We need new laws to stop media homophobia and dishonest reporting.
Following the death of Princess Diana, demands for controls on the paparazzi have resulted in the Press Complaints Commission drawing up tough new rules to protect the right to privacy and stop media intrusion. These new regulations have only one purpose: to protect the rich and famous, especially the royals.
The far more serious problem of prejudiced, inflammatory, distorted and fabricated news stories is, by comparison, getting scant attention from the Press Complaints Commission.
Nothing typifies journalistic lies and bias more than the coverage of homosexuality. The devastating damage done by media homophobia is amply documented by Terry Sanderson in his book, Mediawatch (Cassell, £ 13.99). He reveals the alarming mistreatment of gay issues and people by all sections of the media. We are alternately stereotyped, invisibilised, scapegoated, misrepresented and demonised. Why isn’t the Press Complaints Commission up in arms about this obnoxious homophobic journalism, which has led to more deaths (by suicide and queer-bashing) than anything done by the reviled paparazzi?
Action to halt inaccurate and biased journalism is far more important and urgent than the current preoccupation with stopping media harassment and intrusive reporting. It is time the Press Complaints Commission ceased one-sidedly pandering to the “privacy” demands of the privileged elite.
The Commission should get its priorities right by concentrating on press misbehaviour that adversely affects everyone. What is needed, more than any other reform, are new regulations to ensure that newspapers report the truth and eradicate bias. The inaccurate and prejudiced journalism that so often disgraces their pages has got to be cleaned out.
We lesbians and gays have felt the harsh effects of press falsehood and bigotry more than anyone else. In the mid-1980s, tabloid sensationalism and fabrication about AIDS –dubbed the “Gay Plague”– incited homophobia. This led to a sharp downturn in public support for gay civil rights and a dramatic increase in queer-bashing and arrests of gay men.
During the same period, press vilification was also directed at so-called “loony left” Labour councils over their support for lesbian and gay equality. The tabloids even made up stories, including the claim that the gay storybook, Jenny Lives With Eric & Martin, was in primary school libraries. This fuelled public intolerance and government homophobia, contributing directly to the enactment of Section 28 and to the defeat of some pro-gay Labour councillors.
As victims of unfair reporting, we queers have a strong interest in uplifting the quality of journalism. There are two press reforms that would do more than anything else to curtail prejudiced and dishonest reporting: a legally enforceable “right of reply”, to correct inaccurate news stories; and the outlawing of “incitement to hatred” against gay people.
Under “right of reply” legislation, any newspaper that prints something factually untrue would be required to publish a correction within seven days, giving the correction similar space and prominence to the original offending article, (in order to prevent them burying it in tiny print at the bottom of page 37).
If this legislation had existed in 1994-95, both OutRage! and I would have had swift legal redress against the scandalous media distortion of our outing campaign. As the law stood (and still stands), we were powerless to do anything.
A legal right of reply already exists in France, Germany, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Greece, Austria and Switzerland. It has been very effective in improving journalistic accuracy.
In Britain, right of reply laws are supported by the National Union of Journalists, the Trades Union Congress, the Labour Party and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.
The other vital reform is legislation prohibiting “incitement to hatred”. This would make it a criminal offence to publicly threaten, vilify or degrade people because of their homosexuality. Similar to the Race Relations Act, which bans incitement to hatred on the grounds of race, a law of this nature would help stamp out the kind of homophobic reporting that is typified by the tabloid use of pejorative words like “poof” and “woofter”.
Incitement to hatred against lesbian and gay people is currently banned in Ireland, Denmark and Norway. While it may not be a panacea, it has curtailed the worst media excesses. The Liberal Democrats are, at present, the only British political party with a commitment to incitment to hatred laws that would protect homosexuals.
These two reforms will not, as some critics allege, inhibit freedom of the press. They would, however, result in more responsible, accurate and unbiased standards of journalism. For lesbians and gay men, that is just as important as an equal age of consent or partnership laws. A truthful, fair press can help promote understanding instead of intolerance. Because the media shapes public attitudes and influences law-makers, media reform must, in future, be a key element of our campaign for lesbian and gay human rights.
When the Sunday Mirror last year outed Eastenders heart-throb, Michael French, there was no dispproval or rebuke from the rest of the media. Not a single newspaper denounced outing or defended French’s right to privacy.
This silence contrasts sharply with the media’s universal, violent condemnation of outing in 1994, when OutRage! named 10 homophobic Bishops at the General Synod of the Church of England and urged them to “Tell The Truth”.
