Evidence to the National Heritage Committee on the Press
A letter from Peter Tatchell.
TO: Mrs. J. Sharpe
National Heritage Committee
House of Commons
London SW1A OAA
25 January 1993
I am writing to you in your capacity as Clerk to the National Heritage Committee, concerning the current inquiry into the press.
Ten years ago, on 24 February 1983, I was the Labour candidate in the Bermondsey by-election. In the months leading up to the poll, I experienced first-hand numerous examples of newspaper fabrication, smears, exaggeration, ridicule, deception, harassment, omission and intrusion.
These led many media commentators and Members of Parliament at the time to describe my experience as the probably the most sustained and intense press vilification and misrepresentation of any individual since the war.
The details of press excesses are extensively documented in my book, The Battle For Bermondsey, which was published by GMP/Heretic Books in 1983 and is, I believe, available in the House of Commons library.
I was initially selected as the Labour candidate for Bermondsey in early November 1981. The by-election was 16 months later.
My criticisms of newspaper coverage and behaviour cover the whole of that period and the main criticisms can be summarised as follows:
* The Sun claimed I deserted my prospective constituents to attend the Gay Olympics in San Francisco. I never attended that event and The Sun had no evidence that I did so.
* The Sun alleged that I was from a well-off family and that I had lied about my working class background. It's story was riddled with factual inaccuracies and exaggerations which misrepresented my childhood, parents and the area where I grew up.
* The Daily Express reported me as having attended the TUC Conference in Brighton in a way which implied that I was living the high-life and neglecting my would-be constituents. I did not attend the TUC conference - either then or since.
* The News of the Worldretouched photographs of me, which made it appear that I was wearing lipstick and eye-liner and gave an impression of gross effeminacy. I have never worn make-up of any kind.
* The Daily Starpublished an editorial in which I was named as a member of the Militant Tendency. It also suggested that I had been selected as a Labour candidate by underhand methods. In fact, it was well known at the time that not only was I not a Militant member but that I opposed their policies and they had opposed my selection as the Labour candidate. Furthermore, my selection was entirely democratic and fully in accord with Labour's constitution.
* The Daily Mail quoted a constituent accusing me of being a squatter, without questioning or rebutting the claim, and without printing my denial. I have never been a squatter, my tenancy was fully authorised, and I had always promptly, regularly and fully paid my rent.
* The Daily Mail captioned a photograph of me canvassing a constituent with the claim that he had expressed disagreement with me and my policies. In fact, he had crossed the road to shake my hand and offer me his congratulations and support - something which the reporter who wrote the story had personally witnessed first hand.
* The Evening Standard rehashed an old and disproven-story about my alleged anti-parliamentarianism shortly before the by-election, and on the eve of a crucial Labour NEC vote over my candidature. It gave the impression that my comments had just been made and that I was being deliberately provocative and blatantly challenging the authority of the NEC. This story came close to jeopardising my eventual endorsement by the Labour leadership.
DECEPTION, INTRUSION & HARASSMENT
* Journalists knocked on my door as early as 7am and as late as midnight - often for days on end - thereby preventing me from getting a decent night's sleep.
* They partially blocked the rubbish chute outside my flat so they could collect and remove the contents for examination.
* Photographers trained telephoto lenses on my flat- sometimes 24 hours a day- and attempted to take pictures through the windows.
* They tried to trick the headmaster of a local school where I was governor into making quite innocent statements about my involvement with the school, so they could publish them in way which would have implied that I was a paedophile (which I am not and never have been).
* Reporters followed me everywhere: on foot, in cars, and on the buses and tube. Sometimes, even after allowing myself to be interviewed, they persisted in trailing me everywhere against my wishes.
* They passed themselves off as relatives from Australia, and as Southwark Council officers, in order to glean information about my private life from my neighbours.
* Journalists implied to my parents in Australia that I had been involved in a serious accident as a way of gaining entry to their home and winning their trust and confidence.
* They quizzed children as young as eight living on my estate about my sexuality and relationships.
* Pressmen came into my workplace, the North Lambeth Day Centre for the single homeless, without permission and declined to leave when asked. They harassed other staff and Day Centre users, pestering them for information about me. Their action seriously disrupted the operation of the Day Centre, impeding the services we were attempting to provide those in urgent housing need.
* Some journalists indicated that they would only stop door-stepping me, knocking on my door, and peeping through my windows, keyhole and letterbox, if I agreed to give them an interview.
* Others boasted that they were out to get me, and would dig up every detail about my life from the moment I was born.
* Several accused me of IRA connections, frequenting male brothels, child molestation, work for the KGB, and of being disowned by my mother. None of these were true. My questioning of the journalists concerned revealed that they had no evidence for these bizarre claims at all. I therefore interpreted their allegations as being a random fishing expedition for information, and as agent provocateur tactics pursued with the aim of accidentally stumbling upon some scandal or provoking me into an inadvertent disclosure.
* Reporters entered my place of employment, belligerently demanding to interview me and abusing staff who told them they'd have to wait until I finished work. One also threatened that if I didn't co-operate with him, he'd write a scandal piece about the Day Centre and get its funding cut off.
