Sex, Homophobia, and Media lies

New rules against press intrusion protect only royalty and the rich.

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.