What about a Right of Reply?
Concern about press intrusion is overshadowing the need for a 'right of reply' to redress inaccurate and inflammatory reporting.
Following the death of Princess Diana, demands for controls on the paparazzi resulted in the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) drawing up tough new rules to stop media intrusion. These rules may help curtail invasive journalistic methods, but they do nothing to ensure impartial and honest reporting.
Compared to the fuss over the right to privacy, the equally serious problem of prejudiced and untruthful news stories is getting scant attention from the PCC.
No issue exemplifies journalistic inaccuracy and bias more than the coverage of homosexuality. The pervasiveness of media homophobia is amply documented by the Gay Times media correspondent, Terry Sanderson, in his book, Mediawatch (Cassell, £13.99). He reveals the alarming mistreatment of gay issues by nearly all sections of the media. While coverage has improved in recent years, gay people are still variously stereotyped, ignored, scapegoated, misrepresented and demonised. Why isn't the PCC up in arms about this obnoxious homophobic journalism, which has probably contributed to more deaths (by suicide and queer-bashing) than anything done by the reviled paparazzi?
The Sunday Telegraph recently alleged that the "life expectancy of a practising male homosexual is about 30 years less than that of heterosexual men", and that "80 per cent of the victims of paedophilia are boys molested by adult males". There is no reputable research endorsing either claim, yet both allegations were printed as fact. Such falsehoods damage the self-esteem and psychological well-being of vulnerable gay teenagers who are trying to come to terms with their sexuality.
In the mid-1980s, tabloid sensationalism and fabrication about AIDS - dubbed the "Gay Plague" - fuelled homophobia. This led to a sharp downturn in public support for gay civil rights and a dramatic increase in queer-bashing assaults and police arrests of gay men.
Prejudiced, inaccurate reporting is not, alas, a thing of the past. When fashion designer Gianni Versace was murdered last year, nearly all the press labelled his murderer, Andrew Cunanan, a "gay serial killer". Straight mass slayers like Peter Sutcliffe are, in contrast, never described as "heterosexual serial killers". Most papers also speculated that Cunanan was HIV-positive and on a revenge killing spree. There was not a shred of evidence for this speculation, and the autopsy on Cunanan duly revealed that he never had HIV.
More recently, The Daily Mail denounced a potentially lifesaving safer sex education campaign targeted at gay men as a "perversion". Gay social venues are still referred to as "haunts" by The Daily Express. In January, the home of an elderly gay murder victim was pejoratively described in The Daily Telegraph as his "lair".
Red-top tabloids are the worst offenders. Last December, The Mirrorbranded the stalker of movie mogul, Steven Spielberg, a "gay pervert", gratuitously highlighting his homosexuality. Had the stalker been black, would The Mirror have dared label him a "black pervert"?
These examples of homophobic journalism demonstrate the failure of self-regulation and the need for a legally enforceable "right of reply" to correct inaccuracy and bias.
Under right of reply legislation, a newspaper that prints something factually untrue would be required to publish a correction within seven days, giving the correction similar space and prominence to the original offending article (to stop it being buried in tiny print at the back of the paper).
Right of reply laws are supported by the National Union of Journalists, Trades Union Congress, Labour Party Conference, and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. They already exist in France, Germany, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Greece, Austria and Switzerland, where they have helped improve journalistic standards.
Instead of one-sidedly cracking down on intrusive reporting, it is time the PCC also backed a swift, legally enforceable right of reply for the victims of press prejudice and falsehood.
Published as "Why Press Victims Should Have a Right to Reply", Press Gazette, 20 March 1998
* Peter Tatchell is a member of the gay rights group OutRage!
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