The outing of Michael French by the Sunday Mirror was homophobic and sensationalist, exposing his sexual orientation in a way that suggested gayness was sordid and shameful.
OutRage!’s naming of the 10 Bishops had entirely different motives. It was not an attack anyone’s homosexuality. The aim was to expose church hypocrisy and defend the homosexual community against Bishops who endorse antigay discrimination. The Bishops’ homophobia and double standards impacted on the lives of other people, and were therefore matters of legitimate public interest.
Journalists had other ideas. The media furore over OutRage!’s outing campaign went ballistic not long afterwards. In January 1995, I delivered a “private and confidential” letter to the then Bishop of London, Dr. David Hope (now Archbishop of York), urging him to “come out”. We later had an amicable meeting and exchange of letters. There were no threats or ultimata from me. The idea was to persuade the Bishop that coming out was the right thing to do.
Suddenly, three months later, in March 1995, the Bishop called a press conference and outed himself, saying his sexuality was a “grey area”. Most of the media –including the Guardian, Times and Mail– reported that Dr. Hope had been “outed” by OutRage!. He hadn’t. We had no intention of outing him. If we had wanted to expose his sexuality, we would have done so the previous November when we named the other 10 Bishops. This very obvious point was never mentioned by the journalistic pack.
At his press conference, the Bishop alleged that he had been forced to make his confession by “intimidatory” pressure from OutRage!. This ridiculous allegation was reported, even though journalists saw the friendly correspondence between myself and the Bishop, which clearly suggested otherwise.
A month later, when probed by Lesley White of the Sunday Times, Dr. Hope changed his story. He admitted that he went public not in response to my letter, but following an approach from a Telegraph reporter who gave him the impression he was about to be exposed by OutRage!. We had no such plans. David Hope was, it seems, bounced into coming out by a journalist who gave him false information.
A shrewd politician, the Bishop used his press conference to present himself as a persecuted innocent. Although Church lawyers agreed my letter was not blackmail, Dr. Hope allowed journalists to portray it as such without rebuke.
The media accepted the Bishop’s version of events without asking a single critical question. There was praise for his “candour” (Times) and “extraordinary openness” (Telegraph). Yet by even the most elastic definition, describing his sexuality as a “grey area” was neither candid nor open.
There are only three possible sexual orientations, and grey isn’t one of them. Instead of hiding behind euphemisms, why didn’t the Bishop practise the honesty he preaches by saying whether he was gay, straight or bisexual? And why did no journalist press him on this point?
Grey is, of course, a mixture of black and white. Some people therefore interpreted the Bishop’s statement as a roundabout admission that his sexuality is a mixture of heterosexual and homosexual. Such an interpretation was not, alas, even once mentioned in any of the media coverage.
This illustrates the way everything Dr. Hope said was taken at face value by the press. There was no querying of his carefully crafted statement that he had “sought” to lead a “single, celibate life”. What one seeks to do and what one actually does are, as we all know, not necessarily the same thing. It is notable that he did not say: “I have never had sex with a man”.
And why, if the Bishop had nothing to hide, did his lawyer demand to know what information I had about his personal life? Such questions should have been asked by journalists, but they weren’t.
Instead, the media sought to demonise myself and undermine OutRage!’s credibility. Referring back to our naming of the 10 Bishops at the General Synod in November 1994, newspapers claimed we had admitted there was “no firm evidence” (Telegraph) and that the names were “based on rumour” (Guardian). What OutRage! actually said was the exact opposite. Our statement at the time was categoric: “These names are not based on gossip or rumour, but come from reliable, credible sources within the Church”. The press also failed to report the pertinent fact that none of the 10 Bishops denied being gay, and only one denied having gay sex.
OutRage! was vilified by the media with a savagery normally reserved for car-bombers and child-murderers. We were condemned as “thugs”, “gangsters”, “mafia” and “extortionists”. Our naming of hypocritical, homophobic Bishops was, according to the Mail, “homosexual terrorism” and “tactics of terror”. The Telegraph compared us to the Nazis, describing OutRage! as “fascistic” and “stormtroopers”.
Predictably, there was no similar outcry when, shortly beforehand, the People outed 12 gay vicars and the News of the World outed the Bishop of Durham. Nor did the press express a jot of concern about the Church-endorsed discrimination that damages the lives of lesbians and gays.
Much of the abuse was personal. The Sunday Times branded me “the enemy within” and “public enemy number one”. I was, according to the Evening Standard, “pure poison”. Others expressed violent sexual fantasies. “Tatchell … should be castrated”, wrote Sir Bernard Ingham in the Express.
