You open our morning paper and are horrified by some outrageously anti-gay item. Surely, you think, they can’t get away with this? You don’t want to let it pass so what can you do? The first thing that most people would think of is the Press Council. This “newspaper watchdog is supposed to be our protection against the excesses of Fleet Street, isn’t it?
But what exactly can the Press Council do? And if you decide to take your grievance to them can you expect a fair deal? The first thing you have to bear in mind is that the Press Council is financed by the newspapers themselves and cynics would say that the newspapers are happy to have such a “self-regulating body because it discourages the government of the day introducing any more stringent and effective means of recourse when journalists overstep the mark.
Why bother with legislation to curb the newspapers’ bad behaviour when you already have the Press Council—or so the argument goes.
Membership of the Press Council is made up of people from the newspaper industry and members of the general public, in about equal measure. There is no representation from the National Union of Journalists, however—they decided in 1980 that the Press Council was “wholly ineffective” and boycotted it.
To see what kind of reception complaints from gay people get, we can take a look at a few instances from the past month.
You might remember the outrageous’ front page story in THE SUN last May about the children’s book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. “Vile Book in Schools” screamed the headline. David Northmore of North London decided to complain and on February 3rd, nine months after the event, the Press Council upheld his complaint saying that The Sun’s story was “exaggerated and misleading”.
But you would never have guessed that the judgment had gone against them from reading The Sun’s own version of the report, which began: “The Press Council has upheld The Sun’s right to report criticism of a shocking children’s book showing a little girl in bed with her homosexual father and his naked male lover.”
As is usual with Press Council reports, it was featured at the very bottom of the final news page in extremely small print. The Sun, as usual, laughs at its critics and flaunts its lies with impunity.
Then the same Mr Northmore complained about The Sunday Mirror which had carried a story about a holiday being organised by the Lesbian and Gay Youth Movement. The Sunday Mirror alleged that “children and young people were being lured into a sinister web of gay sex” by the proposed holiday. Mr Northmore maintained that the Lesbian and Gay Youth Movement was a “credible and respectable” organisation. The complaint was rejected.
Next, our old friend “Mills” of The Star attracted a complaint from T P Murphy of the Wimbledon Area Gay Society. This followed a particularly vicious attack on gays which “Mills” had couched in extreme and violent language. The Press Council agreed that the article was “crude and abusive” but accepted the paper’s explanation that the “opinions expressed in the Mills column were those of a fictitious man whose thoughts resembled those of many readers based on thousands of letters received each week.” The Council rejected the complaint saying that the article had not been “irresponsible”.
Interestingly, in its report the Press Council chose to put inverted commas around the term ‘gay community’ but left the word ‘woofter’ undecorated. This might reveal something of the thinking of the people who reached the ridiculous conclusion that Mills’ article was not meant to incite violence and hatred against gays.
So, we have to accept that, in the main, gay complaints are unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing and are only likely to be upheld if there is a factual inaccuracy in the story being complained about. If you decide to make a complaint to the Press Council on a gay-related issue, not only will you be involved in a long and time-consuming investigation (one complaint that I made took nine months to adjudicate and involved me in writing over twenty-five letters) but, in the end, there is no guarantee that the offending paper will do anything at all about it.
Permission seems to have been granted by the Press Council for Fleet Street and Wapping to abuse gay people and the gay community in whatever ways it pleases, however offensive. Dehumanising terms like “poofter”, “queer” and “lezzie” are common currency in tabloid newspapers these days.
There is also the danger of finding yourself on the receiving end of the fury and spite of papers like The Sun. This is what happened to a man called Terry McCabe who dared to complain to the Press Council about the way that paper had done a very nasty hatchet job on him after he had refused to cross the Wapping picket line.
The Press Council found that The Sun had “cobbled the story together” on very flimsy evidence in order to revenge itself on Mr McCabe. On the day that the Council’s judgment was published (9 Feb) The Sun did a further full-page character assassination on Mr McCabe, not only repeating the original allegations but elaborating on them. So, as you can see, there are definite dangers in upsetting the editor of The Sun.
So, is there anything at all we can do about it? The answer is: not much. You can try a letter to the editor or a phone call to the paper, but most people who’ve tried this approach have found it a waste of time. One other possibility is the National Union of Journalists “ethics council” which looks into breaches of journalistic ethics. They will consider complaints from members of the public. In serious cases they have the power to discipline or even expel offenders. I have a complaint pending against Ray (Biffo) Mills of The Star, which will be heard later this month. I’ll let you know how it goes, and whether this avenue will be of any more use than the Press Council.
