GAY TIMES May 1988

Terry Sanderson’s autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

Reviewing a BBC TV “Open Space” programme about the press treatment (and, indeed, creation) of the “Loony Left”, Peter Tory wrote in The Daily Express (15 Mar): “The trouble with the Left—loony or otherwise—is that it doesn’t have much sense of fun.” It seems that Mr Tory thinks it’s hilarious that newspapers blatantly lie and invent stories. He must think it’s a hoot that the democratic process is ruthlessly undermined by papers such as his own. I don’t think he would be so amused if he found the tables turned and the newspapers doing the dirty on him.

And meanwhile John Birt, the deputy director-general of the BBC, made some pithy and apposite comments about the state of the British media in his speech to the Royal Television Society. “Some of our popular papers regularly contain stories which invade the privacy of individuals for no reason of public interest; which shows insufficient concern for standards of good taste and decency, which indulge in occasion in outright invention … Increasingly common is the sound of grinding axes, from proprietors, editors and individual correspondents, shifting the balance away from journalism where the fruits of inquiry allow the readers to form his or her own opinion, towards journalism conducted in support of previously held opinion.”

The sound of grinding axes in newspapers is, indeed, familiar to gay people. The sheer volume of hatred that is directed at us day after day shows no sign of abating. To hold anti-gay opinions is an individual’s right, but as Mr Birt says, such opinions should be kept for the comment pages.

Nowadays it’s almost impossible to distinguish news from comment, both have been distorted to fit into a very narrow political view of the world, and if a story can’t be slanted it is ignored. Mr Birt said: “British journalism is not in a healthy condition and is neither capable nor allowed to serve society as it should.”

The lecture was reported by all the broadsheets and, indeed, The Times carried a long extract from it (7 Apr). The tabloid newspapers, however, omitted all mention of the lecture.

Which illustrates precisely the point Mr Birt was making.

Have the sordid Sunday scandal-sheets run out of gay celebrities to drag out of the closet? Nowadays they seem to be reduced to ‘exposing’ the children of the famous. After Francis Rossi’s son was given the treatment last month we now have the daughter of film star Stewart Granger being identified as a lesbian by The News of the World (10 Apr). But best of all must be one the NoW provided us with on 20thMarch. I can imagine the delight of gay people all over the country as they went to buy their paper that day and saw the headline of the front page of The News of the World: “God’s cop girl is gay”.

Anti-gay policeman James Anderton has himself fathered a cess-pit swirler! Oh, what exquisite irony! His only progeny one of the monsters he so deplores! But, of course, his tune has changed somewhat. In his daughter’s case it’s all “God’s will” (not God swill, as some would have it).

The other papers were strangely uninterested in this revelation and the only reference I saw to it was a letter in The Sun from “a parent with a gay child” who had been “deeply hurt” by Mr Anderton’s pronouncements on homosexuality and wanted an apology from the prophet. The writer was a certain Mrs Doreen Potts and the letter was published on 1 April.

Or, as The Sun might say: “Gotcha!”

[Note: Doreen Potts was a character invented by Terry Sanderson whose comic misadventures in the gay world were a regular feature in Gay Times.]

The intensely tiresome idea of homosexuals having “stolen” the word gay was given another airing by the equally tiresome Sun (23/24 Mar). The paper had dug up a couple of men with the name Gay, one of whom decided to change it by deed poll to Straight after being subjected to what the paper called “poof jibes”. The silly chap at the centre of the story went on and on about how he was a “red-blooded man” and how he wasn’t “gay by nature”. A friend was quoted as saying: “Women wouldn’t go near him because of his name.” Oh really? Women are that stupid, are they? A more likely reason for his lack of success with women is that he is an idiot.

Next day another Mr Gay was at it: “Didn’t those woofters think of the misery they would cause when they hijacked our name?” he said. A reader sympathised with his plight: “It’s not his fault homosexuals stole the word from the English language and made it mean something different.”

I know exactly what he means. We used to have a pouffe at home, but had to replace it with a foot stool because of the shame it brought on the family—don’t these furniture manufacturers realise what misery they’ve brought into innocent people’s lives by naming a piece of furniture in such a way?