After denouncing outing as a “brutality that is literally fascistic” and “an act of fascist terrorism”, Allan Massie warned in the Telegraph that I might be the target of an assassin which, he added, “many might think quite an honourable part to play”.
Massie’s ‘invitation’ to murder was helped when television news bulletins showed a close-up of my letter to Dr. Hope, with my address and telephone number clearly visible. The result: weeks of death threats, hate mail and attacks on my home. In addition, I was assaulted a dozen times in the street by hysterical homophobes who had been evidently influenced by the lurid, inflammatory coverage in the tabloids and broadsheets.
Getting myself accurately quoted was almost impossible. Journalists interviewed me with a predetermined news slant: outing was evil and so was I. To fit their prejudgement, they were not averse to rewriting quotes. While most newspapers liberally rephrased what I’d said, the Times printed total untruths. I did not comment on the coming out of Bishops Hope and Rawcliffe (Rawcliffe came out of his own free will in March 1995) with the words “Two down, three to go”. Nor did I say “I want to be a martyr”, or that my “ambition is to be thrown into prison for the gay cause”. The Times refused to publish a letter from me refuting these falsehoods. Letters correcting misrepresentations were also rejected by the Observer and Independent.
The BBC responded to the lynch-mob hysteria by banning live interviews with myself and other members of OutRage!. This meant we were often unable to defend ourselves against gross misrepresentation. The BBC radio show, Call Nick Ross, was a typical example. It devoted a whole programme to the outing controversey without allowing OutRage! any opportunity to defend itself against the distortions peddled by our critics. Despite being condemned by Liberty, the anti-censorship lobby Article 19, and the National Union of Journalists, this BBC ban received no newspaper, radio or television coverage.
One of the greatest travesties was the way the media gave the impression that OutRage! supports indiscriminate outing. We don’t. We only endorse the outing of hypocrites and homophobes who attack the gay community. This was rarely quoted. OutRage! would never out private individuals. We only out public figures if they condemn gay people and support the denial of gay human rights. That’s why we didn’t expose Michael Barrymore. He hadn’t harmed the gay community.
The Bishops are different. They demand honesty of others, yet they aren’t honest about their own gayness. Worse, they condemn homosexuality and advocate discriminatory laws.
Like most Anglican leaders, Dr. Hope opposes an equal age of consent for gay men, supports the ban on gay foster parents by the Children’s Society, endorses the sacking of clergy in loving gay relationships, and colludes with religious cults that attempt to “cure” gay people. His approval of discrimination, which is crucial to understanding our campaign, got precisely one column inch in one newspaper.
Equally unreported was the success of outing. Within a month of OutRage! naming the 10 Bishops, Anglican leaders began their first serious dialogue with the gay community and issued one of their strongest ever condemnations of antigay discrimination. A little later, Bishop Derek Rawcliffe voluntarily came out and the world conference of Anglican primates called on the Church to rethink its policy on homosexuality. Then the Archbishop of Canterbury, who for five years had refused to say a word about gay issues, spoke out against homophobia for the first time. To cap it off, the Bishop’s Sexuality Group was set up and is now consulting with lesbian and gay organisations. Because the media took a partisan stand against outing, these positive achievements were never reported. The much-vaunted freedom of press apparently includes freedom to suppress the truth and distort the facts.
Nearly 300 lesbians and gay men attended a Ceremony of Remembance at the national war memorial, the Cenotaph, in London, on Sunday, 2nd. November. They were commemorating lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who died fighting Nazism and who perished in the concentration camps.
The ceremony was organised by OutRage!, who declared Sunday, 2nd. November “Queer Remembrance Day”.
The keynote speaker was 74-year-old Sharley McLean, a lesbian who fled to Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939. Her gay uncle, Kurt Bach, was arrested by the Gestapo in a gay bar in Berlin in 1937, and died in Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
After the speeches, there was a minute’s silence. Then dozens of pink wreaths and bouquets were laid on the Cenotaph.
The commemoration was denounced by the ex-services association, the British Legion, as “distasteful” and “offensive”, and “bound to offend many former soldiers”.
Gay war veterans are never acknowledged by the ex-services association or by the official state-sponsored Remembrance Day ceremony. At least 250,000 gay people served in the British Armed Forces during 1939-45. The current ban on homosexuals in the military is an insult to their service and sacrifice.
The huge media coverage of Queer Remembrance Day has raised awareness about the contribution of lesbian and gay service personnel to the defeat of Nazism, and about the queer holocaust that has been suppressed by revisionist historians.
Coinciding with a campaign by the German SPD and Green parties, OutRage! has written to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, urging him to: