PCC rules on Mail homophobia: snippy is fine

At the beginning of October, Iain Dale suddenly noticed that The Mail was not very nice about gay people and put in a complaint to the PCC. Or at least, he noticed that The Mail was not very nice about him, and the focus of their abuse was his sexuality. Anyway, the PCC have issued their judgement on the case – and the original column is ok with them:

In coming to a conclusion on the matter, the Commission had to have regard to the context in which the remarks were made. They appeared in a diary column which is well known for its mischievous – and sometimes self-consciously fusty – remarks that poke fun at the antics of public figures. The piece followed the complainant’s own comments to Pink News – a news website aimed at gay people – about his attempt to secure the nomination in Bracknell. It may have been an uncharitable account of the complainant’s position – and any intended humour may have been lost on some readers – but the item appeared to be relevant to the news, and to fit into the column’s style, rather than constitute an arbitrary attack on him on the basis of his sexuality.

This might strike some as a fine distinction to make, but where it is debatable – as in this case – about whether remarks can be regarded solely as pejorative and gratuitous, the Commission should be slow to restrict the right to express an opinion, however snippy it might be. While people may occasionally be insulted or upset by what is said about them in newspapers, the right to freedom of expression that journalists enjoy also includes the right – within the law – to give offence. The Commission regretted that the item had upset the complainant, but the complaint was not upheld.

PCC, “Adjudicated – Iain Dale v Daily Mail”

Within the broader politics of the Daily Mail, which consistently figures homosexuality as some sort of threat to the nation (see this report, where the US electorate’s rejection of same-sex marriage is called “a victory for traditional marriage”), the Ephraim Hardcastle column was mild stuff. And given that the PCC has previously asserted that Mail columnists are entitled to claim plain untruths about homosexuality as “facts”, it would be hard for them to penalise the Mail now for using a snide tone to report something that actually happened.

In fact, snarking that “gays all stick together, don’t they?” is barely worth more than a quiver of outrage when there are those who object to extending basic human rights to gay people – the right to marry someone they love and fancy, the right to have a family. The Conservative Party’s group in the European Parliament, for example, includes Valdemar Tomasevski MEP, who describes homosexuality as an “evil” from which children must be “protected”. It’s easier for the Tory party to ally with outright homophobes than it is for them to confront their own Eurosceptics. If Dale really is distressed by hate and prejudice, he might want to modify his support for Cameron’s European policy.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

7 thoughts on “PCC rules on Mail homophobia: snippy is fine

  1. On a purely linguistic level, there are some remarkable turns of phrase in the PCC’s response. Mischeivous? Fusty? Snippy? Was this written by a panel of journalistic peers or Bree Van de Kamp?

  2. Ha! Yes, I love that too. I like to think it’s how my judgements would read if I was on the PCC: “Ooh, this Littlejohn thing about gypsies had a bit of side to it…”

  3. As a hack, you might hate me for this, but the PCC is and has always been a limp dick, and the only answer to the excesses of opinion disguised as humour, fact or diary is to legislate.

    The FSA isn’t run by the leading bankers, Ofgem isn’t run by the heads of the power industry and Ofcom isn’t run by Ian Livingston or Jim Mooney, so why does the press watchdog get to be run by Dacre et al?

  4. Well, I agree, hack or not. The PCC does a horrible job of holding the press to account – although as much as I dislike the language of the original column, I do think it’s ambiguous enough that the ruling is plausible.

  5. Woah, you’re just about the only one I’ve ever spoken to that does! I remember Alan Rusbridger in front of the culture select committee talking about the News of the World phone hacking thing, and one phrase that stuck in my mind was about believing that self-regulation was the best way to go, but that couldn’t be possible until the libel laws changed.

    Seemed to me like the biggest non-sequitur I’d ever come across: moving from a large bias in favour of the defendant (conveniently ignoring that the whole principle only works if the the persons libelled can afford to bring a case against a large news organisation in the first place), to having the PCC given teeth and run by judges and/or appointees rather than being an elephant’s playground for old tabloid journalists and industry heads.

    And you know what else? Bloggers need to be subject to a more powerful council too. Spreading half truths and lies around and only having immunity because you don’t have the money to be sued or you can hide behind anonymity is becoming more and more common. There’s going to have to be a change, and it’ll be in the favour of the mainstream and the gatekeeper’s chain of accountability to have that change.

  6. I do have sympathy with Rusbridger’s opinion – the libel laws have to be corrected before self-regulation can really be tested. And maybe a libel system that was less biassed towards the extremely rich in the first place would put some of the checks on bloggers that you’re hoping for. Anyway, if you want to read a real professional hack who’s got it in for the PCC, check out Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News. He’s bloody furious.

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