The Sun invited readers to think of a “more appropriate word to mean homosexual—an original one for a change?” And I’m inviting Gay Times readers to think of an appropriate word to describe Sun readers. Answers on a postcard please. Or if it’s not fit for mixed company, in an envelope.

As readers of The Times vie with each other to be the first to report hearing a cuckoo, I regret to advise you that the first “poofter” has been spotted in The Daily Telegraph. Admittedly, the word was contained in a letter to the editor (9 Apr), but the fact that it was without quotation marks was ominous.

It’s bad enough that such abusive language is common currency in the smelly end of the press, we certainly don’t need it creeping into the broadsheets. How long, I wonder, before the word becomes an acceptable part of the Telegraph’s house style?

Most newspapers employ columnists to comment on current affairs and interpret events for their readers. The tabloids employ a special breed of such commentators who are advertised as “provocative” and “controversial” — which generally translates as insufferably racist, sexist and homophobic. There is little to choose between them—all are unquestioning Thatcherites and, like their heroine, supremely smug and self-satisfied.

Their knee-jerk predictability makes their columns sorry reading. The worst offender is Ray Mills of The Star, the man whose column the Press Council calls “outrageously racist, abusive and inflammatory.” The man who has been expelled from the National Union of Journalists for persistent breaches of journalistic ethics. The man who makes a living using violent language against defenceless people.

Last month I was invited by the BBC to take, part in a pilot TV programme about the press and its standards. I had been asked to challenge Mr Mills on his outpourings and ask him for an explanation of his relentless promotion of hatred against gays. Being a pilot programme, it will not, unfortunately, be broadcast. Mr Mills made it clear that he would not take part if it were to go on the air. This is understandable. To express repellent opinions under the cloak of print with no-one to challenge is one thing, but to face one of the victims of his evil campaign and try to justify his actions is quite another. The TV camera has a happy knack of magnifying bigotry and without the hollow cheering of his newspaper to egg him on, there would be nowhere for Mr Mills to hide.

In the flesh, Ray Mills seems inoffensive. Shy even. But it was he who made words like “woofter”, “lezzie”    and “queer” once more acceptable in newspapers.

There was an audible gasp in the studio when Mills defended writing that he was sorry that a gay man’s attempt to kill himself had failed. “A completely useless member of society” he concluded. He said he did not approve of “queer-bashing” but denied that it could ever be proved that his comments provided encouragement for thugs who carry out the attacks. He justified his opinions by claiming that they were shared by the vast majority of the British public. It does not seem to have occurred to Mr Mills that if all the British public’s baser prejudices were allowed to run unchecked, the country would rapidly decline into anarchy.

In short he was unrepentant. He was also something of a disappointment, his voice almost inaudible (hopefully an indication of the shame he feels about the words he utters). The ogre I had expected was, in fact, something of a mouse. Another reason, no doubt, that Mr Mills is a reluctant TV star. What would his readers think if they knew the sad truth about their ranting hero?

A classic example of how evil the tabloid press can be was the case of Henry Tennant, a gay member of “an aristocratic family” who is also HIV positive. After The Sun discovered Mr Tennant’s HIV status and revealed it on the front page (29 Mar), the poor man was pursued around the world by reporters who seem to find some strange fascination in linking royalty to Aids.

After Mr Tennant’s father, Lord Glenconner, complained about the hounding of his son by the press and said that it would not happen if he had terminal cancer. The Sun then produced one of its sickeningly pious editorials to try to excuse its filthy behaviour: “First, it is not ‘hounding’ to report the news. Second, people contract cancer totally by chance. Aids usually occurs through a sexual choice.” To say such thinking is wicked seems insufficient. To justify the intolerable harassment of a man who is already under such enormous strain is almost unbelievable. And to say that dragging the details of his medical condition on to the front page is “news” is contemptible.

The Tennant affair also gave The Sun another chance to demonstrate its nasty and insidious campaign of misinformation about Aids and HIV infection. In a story (31 Mar) the paper said that Henry Tennant had hired a house for a holiday with his boyfriend on the Caribbean island of Bequia. After the paper revealed to the owner of the house that his guest was HIV positive the man had allegedly said that he intended to “burn all the mattresses” and “throw away all the plates, cutlery and glasses.”

