Opinion: PCC’s rejection of Jan Moir complaint shows it up as entirely toothless

The Guardian reports that the Press Complaints Commission has rejected a complaint from Andrew Cowles, the partner of the late Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, over a Daily Mail article by Jan Moir originally titled “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death”. Moir stated that Gately’s death was not natural, despite official reports to the contrary, and claimed that the circumstances were “more than a little sleazy”.

Over 25,000 people complained to the PPC over the article, claiming that it was homophobic and slanderous. The article went on to compare Gately’s death to the suicide of Kevin McGee, and claimed that it “strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships”.

The PCC’s adjudication states that can understand how the article would upset people, but claims that the newspaper has a right to publish unpalatable and offensive opinion. It recognises Andrew Cowles’ distress over the publication of the article. The overall argument of the ajudication however is that “robust opinion sparks vigorous debate”, and that the reaction generated by the article was a “testament to freedom of expression”. It also stated that the column was clearly labelled as Moir’s opinion rather than a factual piece.

I wouldn’t want for a minute to suggest that every article which might upset a gay man should be censored, but I feel that Moir’s column was a vitrolic, homophobic assault, full of insinuation and allegation – not only without evidence, but in direct contrast to all evidence available on the death. It was published the day before Gately’s funeral. There is literally nothing to the article – it consists of facts previously in the public domain, homophobic assertions about Gately’s death, and an illogical comparison with McGee’s suicide to criticise civil partnerships in general.

If the article had been about the death of a black man married to a white woman, had made the same spurious allegations, and had drawn comparisons to a recent suicide to criticise interracial marriages, I very much doubt it would have been printed.

Had Moir’s comments been made in the average workplace to a colleague who had complained, would she have been let off the hook?

This adjudication gets to the heart of the role of the Press Complaints Commission, as has been discussed on this site for some time. Should the PCC have ignored 25,000 complaints just because they didn’t come from people directly affected by Gately’s death? The majority of people seem to think not.

Is Moir’s article not homophobic because it merely has an “underlying tone of negativity” towards people on the grounds of their sexuality, without using directly perjorative or prejudicial language? I don’t think any reasonable person would conclude that.

Is there a problem with Jan Moir’s boss being head of the Press Complaints Commission rather than it being an independent body? Does the fact that it’s an “opinion” piece mean that such homophobia is acceptable?

I’ll re-state that I think that it’s important for people to be able to debate matters of sexuality, and that they should have the freedom to do so – but Moir’s column was homophobic trash, devoid of journalistic merit, which hurled unjustified slurs on Gately, deeply upsetting his partner on the day before the funeral. It may count as an opinion, but the only debate it provoked was over Moir’s homophobia itself, rather than the wider picture of same-sex relationships or civil partnerships – and now over the toothless Press Complaints Commission and the pressure for reform.

Dave Page is Pride Co-Ordinator of DELGA [4], the Lib Dems’ LGBT equality
body, and is writing in a personal capacity

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19 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 18th Feb '10 - 2:35pm

    Sorry but I think I agree with the IPC. I am getting seriously alarmed at the way that the boundaries of free speech are being progressively drawn in, in the “real world”, while anything goes on the web. There is a genuine debate to be had here and just screaming at people who say things you don’t like and demanding that they are banned is not the genuine debate we need.

    Tony Greaves

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Feb '10 - 3:11pm

    I don’t think it’s news that the PCC exists to rubber-stamp the editorial policies of the newspapers it represents.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure what rule this article is supposed to have broken. It is accurate in what few facts it contains, it is clearly an opinion piece, it doesn’t qualify as a privacy violation nor as harassment, and it doesn’t involve any inappropriate information gathering. While it’s obvious what sort of attitude it’s playing up to, it skirts the edges of the discrimination rule without really crossing the line anywhere (I’m sure the article went through several revisions to arrange this). There doesn’t appear to be legitimate grounds for complaint against the code of practice. However unpleasant it may be, this one appears to fall under the heading of “justifiably free speech”.

    There is no rule against homophobia, because it’s an opinion legitimately held by some citizens, and we don’t want to go down that road. There’s only a rule against direct comments with no basis in fact, and irrelevant mentions. I don’t think the rules can be much tighter and still remain fair.

    We don’t have a rule that articles should have journalistic merit (rather than, say, being reactionary garbage), because we don’t want to have a single opinion about what that might mean. You’re expected to complain to the newspaper directly (and avoid buying their product) if you don’t like their position on this.

    Quite why anybody reads the Daily Mail is beyond me. I don’t recall any occasion when they printed something with journalistic merit. This kind of nonsense is in no way inconsistent with their regular output. These are the people who have been caught campaigning on both sides of an issue, so I don’t think anybody could accuse them of integrity.

    If the article had been about the death of a black man married to a white woman, had made the same spurious allegations, and had drawn comparisons to a recent suicide to criticise interracial marriages, I very much doubt it would have been printed.

    I think that’s probably correct, but it’s still an editorial decision.

    Had Moir’s comments been made in the average workplace to a colleague who had complained, would she have been let off the hook?