Last month in Gay Times, the Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality were anxious for us to know that Mrs Thatcher had been appalled by the infamous “gas the queers” remarks of the equally infamous Councillor Brownhill of South Staffordshire District Council. This month, however, the press wanted us to know that Mrs Thatcher supported the ‘swirling cesspit’ views of James Anderton.
The Daily Express (24 Jan) said: “Standing up for the silent moral majority, Mrs Thatcher applauded the Manchester chief constable and others who have publicised their views on the issue.” So, who are we to believe? For surely Councillor Brownhill was one of those “publicising their views on the issue.”
Harder to pin down are the opinions of Neil Kinnock. Yes, he’s sent messages of support to Gay Pride demos, but he’s hardly been in the forefront of his party’s support for gay rights. However, a glimmer of hope shone briefly in The Independent (13 Feb), when it published extracts from a private letter which had been written by the Labour leader to a party member living in his own home borough of Ealing, West London. In the letter, Mr Kinnock “vigorously defended his local council” (including its pro-gay policies) against attacks made on it by Tory MPs and the press. He said that the sex education policy (which encourages “respect” for gay relationships) had been “hideously misrepresented” so as to alarm parents. He said that there had been a lot of “prejudice-mongering”.
Can we take it from this that Neil really does believe in what his radical party colleagues are doing to help gays, but doesn’t want to play into the hands of Fleet Street by being too up-front about it in an election year?
I think I could forgive him for that, if it means we get rid of that woman and all her dubious supporters. Speaking of which, we had a taste of the Tory party of the future when the blood-curdling Young Conservatives at their conference debated whether homosexuality should be recriminalized.
If you thought the Tories under Thatcher were frightening, you should tremble at the prospect of what is to come if this bunch of young proto-fascists is the face of Toryism in the future.
The Sun had it in for Jimmy Somerville last month (and apologies to Jimmy if I gave the impression that he had granted an interview to that paper. I accept that he didn’t—they just made it look that way). This month they’ve gone to town on The Housemartins. Not satisfied with “exposing” the fact that the group doesn’t all originate from Hull as they had claimed, it then (31 Jan) went on to reveal that “the top pop stars are hiding a sad sex secret—three of the group are gay.” What the adjective “sad” is doing there is a secret known only to the journalist who wrote it. Indeed, the whole piece is peppered with similar weasel words, suggesting that the group’s gay members consider their sexuality to be some kind of tragedy, which I’m sure is not true.
Then on Feb 14, The Sun returned to the attack, criticising the group for having used a photograph of an old man on a record cover without first seeking his permission. But given The Sun’s own reputation for snoop photography and some of the despicable stunts it has pulled in that line, the burst of self-righteous anger seems laughable—or perhaps pathetic would be a better word.
Back to the execrable Mills in The Star. He continues to dispense his weekly dose of anti-gay bile. On February 27 he chided “woofter apologists” for suggesting he might be gay himself. “If Mills is such a ferocious critic of their sexual habits then he must per se and QED practice them himself. Or if he doesn’t practise them, then these tendencies must be lying dormant and his, in fact, a latent woofter himself… but the repugnant mechanics of sodomite sex fill Mills with disgust.”
Yes, yes, yes, Biffo, we’ve heard all this before. But can I remind you of the case of Roy Cohn, who was right-hand man to the ghastly Senator McCarthy in America during the fifties. You will remember that these two gents were responsible for hounding hundreds of homosexuals out of their jobs in the US Government maintaining that homosexuality was a “threat to the nation’s security” and so on. Mr Cohn was a fanatical persecutor of gays. Last year, he died of Aids contracted from one of his male lovers.
Indeed, as many gays have found to their cost, the most vicious opponents of homosexuals have come from within our own ranks. Mr Mills should bear that in mind.
There seems to be a widespread opinion in the press that churchmen have something useful and relevant to contribute to the Aids debate. There is a constant cry for the churches to “take a moral lead”, which seems to mean in journalese to get everybody back into chastity belts.