The man’s foolish hysteria was left unquestioned by The Sun which said nothing to contradict it. Presumably its readers will imagine that such reactions are perfectly reasonable and rational. Education groups who try so hard to counter such ignorance must despair when they see their work undermined so gratuitously by journalists.

It’s not good enough anymore for reporters to claim that they are ignorant of the subject or that they are working under pressure. If they don’t know the basics about Aids and HIV infection they shouldn’t be writing about it.

We can only assume that there is an element of malevolence in the actions of irresponsible papers such as The Sun.

The Murdoch campaign to name doctors who have Aids (and presumably the ones who are HIV+) gained new impetus last month after the death of Dr David Collings. All of the Murdoch papers (and most of the others) joined in the chorus demanding “tests” for all doctors (and, in some cases, their patients) and (Sun 1 Apr) to “boot out” the ones who are found to be infected.

There may well be grounds for public debate on this issue and naturally there is genuine concern. But the debate must be raised beyond the level of this, which appeared in The Daily Express (16 Mar): “I am fed up with being continually bombarded with the Aids problem. The majority of victims have only themselves to blame because of their sexual activity. I abhor the amount of money being spent on them and feel no sympathy whatsoever for them.”

The tabloids already dictate too much of the political agenda in this country, we must not let their renewed Aids hysteria stampede those in power into regrettable actions on Aids.

The British Medical Association must stand firm against the pressure being applied by the press when it meets in July for its annual conference. Journalists are, in the main, ignorant and unsympathetic to the plight of those with Aids. They must not be allowed to impose this ignorance and prejudice on those who are already suffering enough.

Gratuitous insult department: “My Beautiful Laundrette: Funny, perceptive study of a Pakistani man marred by a homosexual element that seems irrelevant to the story”—TV review in Daily Express (9 Apr).

“I do not mind what homosexuals do with each other. But I do mind the contempt for life that is implicit in their sexual proclivities and the humbug that being homosexual is in no way inferior to being heterosexual” — George Gale, Daily Mail (8 Apr).

Commenting on the National Union of Teachers decision to “defend members who are discriminated against because of their homosexuality”, The Star (7 Apr) conceded that “At first sight that sounds not unreasonable” but then, rather predictably, went on to say that “Parents have the right to expect fit and proper teachers … The teachers at their annual conference devoted an entire session to ‘gay rights’ (i.e. homosexual wrongs) … If teachers flaunt their perversions in public, the public has a right to demand that they change professions. If that be discrimination, The Star says: Discriminate for our children’s sake!”

Of course, rather like the word “promote” in another context, The Star’s argument rests very much on what they mean by “flaunt”. Does it mean, for instance, that if a child asks a gay teacher about homosexuality and the teacher answers, he is “flaunting”? Does it mean that a school is “flaunting” if it employs an openly homosexual member of staff? Perhaps the intellectual giants who run The Star would like to explain.

Nicholas de Jongh of The Guardian confirmed (8 Apr) what many of us have suspected for some time: that Mrs Thatcher was personally responsible for pushing Clause 28 through Parliament.

“One senior minister,” wrote Mr de Jongh, “believes there is no need for the clause and says that it is wrongly believed that pressure for the clause came mainly from some right-wing Conservative backbenchers.”

Aided and abetted by what The Guardian calls “penny-in-the-slot-politicians” (you put a penny in the slot and they say whatever Mrs Thatcher wants them to say) the Prime Minister “made sure that the clause was not dropped” and that non-government amendments were not accepted.

But opposition continues all the same. On 3rd April The Sunday Times carried an anti-clause letter signed by over a hundred art-world heavyweights including Sir Hugh Casson, Francis Bacon, the Duke of Beaufort and Derek Jarman. Not that this would impress Mrs T, after all she has her reputation as the country’s leading philistine to think of.

The London Standard carried an article about the clause by Paul Bailey (30 Mar). After pondering the meaning of ‘promotion’ he said: “The tabloid that coined the felicitous phrase ‘pulpit poofs’ and uses the abusive ‘screaming queens’ when gay people inform the public, in reasonable terms that they have rights, clearly does not favour such promotion. No clause has been drafted for its removal from reading rooms and I hope none ever will be.”

The fight continues.

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