    Unfair; we allow the press more freedom than most workplaces allow their employees. Distasteful or unpopular opinions are allowed to be expressed in the press (where they don’t violate the code of practice), but not in the average workplace, since they are a distraction from useful work.

  • What should the PCC have done?

    The author starts the fourth paragraph by saying “I wouldn’t want for a minute to suggest that every article which might upset a gay man should be censored”, but most of the criticisms that follow are based on the article’s being homophobic, such as “Is Moir’s article not homophobic because it merely has an “underlying tone of negativity”” (implication: homophobia should be grounds for action) and “Does the fact that it’s an “opinion” piece mean that such homophobia is acceptable?” (implication: no matter what kind of piece, homophobia should not be acceptable to the PCC). So it seems the first phrase was misleading – the author certainly seems to believe that every article that is homophobic should be censored.

    What other entirely subjective – and legal – opinions should be censored? If Moir had condemned a “straight” (say 2+1) threesome, or said that marriages between teenagers are bad, should she be censored in those cases because it’s repugnant to the participants?

    I’d like to have the unreformed Marxist-Leninists in the Guardian sacked for the things they say about economists, but I recognise that this may not be in the interests of everyone in society.

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 18th Feb '10 - 7:09pm

    Edward,

    What was objectionable in the article was the entirely false suggestion that Stephen Gately’s being gay contributed to his death.

    Tony Greaves,

    I’m sorry but you are talking absolute nonsense. The law applies to what’s on the web as it does in “the real world”. But if you think the press is the real world perhaps you have spent a bit too long in the Westminster Village?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 18th Feb '10 - 8:04pm

    “What was objectionable in the article was the entirely false suggestion that Stephen Gately’s being gay contributed to his death.”

    But the fact that you don’t have the right to shut people up because you find what they say objectionable is practically the definition of free speech!

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Feb '10 - 8:43am

    As usual, some people are getting confused about the distinction between “This is objectionable, irrational bile” and “This should be banned”. The PCC doesn’t exist to prevent people from spouting objectionable, irrational bile, nor should it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Feb '10 - 10:04am

    I looked at the Daily Mail article, then followed a link from it to another article where I read “But last night a spokesman for the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young said that anything which could affect the rhythm of the heart could have caused cardiac arrest. He said: ‘If you have an undiagnosed heart condition and you do anything that either speeds up or slows down the heart then you could trigger cardiac arrest – whether that be drugs, alcohol or exercise.’”.

    So, Jan Moir’s article is suggesting that a lifestyle which involves bringing someone you’ve just met home for sex, and using a fair amount of cannabis might be a risk factor, particularly in someone with a family history of heart disease.

    Well, the issue here is not whether Ms Moir’s thoughts on this are an unusual angle, but whether they are so unfair and unacceptable that they should be banned.

    I do not think they should be banned, and I think anyone who calls themselves a “liberal” should be ashamed to want them banned, either formally, or informally through this campaign of abuse aimed at Ms Moir.

    I have seen plenty of people on this very site and on sites listed as “Lib Dem blogs” use far stronger language to make insinuations and attacks on lifestyles and attitudes with which they disagree. There is someone, for example who calls himself or herself “Fluffy Elephant”, for example, who runs a regular line of personal abuse aimed at anyone who has some sort of religious practice. Are Mr Elephant’s views expressed unpleasantly, extreme and one-sided? Yes. Should they be banned, or should Mr Elephant be howled down for expressing himself in this way? No.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Feb '10 - 10:17am

    Hm, I think Matthew is also confusing disapproval and censorship, from the opposite direction. A barrage of complaint about a published article is not the same as being ‘howled down’ – it simply doesn’t prevent Jan Moir or the Mail from expressing their views. It may make them more reluctant to do so in the future (though I doubt it), but so what? That’s not censorship. Freedom of expression includes the right to make vehement representations to and about those who have made objectionable statements. There is a huge and important difference between being “banned formally” and being “banned informally” (whatever that might mean).

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Feb '10 - 2:18pm

    Malcolm

    No. The manner in which Ms Moir’s article was attacked and the comments made about it seemed to me to go beyond this. The intention seemed to me to make sure that if anyone wrote stuff like this again, their reputation would be so damaged by the abuse that was thrown at them that their career chances would be seriously damaged.

    I had actually not read the article until I looked at it through the link on this thread. I had, from the protests made about it, assumed that it must have had a far worse abusive tone than I found it had when I read it. I imagined that perhaps it might have been something like Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of blood” speech, where whatever point he was making about problems caused by immigration gets drowned as he launches into ever more and more fanciful imagery, and direct accusations of non-white people menacing white people, until it becomes a torrent of abuse.

    But it’s actually something where had I come to it blind I would have thought “Hmm, bit unfair, can sort of see where she’s coming from, but she shouldn’t have put it that way, especially when the poor bloke’s lying in his coffin waiting for his funeral” and left it at that.

    It seems to me we are reaching a point where there are some topics that simply cannot be talked about, except to say “me too” to the liberal consensus and “evil prejudiced bastard” to anyone who doesn’t express 100% agreement with the liberal consensus.