SUPPRESSION & OMISSION
* In January 1983, an opinion poll by NOP for the Mail on Sunday showed that I had 47 per cent support among Bermondsey electors - more than twice as much support as my nearest rival and enough for me to win the by-election. However, the Mail on Sunday downplayed these findings and headlined with the claim that I was deeply unpopular and that some Labour voters (a minority) would have preferred a different candidate.
* Throughout the by-election, there was virtually no mention at all in the tabloids of the policies I was campaigning on. Instead, readers were presented with a highly selective, and usually distorted and stereotyped, image of my "extremist" politics. Most news or information about me that didn't conform to this image simply went unreported.
* Having falsely stated outright, or by implication, that I was a member of the Militant Tendency, some papers declined to print my denial - let alone a formal correction.
RIDICULE & VILIFICATION
* The press coverage had undercurrents of a McCarthyite-style witch-hunt. Whenever my name was printed, it was invariably prefixed in the tabloids by denigratory epithets which suggested I was a homosexual (and therefore unfit to hold public office), a traitor (because I questioned the government's decision to go to war over the Falklands Islands), a foreigner/immigrant (I was born in Australia, although I had spent all my adult life in the UK), a communist (despite my proclaimed commitment to democratic socialism and my record of campaigning for human rights in the Soviet Union), a draft dodger (owing to my conscientious objection to Australian involvement in the Vietnam War), and an extremist (for advocating the humane policy of non-discrimination against lesbians and gay men).
* There was the constant abusive, sneering and ridiculing tone of the tabloids, week after week and month after month: "Red Pete", "immigrant upstart", "gay rights extremist", "a rather exotic Australian canary", "wearing a symphony in brown", "pip-squeak Pete" and so on. Objectivity was largely abandoned. News became fused with hostile and denigratory comment. Editorial opinion replaced factual reporting.
Sixteen months of press misrepresentation and vilification presented a totally distorted public image of me and my policies (even I began to find myself an unattractive candidate). The repeated negative slurs gradually and cumulatively led to my demonisation and belittling in the eyes of many people. They stirred up an atmosphere of hatred and hysteria which one constituent, who had been a refugee from the Nazis, described as being reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. The electors of Bermondsey were thus deprived of the opportunity to make an informed and rational judgement about the candidates. The Peter Tatchell they perceived through the pages of the press bore little relation to the real person. This diminished the democratic process, and arguably contributed in part to my by-election defeat.
It also led to what some people later described as the most violent election campaign in Britain this century.
I was deluged with thousands of abusive phone calls and hate letters - many of them grossly obscene. I received more than 30 death threats, and was subjected to over a hundred physical attacks on my home and person. Indeed, my flat had to be boarded up against threatened gun and arson attacks. I lived in fear of my life, and was always looking over my shoulder. After the by-election, police officers told me I was lucky not to have been seriously injured or even killed. The hate campaign continued for three years. It didn't die away till about 1986.
The effect of this hatred and violence on me was to dramatically increase my level of stress and anxiety, resulting in sleeplessness, headaches, skin rashes, indigestion, nervous tics, and backaches. I was fortunate not to have a nervous breakdown.
It also caused my family and neighbours great mental distress to know the terrible pressure I was under on account of the press coverage and behaviour, and to themselves experience firsthand reporters' resort to harassment, intimidation, deception and misrepresentation.
Furthermore, the demonised and disparaging public image of me created by the press subsequently damaged my prospects of employment when I sought to return to journalism and research. One newspaper editor is said to have declined to accept an investigative feature on AIDS by me on the grounds that it would be like "publishing an article by Martin Webster of the National Front". He only relented under pressure from other staff who insisted that the feature was of sufficient merit to over-ride such objections. On another occasion, when I sought a television research appointment, it was suggested that although I was well qualified for the post, the press had so damaged my reputation that it could impede my ability to get on with Conservative MPs and other establishment figures who I would have to liaise with in the course of the job. I did not get the appointment.
From my experiences at the hands of newspapers - and subsequent observations over the last ten years - I am convinced that people cannot be left at the mercy of press self-regulation. It has not worked.
Some limited legal recourse in response to serious press excesses is long overdue. The number one priority is'right of reply' legislation to encourage truthful reporting, and to rectify inaccuracy, by requiring newspapers to correct factual errors promptly and with equal prominence.
Another reform I would urge is the extension of legal aid to libel cases to ensure that everyone - not only the rich - is able to defend their reputations against untruths and unjustified slurs.
On the question of legislation against invasion of privacy, I feel much more ambiguous. Despite the distressing intrusions and harassment I suffered, this is a very difficult area to legislate. I am concerned that privacy protection legislation might be used to block press exposures of injustices and corruption. Certainly, the current debate seems primarily concerned with shielding establishment figures from embarrassment. I would therefore only endorse such legislation providing it incorporated a very strong'public interest' defence.
Please feel free to publish and quote this evidence in any way you deem appropriate.
I would be happy to appear before the National Heritage Committee in person to give oral evidence if you felt it would be helpful.
Submitted 25 January 1993
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