When Black Turns White and is Read All Over
The media lies, harassment and vilification experienced by Peter Tatchell when he stood for parliament in the Bermondsey by-election of 1983.
From late 1981 when I was chosen as the Labour Party candidate for Bermondsey, in south-east London, I was pilloried for I5 months by the tabloids as "Red Pete", and a "militant left-winger" (I am a democratic socialist). I was described as "draft-dodging" and an "immigrant upstart" (I came to Britain from Australia in 1971 when I was faced with the possibility of two years' imprison for refusing call-up which might have taken me to Vietnam, a war I opposed morally and politically). I was called "anti-parliamentary" (I supported demonstrations such as the People's March for Jobs and anti-nuclear marches) and a "gay rights extremist" (I support equality for homosexual men and women). Press coverage involved more than a dozen outright falsehoods.
These included an accusation that I had lied about my background and deserted my prospective constituents to attend the Gay Olympics in San Francisco; the implication in one editorial that I was a member of the Militant Tendency and had been fraudulently selected as a Labour candidate; and the retouching of photographs in another paper which made me appear grotesquely effeminate.
Despite my protests, these untruths were never corrected. I sent copies of the articles to the Press Council outlining the lies. Months later it replied saying I should take the matter up with the papers concerned, although I had made it clear that I had sought redress from them without success. By polling day the libels were firmly fixed in the electorate's mind.
In the absence of legal aid for libel I was unable to take action through the courts.
The after-effect is that my income, political future and physical safety remain in jeopardy six years later. For the journalists who wrote the stories I am now old news and they have largely forgotten me: the bigots whose prejudices they aroused have not. Over the last six years I have experienced organised campaigns of harassment in which people have had such things as carpets, refrigerators, hearing aids, kitchen cupboards and encyclopaedias delivered to my home. Bricks have been thrown through my windows, swastikas painted on my front door, my locks have been jammed with super glue and nails, and rubbish has been dumped on the doorstep.
I have received everything in the post from dog droppings to bullets, razor blades, white feathers, sexually sadistic diagrams, invitations to my own funeral and newspaper photographs of myself embellished with drawings of daggers in my throat and guns blowing out my brains.
My phone has brought me a stream of obscene hate calls and death threats, including middle-of-the-night calls where the caller very calmly and quietly utters a single word associated with death, such as coffin or morgue, and hangs up.
I have been punched and spat at in the street, threatened with knives and broken bottles on the Tube: I have had cans, wood, screwdrivers, fruit, coins, paint and stones hurled at me from passing cars.
These incidents still happen almost every week, some in Bermondsey where I live, but many elsewhere. While riding my bike I have been driven into the gutter by motorists shouting abuse, usually along the lines off "Fuck off back to Russia, you communist poof'. The epithets sometimes vary but the basic message is always the same. I was born in Australia but I never linger to point this out. I used to report the more serious threats and attacks to the police but they were never able to apprehend anyone. Some police officers have been helpful and others slow to respond and uninterested. I rarely bother to report such incidents now. I cope by trying to blank them out as quickly afterwards as I can. If I dwelt upon them I would probably end up with a nervous breakdown.
Since returning to my pre-Bermondsey employment as a freelance journalist I have found that my ability to earn a living has been damaged. On one occasion, when seeking a job as a television researcher, it was suggested that though I had good professional credentials the "negative public perception" of my character made employing me a problem. I didn't get the job.
These negative public perceptions were also exploited when I was called as a witness in a court case involving police brutality. The prosecution implied that the evidence I had given should be discounted on the grounds that my political extremism made me inherently hostile to the police and therefore an unreliable witness.
My exaggerated hard left image has made it impossible for me to be selected again as a Labour parliamentary candidate. Even those within the Labour Party who tell me they think I would make a good MP have hesitated to support my selection because they fear the Press coverage during the Bermondsey by-election has made me unelectable.
The proposed Right of Reply Bill would require newspapers to print a correction where there was factual error. My experience convinces me that such a law is urgently needed - along with provision for the granting of legal aid for libel.
The Independent, 25 January 1989
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