    I am finding liberal circles – I mean the whole of LibDem bloggery – to be increasingly oppressive to be in because of this. Now, I do have a problem in that I have a natural tendency when anyone puts forward a case to seek the arguments against. I also hate establishments and establishment thinking, so whenever I am in a situation where there seems to be some sort of establishment that insists there is only one true way, I rebel and go the other way. So that’s why I find what I most want to post in these circles is stuff which is critical of the cosy consensus. It may give a misleading impression, because I’m not much interested in writing “me too” stuff which agrees with it, even when there’s a lot I do agree with.

    However, I am finding there’s a lot of arguments I fear to make because I fear the mob here.

    I made some comments on anti-homophobic bullying on this site yesterday. It probably doesn’t require much insight to see those comments were based on my personal experience. Yet I found it enormously difficult to make those comments not because of that, but because as they were not 100% in line with the liberal consensus on this issue, I feared I might get attacked for making them as Jan Moir was attacked for making her comments. I still couldn’t say all I had wanted to say – and I feel very deeply about this – because of my fear of the mob here.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Feb '10 - 2:36pm

    Matthew, I’m sorry, but this is nonsense. You fear the mob on Lib Dem Voice? Dear lord, what do you think they (or should that be “we”?) are going to do to you? I know very well that many people can be rude and unpleasant when writing online comments in a way that they wouldn’t be in person, and it is easy to forget that someone on the other end of the broadband can’t see your expression or hear your tone of voice – sometimes I come away from the stronger arguments on this website feeling quite unhappy. But people making you a bit unhappy is not an infringement of your rights; and your argument seems to be heading in the direction of saying that you have a right not to be upset, which should trump other people’s right to speak their minds. You’ve pushed me almost to the point of throwing the “L” word at you.

  • OMG, I agree with Tony Greaves on something.
    Absolutely the right decision was taken , just because lots of people don’t like an article is no reason to censure it.

    Its a pity that some of our councillors use the same approach to try to silence people who says things they don’t like.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Feb '10 - 4:36pm

    Malcolm

    But people making you a bit unhappy is not an infringement of your rights; and your argument seems to be heading in the direction of saying that you have a right not to be upset, which should trump other people’s right to speak their minds.

    QED.

    You have now put the case in favour of the PCC’s ruling.

    As for “fearing the mob”, of course I do not mean anything physical. However, suppose I were to write something here that someone judged to be “homophobic” and launched some big protest against me on those grounds? I might feel my reputation to be so damaged that I would not want to post here again, fearing anything I wrote would be run down by “he’s just a prejudiced bigot, don’t bother with what he writes”. I might fear also that should I wish to seek office in the Liberal Democrats in soem way, I would be damaged by it.

    The point is, this does act as an inhibition to writing something intended to make people think by being a little critical of some orthodoxy. I would fear it would get taken in the wrong way, that what I had intended to say would get drowned.

    My feeling is that this was something like this was intended with the co-ordinated attacks on Jan Moir. It was not meant to be just a disagreement with views that might upset some people, it was meant to establish an orthodoxy that commentators would be sacred to challenge.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Feb '10 - 10:45am

    One of the classic typoes here – sacred scared.

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd Feb '10 - 10:47am

    Matthew

    You have now put the case in favour of the PCC’s ruling.

    You imply that I hadn’t put that case already. Perhaps you missed my original post on this thread:

    As usual, some people are getting confused about the distinction between “This is objectionable, irrational bile” and “This should be banned”. The PCC doesn’t exist to prevent people from spouting objectionable, irrational bile, nor should it.

    I’m not part of some anti-PCC-and-Jan-Moir mob that you’re single-handedly fighting off. I’m trying to apply a consistent line, which includes defending the right of those who find Moir’s comments obnoxious to say so, loudly. That’s as important as Moir’s right to make her obnoxious remarks in the first place.

  • Seems to me that Dave Page & others need to read some J S Mill. Offence & harm really are not the same thing.
    Incidentally, the idea that Tony Greaves – the guru of community politics – has “spent too long in the Westminster village”, is very funny. More like Waterside ward in Colne, I think you’ll find.

  • It is generally recognised that free speech can be restricted in a democratic society- for example: defamation, misrepresentation, intellectual property rights, inciting criminal offences, conspiring to commit criminal offences and the encouragement of or racial hatred.

    Having an election expenses limit is recognised by the courts in some countries a limit on free speech. The points is it is reasonable and justifible.

    I may have been unfair to Lord Greaves but my direct experience of Tony is him coming to English Council a few years ago and asking for a certain document to be thrown out because “it was not what the Leadership wanted” which was somewhat at odds with the inspiring figure I had been led to expect.

One Trackback

  • By Linkblogging For 19/02/10 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! on Fri 19th February 2010 at 4:38 pm.

    […] Page (whose new blog is linked in my sidebar) is very unimpressed with the PPC’s behaviour over Jan Moir, over on LDV. More on this at Unspeak, Enemies Of Reason and […]

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