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The British press has declared war on homosexuals. “The renewed open season on gays” was how Susan Hemmings described it in a letter to THE GUARDIAN, and it has gone well beyond the spiteful sniping we are used to. This month has seen one of the most concerted, sustained and vindictive attacks ever launched on our community.
Day after day the Big Guns have been firing off volleys of misinformation and distortion on the subject of AIDS. With apparent glee, papers like THE SUN and DAILY STAR have been allotting acres of space to bigots who seem to have been waiting patiently in the wings for this opportunity.
And by using this device (“Vicar says AIDS is the wrath of God”) the papers can publish the crudest and most despicable slanders without shouldering any of the responsibility: “We didn’t say it—we just quoted the vicar”.
THE SUN gave us a prime example when it afforded large prominence to a Liverpool publican who had banned gays from his pubs. “AIDS is a real threat to the moral fabric of society,” he was allowed to say. “A lot of ordinary people are going to catch something from beer glasses. We don’t want gays on the premises. Let’s face it, they’re the ones who causes it.”
Just the worthless opinion of some ignorant landlord, maybe, but it was given the front page treatment. It also gave The SUN the opportunity to headline: “Beer mugs may spread the disease”.
If all this sounds like superstitious clap, trap, you ain’t seen nothing yet, for it takes the media’s “intellectuals” to give the wrath of God Theory credence. With the contorted logic much-favoured by propagandists who can’t make a real case, Peregrine Worsthorne in The SUNDAY TELEGRAPH wrote: “The public’s first reaction to this new danger will be to look for a scapegoat—a search which, in this case, presents no difficulty at all, the male homosexual being the obvious candidate. Not that scapegoat is quite the right word, it carries with.it the suggestion— wholly inappropriate in the case of, AIDS – of some innocent person or group being forced to bear the undeserved burden… In the case of Aids, male homosexuals undoubtedly are responsible. According to Mr Worsthorne, then, homosexuals have had it coming for some time and now they’re going to get it – the only thing missing from his piece was “praise the Lord.”
But who, in Peregrine Worsthorne’s reckoning, is “innocent” and who “guilty”? All I know is that if he’d used the world Jew or black instead of homosexual he would have been hauled up under the Race Relations Act.
So how are we, the guilty ones, going to be punished? Well, to start with they can take our jobs away. That’s the idea of fat-arsed, thick-headed Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens who, according to THE DAILY EXRESS urged the Government to tighten up on local authorities who “encourage” homosexual teachers.
Expanding on this theme, THE EXPRESS editorialised: “Why was the Reverend Gregory Richards, a homosexual, employed as a chaplain in the prison service? ‘God knows how many people he has infected with the disease. Equal rights for homosexuals cannot operate in sensitive appointments when such risks as AIDS exist.”
And never missing an opportunity to kick a man when he’s dead, the emetic editor of THE SUNDAY EXPRESS, John Junor, wrote: “Shouldn’t there be a post mortem on how Rev Gregory Richards, a known homosexual, came to be given and allowed to keep for so long, a prison service job in an institution for teenage offenders.”
And isn’t it time there was a post mortem on Sir John Junor – preferably a real one.
THE SUN’S infinitely questionable editorial voice settled for prison sentences. “We believe that all would-be blood donors should be asked to declare that they are not practising homosexuals. If it was discovered that they had lied, then an automatic jail sentence should be imposed.”
But which jails would all these convicted blood donors be sent to? Very few, it seems, for those tough prison screws turn out to be just like those silly people who stand on chairs and scream when they see a mouse. AIDS is not a mouse, I agree, but there is no need for this overreaction.
The same ludicrous panic seems to have spread to firemen who have decided that they won’t use the kiss-of-life any more even though “it saves about 1000 lives a year by reviving victims of fires, road crashes and other tragedies,” said THE SUNDAY PEOPLE. The paper seemed oblivious to the fact that their mad three-inch headlines about the disease might have something to do with creating the firemen’s fear.
Meanwhile the lead story of the same edition (“Scandal of AIDS cover-up on QE2”) was about Cunard not making a big fuss about an AIDS victim (“a homosexual millionaire”) being taken off their flagship. “Astonishing” said THE PEOPLE — which presumably would have preferred the passengers to abandon ship in mid-Pacific.
People who behave rationally and with compassion in dealing with AIDS victims are being increasingly vilified. Like Dr John Newman, the BBC’s medical officer who allowed a man (“a homosexual in his 30s) according to THE SUNDAY MIRROR to work at TV Centre until he died of pneumonia. “I knew this man had AIDS but I felt it was safe for him to carry on working.” “BBC let AIDS man keep on working,” screeched THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH.
