Another bit of news to emerge last week was the decision by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) not to censure the Daily Mail journalist Jan Moir for the truly odious article she wrote after the death of Stephen Gately. Even by the standards of the Daily Mail, this piece was so horrendous that it led to a Twitter storm and provoked no less than 25,000 complaints from the public in addition to a direct complaint from Stephen’s partner, Andrew Cowles. I even blogged about it here.
The PCC, however, decided not to uphold these complaints. I can’t say that I’m at all surprised at their decision and not surprised either that it has also led to many expressions of outrage via Twitter and elsewhere. In among all the noise there have also been some thoughtful blog posts giving more reasoned discussions of the outcome. If you’re interested, I recommend Unspeak, The Free Speech Blog and Enemies of Reason for a range of different takes on the affair. I’m sure you will all have your own views on whether the PCC was right or wrong to let Jan Moir off the hook. My own opinion – for what it’s worth – is that they were partly right and partly wrong.
If you read the PCC announcement you will see that the complaints were made under three clauses of their code: 1 (which stipulates that articles must distinguish fact from conjecture), 5 (that reporting should be handled sensitively at a time of grief) and 12 (that articles must avoid pejorative references to an individual’s sexual orientation).
The overriding issue is, of course, the freedom of the press. I quote
The price of freedom of expression is that often commentators and columnists say things with which other people may not agree, may find offensive or may consider to be inappropriate.
In other words, the price we have to pay for freedom of speech is that we have to allow people to say things we don’t like. I agree.
However, the PCC is a body formed by the press in order to regulate the press. This is tacit acceptance that freedom of speech has its limits. We all know that there are things we shouldn’t say even though we have the right to say them. In private life our outbursts are controlled by social conventions or by guidelines issued by our employers governing conduct in the workplace. Political Correctness is sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes, but its primary aim is, in my opinion, laudable – to be aware of the possibly pejorative interpretation of certain words and avoid using them in a way that could cause offence. The PCC plays a similar role for the press. Conscious of the harm that can be caused by extremely prejudicial articles, the press has subjected itself to voluntary regulation.
I think that’s a good thing, in principle. The alternative would be official censorship and the further intrusion of the criminal law into matters of individual expression. However, self-regulation must not be mere window-dressing. Any organization can publish codes of conduct and the like, but unless they are applied rigorously and in good faith they are nothing other than exercises in hypocrisy.
It’s clear that the PCC found much of Moir’s article extremely distasteful but did not feel that she had offended sufficiently in respect of any of the clauses to warrant censure. I think they were right on Clause 1 – the piece was clearly identifiable as comment rather than fact – and I’m not sure about Clause 5. I’m convinced, however, that they got it wrong with respect to Clause 12. You can make your own mind up, of course, but if that is their decision in this case I’d like to know what sort of article they would censure.
In particular, the adjudication on Clause 12 states
While many complainants considered that there was an underlying tone of negativity towards Mr Gately and the complainant on account of the fact that they were gay, it was not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article. The columnist had not used pejorative synonyms for the word “homosexual” at any point.
The Commission made clear that this part of the Code was not designed to prevent discussion of certain lifestyles or broad issues relating to race, religion or sexuality. There was a distinction between critical innuendo – which, though perhaps distasteful, was permissible in a free society – and discriminatory description of individuals, and the Code was designed to constrain the latter rather than the former.
Jan Moir’s article mocked Stephen Gately’s relationship with his partner as “unnatural”, implied that all gay relationships are tainted with sleaze, and suggested that gay people are all promiscuous drug-users. However, a panel of (presumably heterosexual) press pundits decided that it was not sufficiently homophobic to warrant censure, since they didn’t actually call Stephen Gately a faggot. I wonder what might have happened if a young black pop singer had died suddenly and Jan Moir had written an article suggesting that all black people were promiscuous drug-users living unnatural and debauched lives?
This is why I’m not surprised at the PCC conclusion. Guidelines and codes of conduct are just words. They only actually mean anything if they are enforced, and when it’s a matter of sexual orientation they rarely are. The PCC has given carte blanche to Jan Moir’s bigotry but since 99% of what’s in the Daily Mail is horrendous anyway, nothing much has changed.
What is more interesting, I think, is that this episode contains fascinating glimpses of the future. This morning I bought my regular Sunday newspaper, The Observer. Like all print media, newspapers are struggling to survive in a period of rapid technological change. The Observer has this week been re-launched, in a condensed form, because it is losing money hand-over-fist. Digital media, social networking and blogs are taking over from traditional formats as ways of communicating news and opinion about current events. Newspapers are dying, and the PCC will die with them. I doubt if it will be mourned.
The point is that although the press regularly make noises about freedom of speech, the freedoms most newspapers really care about are the freedom to make money and the freedom to promote the political views of the barons that control them. There are exceptions of course. I’m sure some journalists are motivated by democratics ideals and a desire for public good, atlhough I doubt if many of them work for the Daily Mail. But the traditional press is in any case losing its grip. News websites may continue to exist, but the ability of large media conglomerates to control what we can read about is vanishing. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
The New Media sector has only minimal regulation and is consequently more diverse than the popular press. It’s anarchistic, I suppose, but is accessible and democratic as a result. I don’t see any way that the blogosphere will ever be policed, voluntarily or otherwise. Nor do I think that’s desirable. There are dark corners where horrible creatures lurk. Nasty stuff will emerge. However, if somebody publishes something obnoxious it will be greeted with the same sort of reaction as Jan Moir’s article. There’ll be no PCC to hide behind. As the PCC itself made clear
Indeed, the reaction to the article, and the publicity which had ensued as a result of its publication, was a testament to freedom of expression, and was indicative of a broader process at work demonstrating the widespread opportunity that exists to respond to an article and make voices of complaint heard.
Twitter mobs aren’t always pretty, and they don’t always get it right, but they’re the future. Get used to them.