend; Julian Clary was affectionately interviewed during his recent tour and Chris Smith was politely profiled on 27 May. “The brave stand of Labour campaigner Chris Smith,” it is headed and is respectfully written by Peter MacMahon, the paper’s political editor.
I couldn’t say it is a deliberate policy on the part of The Sunday Mirror to try to put right some of the damage they have done in the past, but it’s very welcome and a welcome and refreshing change for a Sunday tabloid. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it continues that way.
Religious news (1) “The Observer has obtained a copy of the secret and highly controversial English draft of the new Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church – understood to be intended as a checklist of what a true Catholic must believe… In particular, it condemns…homosexuality as ‘degrading if it expresses itself in sexual acts.” (Observer 27 May)
Religious news (2) “Homosexual practices were attacked as ‘flagrant sin and abomination’ at the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh yesterday. The Church was called on to condemn rather than condone this ‘moral evil’”, Glasgow Herald.
Religious news (3) Oh forget it. Join the Lesbian and Gay Humanist Association.
“Potty gays reckon comic screen legends Laurel and Hardy were lovers – who enjoyed wearing women’s clothes” said The Sun (31 May), referring to an article about the adorable duo in last month’s Gay Times.
Meanwhile, The Daily Mail (1 June) said: “Steel yourself for the revised history scoop to beat them all – Laurel and Hardy, the screen’s epitome of childishly innocent clowning, were homosexuals, secret lovers.”
But now let’s return to the original article by Jonathan Sanders. It opens: “Privately, Stan Laurel was a man with a tenacious commitment to heterosexuality. He married five times, twice to the same woman.” So where did The Mail and The Sun get the idea that anyone was claiming they were gay?
The answer could be, of course, that Laurel and Hardy used their real names for their screen characters. It seems that the tabloids are incapable of making the distinction. The point that Jonathan Sanders was making concerned the regular bed-sharing and drag wearing that occurred in the Laurel and Hardy films. This seems like a perfectly legitimate area of exploration for a film historian – every film that has survived long eno ugh to be become a “classic” is analysed in this way.
The truth is that The Sun and The Mail deliberately distorted the article in the full knowledge that very few of their readers would see the original. In short, they lied.
So what’s new?