The Daily Mail tells us that an “anti-Aids leaflet for Roman Catholics, warning that it is wrong to use condoms, is being distributed in Scotland.” It seems these priests put their senseless dogma before the safety of their flock – or, perhaps as Mrs Currie would have it, “good Christians” have some kind of magic immunity to HIV,
Meanwhile, in Harringey, north London, where the council has the most advanced gay rights commitment in the country (and also the most virulent aggro from opponents), the extremist churches are really going to town. Not only have we got the sad spectacle of a vicar who is prepared to starve himself to death before he’ll allow other people to have a dignified life, we now have the Moonies moving in. City Limits magazine (29 Jan) reported a Moonie-front organisation called The New Patriotic Movement setting itself up. A creepier development would be hard to imagine. When asked if they thought their activities (which includes displaying banners reading “Gays = Aids = Death”) bred intolerance and intimidation of homosexuals, a spokesman for NPM said: “That is not our intention, but if it happens it is an unfortunate consequence.”
I hoped the local gay organisations in Harringey are exploiting this development for all it’s worth. “Concerned parents” should know just what sort of people are speaking on their behalf, then they might have something to genuinely worry about.
A round-up of the opinions of the mainstream religionists was reported in The Guardian (29 Jan). Responding to James Anderton’s disgusting vision of “morality”, the Bishops said their piece.
Dr John Habgood, said that “While the Church had always been clear in condemning promiscuity it had spoken with a divided voice on homosexuals in stable relationships. As a Christian I will always value stable relationships; when they are homosexual many church people not now condemn it. We shall have to work our attitudes out.”
Dr Hugh Montefiore, Bishop of Birmingham, contributed his opinion that “Mr Anderton sometimes give the impression of seeing just a wicked homosexual scene whereas the moral issue is much more complicated.”
The Bishop of Stepney, the Right Reverend James Thompson, urged: “a better understanding of the problems of homosexuals. They get pushed into cheap relationships because they have to act in secret.”
Personally, I couldn’t give a monkey’s about what the prattling prelates think of me or my style of life – their approval or disapproval is of little consequence to most gay people. But as they do seem to carry some influence in society.Perhaps they ought to use this power to make these points more widely known. If they give a stronger lead in promoting better understanding of homosexual men and women, then they might be able to avert some of the disasters which are surely coming our way. At that point I might be able to consider that they had some relevance to our lives.
The Mail on Sunday magazine sailed close to the wind with a profile of President Reagan’s son, Ron. On the cover of that edition was a photo of the man, in full theatrical make-up, embracing his mother with the headline: “Nancy’s Boy.” Of course, there have been rumours about Ron Jnr being gay for some time now – they started after he joined a ballet company. He denies the rumours and also maintains that his father is not anti-gay. But if that is so, says The Mail on Sunday, “how does one explain his alliance with fundamentalist preachers who see homosexuality as an abomination?”
“It’s a political alliance, clearly, and it’s pandering to an extent to the far right,” explains Ron Jnr.
“Scandalmongers,” says the article, “were silenced when Ron married Doria Palmieri in 1981.”
As we know, there aren’t any married homosexuals, so that’s all right. You can rest easy in your bed, Mr President.
Finally, a few quickies. An excellent article with the sub-heading “James Anderton should thank God for the gays” appeared in The New Scientist (29 Jan) and explained the invaluable service gays have done the world by being almost totally responsible for the discovery of a vaccine to prevent Hepatitis B, and how we’ll probably play a similar role in the eradication of Aids.
A poll of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 published in The Sunday Mirror (15 Feb) showed that 24 per cent agreed with the statement “Gays deserve Aids” while 60 per cent disagreed. The paper concludes that young people aren’t anti-homosexual.
John Smith wrote in The People “Recently released statistics make it plain that it is the homosexual community which is almost entirely to blame for the spread of the deadly disease. It is about time the Government faced up to this fact … instead of wrongly insinuating that Aids is something which threatens every respectable family in the land.”
Does Mr Smith know that in 1981 there were only 4 known cases of Aids among gay men? And look at the situation now. There are some 20 known cases of Aids having been caught from heterosexual sex at present – but who knows what the situation will be in four or five years if people like Mr Smith continue to encourage such dangerous complacency? The man ought to be drummed out of his job as a danger to society.
Princess Diana is reported in The People (8 Feb) to be worried at the prospect of visiting a hospital ward where people with Aids are being cared for. Whether she actually expressed these fears or whether they were an invention of the press doesn’t really matter, the damage is already done.