It would be a mortal shame if this kind of exaggerated reaction discouraged people from acting sensibly for fear of being persecuted by the press.
To be fair there have been a few voices raised within the media’s ranks, trying to bring a bit of balance. But they have been few, and far from prominent.
Alix Palmer, a columnist on THE DAILY STAR, attacked Peregrine Worsthorne as “a morality-monger” and said the Rev Owen (“homosexuals should repent”) Leigh-Williams was “riddled with superstition and not much common sense.” Whilst John Smith in THE SUNDAY PEOPLE said that the opportunist vicar was “talking through his dog-collar”. Smith also wrote: “It would be disastrous if this lead to the kind of hysteria which gripped the United States where people feared they might catch the disease simply by being served by a homosexual waiter or handling change from a homosexual bus conductor.” Disastrous indeed. Perhaps Mr Smith should have a word with his editor about that.
THE GUARDIAN commented: “Practical steps might beneficially be accompanied by a wider recognition that male homosexuals who are bearing the main brunt of this cruel and dreadful disease need all the support and understanding a supposedly caring society can provide.
THE DAILY MIRROR wrote an editorial that pinpointed the dangers. “It is homosexuals who are at risk most of all. If the present scare continues they will be treated as lepers, socially and politically, as well as medically. The Ministry of Health must publicise clearly and honestly what the dangers are. Making ADS a notifiable disease must not be an excuse for a witch hunt against homosexuals, but part of a campaign to stop it spreading.”
Perhaps Mr Maxwell could take some of his own advice and use The Daily Mirror as a publicity tool to put the record straight, and some of his money to stop the tidal wave of terror.
But the low point, the very pits, came from The DAILY STAR: “Do homosexual lawyers get legal AIDS? Do gay orange growers get marmalAIDS and do teetotallers get lemon AIDS?” Hilarious isn’t it? But here’s an even funnier one that will appeal to the Fleet Street wags. Did you hear about THE DAILY STAR journalist who had a stroke and was paralysed all down one side until he died in agony a few days later? Thought that one would tickle you.
So how do we protect ourselves from this relentless press onslaught? What can we do in our own defence?
First, we have to somehow get over to people the knowledge that AIDS is not a “plague” — gay or otherwise. It is not highly contagious. Unfortunately, this is the myth the press are most determined to foster. They surreptitiously suggest you can get AIDS from a beer glass or from a church cup or from even being in the same room as gays. You do not get AIDS like you get the ‘flu and people must be made to understand this.
Here are a few things we can all do, and if you think of others, please write to Gay Times and share them:
- Blitz the editors and journalists of the offending newspapers with letters and phone calls. It might be that the reporters just don’t understand the issues. If this is the case, we have to make them understand. Letters to correspondence columns can help redress the balance of distorted reporting; this is particularly true of the regional press which is much more likely to print letters from readers. The newspapers are tireless in their efforts to discredit and defame us—we must be equally vigorous in our own defence. Make a habit of writing protest letters—by the score if necessary.
- Write to your MP explaining your disquiet over newspaper coverage. Tell him or her that it is time the Government took stronger measures to disseminate the truth. You could hammer home the need for more money to be allocated to AIDS research.
- Put friends, family and colleagues in the picture as much as possible. Explain that the media is not giving a clear picture of what is happening—then tell them the known facts. You can help yourself in this task by obtaining a supply of leaflets about AIDS from the Health Education Council, 13-39 Standard Road, London NW10 6HD. The printed word undoubtedly has more authority than the spoken one—a fact the press use to their advantage.
- If you are a member of the National Union of Journalists (or you know someone who is) raise the matter of the disgraceful incitement to panic at chapel meetings. Remind your fellow members of the NUJ guidelines detailing how AIDS should be reported, which were issued last August and which have been flagrantly disregarded.
- Individual members of the public can make complaints to the National Union of Journalists as an alternative to the totally ineffective Press Council. Offending journalists can be brought before their chapels and disciplined if the offence is serious enough.
- Make a donation to The Terrence Higgins Trust. This is the only organisation trying to counter the panic and hysteria with hard facts and authoritative comments. We must ensure that the Trust survives and their work expands as it becomes more and more vital to all of us.
- We are all worried about AIDS—not only about the disease but about the reactions to it and the implications for gay people. We must support each other and unite for a fight back. Discuss AIDS with your friends and make sure you are aware of the facts. Talk about your fears and let’s think seriously about the changes we can make in our lifestyles to ensure the disease is checked. People who are on their own and worried about what is happening should not remain isolated—get in touch with a gay helpline and talk through your fears.