Media Mendacity Over Outing - The Truth Behind the Headlines
Press coverage of the outing furore in 1994 and 1995 was one of the worst examples of media misrepresentation, double-standards, abuse and censorship.
The issue of outing - the naming of closeted homosexuals against their wishes - has a curious effect on even the most professional, objective journalists. While the exposure of gay celebrities by newspaper reporters passes without rebuke, when gay activists dare to use this tactic it is immediately denounced by these same journalists as cruel and immoral. Even the liberal media, which thinks nothing of naming pro-family Tory MPs caught cheating on their wives, will suddenly rush to defend the right to hypocrisy when it involves gay rights groups using outing to highlight gay hypocrites.
A classic example of this media two-facedness occurred in 1996 when the Sunday Mirror outed Eastenders heart-throb, Michael French. There was no chorus of disapproval from other journalists. Not a single newspaper denounced outing and defended French's right to privacy.
This silence contrasts sharply with the media's universally hysterical condemnation of outing in November 1994, when OutRage! named 10 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 prejudiced and sensationalist, exposing his sexual orientation in a way that suggested being gay was sordid and shameful.
OutRage!'s naming of the 10 Bishops had entirely different motives. It was not an attack on anyone's homosexuality. Our aim was to expose church hypocrisy and defend the homosexual community against Bishops who endorse anti-gay discrimination. Because of the Bishops' homophobia and double-standards impact on the lives of other people, the contradiction between their official pronouncements and their personal behaviour was, therefore, a matter of legitimate public interest.
As well as the 10 Bishops named, OutRage! was aware of the sexuality of four others. One of these was the then Bishop of London, Dr David Hope (now Archbishop of York). We decided not to name him, believing that given his seniority in the Church hierarchy (number three after the Archbishops of Canterbury and York), it would be more effective to encourage him to come out of his own free will. That would send a more positive signal.
Accordingly, in January 1995, I delivered a "private and confidential" letter to Dr Hope, urging him to be open about his sexuality. We had an amicable meeting and exchange of letters. There were no threats or ultimatums from me. My idea was, quite genuinely, to persuade the Bishop that coming out was the ethically right thing to do.
Suddenly, three months later, in March 1995, Dr Hope 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. We didn't. This very obvious point was never mentioned by the journalistic pack. Why not?
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, indeed, the way the story was reported, even though journalists were shown the friendly, on-going correspondence between myself and the Bishop, which clearly suggested otherwise. Dr Hope had even invited me to afternoon tea at his official residence. Is this the action of someone who feels under threat?
A month later, when probed by Lesley White of the Sunday Times, the Bishop 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.
The final straw that prompted Dr Hope's self-outing was, it appears, an article in The Independent On Sunday on 12 March, the day before he publicly declared his "grey" sexuality. Headlined, "Why gays are called to the church", this article by Andrew Brown referred to the large number of gay clergy in the London diocese. The next sentence cited Dr Hope and his past role in running St. Stephen's House, Oxford, which the article described as "the campest of all theological colleges, where he was known as Ena the Cruel". The innuendo was obvious. It seems the bishop decided to jump before he was pushed (not by OutRage! but by the press). The way journalists self-righteously denounced the "outing" of Dr Hope, which they helped instigate, was bare-faced hypocrisy.
Ignoring the facts, the media connived with Dr Hope to depict me as "an enemy of the people" (Express), and the bishop 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 practice the honesty he preaches by saying whether he was gay, straight or bisexual? And how come no journalist pressed 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? These 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). These claims are total fiction. What OutRage! actually said was the exact opposite. Our statement at the time was categorical: "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 "storm troopers".
Predictably, there was no similar outcry when, only weeks 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. Almost every journalist in Britain sided with the oppressive Bishop, Dr Hope, against the homosexual victims of his discriminatory attitudes.
Much of the media abuse was highly personalised. The Sunday Timesbranded 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 tacit'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 evidently had been influenced by the weeks of lurid, inflammatory coverage in the tabloids and broadsheets.
Getting myself accurately quoted was almost impossible. Most journalists interviewed me with a predetermined news slant: outing was evil and-so was I. Some reporters 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 editor of the Times, Peter Stothard, refused to publish a letter from me refuting these falsehoods. Letters correcting misrepresentations were also rejected by the Observerand Independent.
The BBC responded to the anti-outing 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 controversy without allowing OutRage! any opportunity to defend itself against the distortions peddled by our critics. Similar bias and exclusion was shown by the Today Programme. Despite being condemned by Liberty, Article 19 (the anti censorship lobby), and the National Union of Journalists, this BBC ban received no newspaper, radio or television coverage. Even the act of censorship was itself censored.
One of the greatest travesties was the way the media gave the impression that OutRage! supports indiscriminate outing. We don't. That was made crystal clear right from the start. 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 is why we didn't expose Michael Barrymore or George Michael. They were not harming the gay community.
The Bishops are different. They demand honesty of others, yet they are not honest about their own gayness. Worse, they condemn homosexuality and advocate discriminatory laws. Is not this contradiction between what they say and what they do a subject worthy of journalistic inquiry? Why, then, was the Bishops' hypocrisy never reported?
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, was given 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 anti-gay 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 public was denied the right to know the truth. Deprived of key facts, what should have been an informed debate about serious ethical issues became instead a squalid mire of falsehood, vilification and censorship.
British Journalism Review, Volume 9, Number 2, June 1998
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