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Stephen Gately the CPBF and the PPC

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Posted by Julian Petley

Following last weeks report by the Press Complaints Commission about Jan Moir's Mail article, Julian Petley chair of the Campaign appeared on Sky News on the evening of Thursday 18 February and on BBC's The Big Questions this morning (21 February). Julian now writes:

Jan Moir - image from of the 25,000 people who complained to the Press Complaints Commission about Jan Moir's article in the Mail, 16 October 2009, about the death of Stephen Gately are clearly bitterly disappointed and deeply outraged that their complaints have not been upheld. But I'm afraid that here at the CPBF we would have put a large sum of money on this outcome, and also would have bet the house that a major part of the PCC's argument for rejecting the complaints was that Moir's article simply represented her own opinions.

So, surprise, surprise, the PCC adjudication states that 'the article was a comment piece, clearly attributed to the columnist, representing her views on the sudden death of Mr Gately, in which she speculated on the manner of his death and employed conjecture widely' and that 'the piece was published in the comment section of the paper, where readers would expect subjective opinion on issues in the public eye'. In the Commission's view as it was purely comment it thus did not breach Clause 1 of the PCC Code, which states that 'the press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact'.  

What the PCC's judgement ignores, however, is the innuendo which absolutely drenches Moir's article, with its constant and insistent  suggestion (note, not opinion, not conjecture, not speculation) that his death was at best connected with and at worst directly caused by his gay lifestyle. Take, for example, the remark that 'the sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick  that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath'. That a 'bitter truth' does indeed lie beneath, and that Moir is on the track of it, is suggested by the further remark that 'the circumstances surrounding his death are more than a little sleazy' and the punch-line: 'under the carapace of a glittering, hedonistic celebrity, the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see'. This is classic smear journalism – never say exactly what you mean (and so avoid the courts) but make it abundantly clear by every sub-textual means at your disposal. Moir's piece ought to be required reading in classes on discourse analysis for decades to come. 

But the article is also factually incorrect on at least two counts. Firstly, it states that 'healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa never to wake up again. Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one. Let us be absolutely clear about this'. But, as even the article itself later makes clear, Gately died from entirely natural causes – a pulmonary oedema – and although sudden death at an early age from undetected medical problems is fortunately relatively rare, it is by no means as uncommon or 'unnatural' (whatever that is supposed to mean in this context) as Moir suggests – I know, it happened to my next-door neighbour quite recently.

Second, the article states that on the night of Gately's death, his partner Andrew Cowles and a young Bulgarian man whom they had met in a club 'went to the bedroom together while Stephen remained alone in the living room', where he died on the sofa, leading Moir to describe his death as 'strange and lonely'. But it wasn't strange – it was simply unusual. Nor was it lonely – the PCC's own adjudication makes it clear that Cowles told the Commission that when the three returned from the club, they spent some time together in the living room and that then he and Gately went to sleep on the sofa. So much for factual accuracy, then – or is the PCC seriously suggesting that an account of the night's proceedings by a woman who was several hundred miles away at the time is to be given the same weight as, or perhaps more weight than, an account by one of the actual participants in the events in question?  

We have, of course, been here many, many times before. We know from the PCC's Annual Review of 2008 that the vast majority (71.4%) of complaints which it received concerned accuracy, and it is a fair bet (more than that we can't say, given the opacity of the PCC's complaints process) that many of these were about the conflation of fact and opinion, given that this is one of the besetting sins of many national newspapers. As Roy Greenslade argued in 1997 in the case of a complaint brought (unsuccessfully, natch) against the Telegraph columnist Barbara Amiel: 'if there is pressure on the reporter to write a factually accurate story, then the commentator faces just as much responsibility to write factually accurate comment. His or her opinions may be controversial, but they have to rest on truth'. But this is a line against which the PCC has mulishly set its face, consistently refusing to censure columnists who rant and rave about subjects about which they are quite grotesquely ill-informed (step forwards Melanie Phillips) on the grounds that they are perfectly entitled to express their opinion. But this the national press not the local pub, and it is surely not infringing the basic tenets of freedom of expression to suggest that newspaper readers should be entitled to expect to receive informed opinion infused with the actual facts of the matter under discussion. However, popular British newspapers sell themselves hard on the pugnacity of their pundits, and it would thus be utterly unrealistic to expect the PCC to put a spoke in the wheels of their lucrative stock-in-trade. That, most emphatically, is not what it's there for at all.

Complaints against Moir's article under Clause 12 were also rejected by the PCC. This states that 'the press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability'. This is the clause which conveniently enables the PCC to wriggle out of upholding, and often even considering, complaints about press racism, and in particular negative stories about asylum seekers, refugees, travellers and all the other hate-figures which so regularly fill newspapers' pages. Thus in the case of this article, as 'it was not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language', the PCC did not find it in breach of Clause 12. In other words, Moir didn't call Gately a poof or a pervert, instead raising the spectres of 'dark appetites', 'private vice' and so on.  However, even the PCC was able to spot that the article was suffused with 'critical innuendo', which it even managed to get as far as describing as 'distasteful'. But the Code is designed, quite deliberately, to allow through this kind of journalism without censure; after all, it was drawn up by editors who know perfectly well that this is meat and drink to much of the press, which funds the PCC, which interprets the Code in such a way as to give newspapers as much leeway as possible.

The clear moral of this story is that it is the nature of the Code itself, coupled with the way in which the Commission deals with complaints arising from alleged breaches of it, which allows poisonous journalism of this kind to flourish. Pundits such as Moir know exactly what they can get away with, and are past-masters at staying just within the limits of the permissible, which are anyway generous. Until a system of effective press self-regulation can be established, one which is respected by newspapers, their readers and the general public alike, there will be many more Stephen Gatelys. 

And please, can we be spared any more posturing by the PCC about freedom of expression being 'a fundamental part of an open and democratic society'? Indeed it is, but where is the PCC in the current campaigns against our oppressive libel laws and in the growing agitation about judges throwing injunctions around like confetti? Where was the PCC last time the Official Secrets Act was used against journalists to suppress information which was merely embarrassing to government? Protecting freedom of expression means a great deal more than protecting the freedom of newspaper owners and their hired editors to do as they damn well like with their property in the pursuit of profit – including trampling over people's lives at a time of terrible grief and loss. 

DATELINE: 22 February, 2010


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