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Society, Politics & Law

Coming out of the dark ages?

Updated Wednesday 29th August 2012

Dr Donna Smith places the spotlight on gay politicians, the press and newspaper regulation

House of Parliament Creative commons image Icon iwinatcookie under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license There have been many gay politicians in UK politics over the years, some ‘out’ to the press, and some not. Many gay politicians have had their political careers end in disaster because the press has accused them of lying about their sexuality, or they have been caught up in some sort of scandal.

Resignation, humiliation and disappointment often follow a public ‘outing’, and whether or not the politician concerned did lie, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for those caught in the eye of the storm.

We can of course debate whether or not a gay politician should ever have to ‘come out’ to the press (surely we only have equality, or as close to it as we can get, when it’s not a big deal?). But the fact is the press deems someone ‘in’ the closet if they haven’t talked about or at least made their homosexuality known in the public eye.

In my book ‘Sex, Lies and Politics: Gay Politicians in the Press’, I track how the newspaper representation of gay politicians has changed over the years, starting from pre-1980, when sensational articles dominated coverage, often as the result of a ‘scandalous’ court case.

Disapproval 

This was true of representation in the 1950s when homosexuality had yet to be decriminalised and public disapproval was high, but of later decades too after homosexuality had been legalised.

As the 1980s approached press coverage of gay politicians began to improve, echoing the improved legal status of homosexuality and more relaxed public attitudes, but a dominant heterosexuality still coloured the press coverage of gay politicians.

So, while the 1980s saw Chris Smith’s ‘self-outing’ in 1984, demonstrating that ‘openly’ gay politicians could now survive politically, it also saw Peter Tatchell’s very negative campaigning experience in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election.

However, in the mid-1980s there was a regression in public opinion, with people more intolerant of homosexuality than in the early 1980s, linked to the emergence of HIV/AIDS, something which affected press representation of gay politicians.

Sensationalist

While the language used to describe gay politicians became more moderate towards the mid-1990s, especially in the broadsheet newspapers (echoing – and influencing – public opinion), politicians such as Michael Brown were still being ‘outed’ by tabloid newspapers, with the sensationalist tone and stereotypical language used by many newspapers (particularly the tabloids) still considered unsatisfactory by many gay activists.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Smith remained the only ‘self-outed’ gay MP at this time, with the ‘outing’ of numerous ‘sleazy’ and ‘untrustworthy’ Conservative MPs contributing towards a fevered atmosphere surrounding the personal lives of politicians.

The positive reaction of the press to the election of openly gay politicians in 1997 suggested that gay politicians would no longer have to hide their sexuality in order to get ahead in politics (in fact, it could be a plus point), something emphasised by the promotion of gay men and woman to ministerial posts.

However, soon after various gay politicians were ‘outed’ by tabloid newspapers, with stereotypes and discriminatory language utilised, and the public interest criteria of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which regulates the UK press via self-regulation, disregarded.

Outings

While many political commentators felt that tabloid newspapers such as The Sun went too far in their press coverage, other tabloid newspapers, and broadsheet newspapers too, covered the ‘outings’.

While on the surface the press representation of gay MPs has improved, and in the 2000s the representation of ‘scandalous’ gay politicians increasingly echoes the representation of heterosexual politicians caught up in a scandal (with non-scandalous gay MPs not receiving much attention at all), the portrayal of gay MPs and homosexuality as a whole can still have murky undertones.

The fact that in 2006 ‘Lib Dems in crisis over gay sex shame’ (Daily Express) and ‘A second limp-dem confesses: I’m gay too’ (The Sun) were deemed acceptable tabloid headlines says it all. Shockingly, my research has revealed that the last time a gay politician was called a ‘poofter’ in the national press was as recently 2001, and described as ‘mincing’ in 2003.

Criticised

Even in recent years, MPs who have ‘come out’ have found themselves the centre of attention; the homosexuality of Crispin Blunt and Nigel Evans, for example, who both ‘came out’ in 2010, was still deemed a newsworthy issue, however limited that newsworthiness was compared to the press coverage of earlier politicians. 

Looking back at some newspaper articles it may appear shocking to younger readers than many of the articles were ever published. No matter how much attention the contemporary press may pay a politician who has ‘come out’, a headline like ‘Sixty-five MPs are poofters (reveals one who is)’ (The Sun, 1987) will certainly never be published again. Lax press regulation is one of the things that made articles about political private lives possible.

The UK press is currently and historically self-regulated, with the industry body, the PCC, reacting to rather than preventing press intrusion. Self-regulation has been seen as a weak way of keeping the press in check; when The Sun (1990) was criticised by the Press Council (predecessor to the PCC) for homophobia, its reaction was bullish: ‘we know a great deal more about how ordinary people think, act and speak.

Regulation

'Readers of The Sun KNOW and SPEAK and WRITE words like poof and poofter. What is good enough for them is good enough for us. Incidentally, our dictionary defines gay as carefree, merry, brilliant. Does the Press Council approve of homosexuals appropriating such a fine old word?’ Ouch!

The newspaper industry has been under a lot of scrutiny as a result of the phone-hacking scandal. The PCC has already announced it will be disbanding and then reforming to start afresh, and Lord Leveson (in charge of investigating hacking) has indicated that some form of statutory press regulation may be needed.

Will this prevent intrusions into the private lives of gay politicians – or, indeed, anyone? And how far should regulation go? After all, some gay politicians who have found themselves on front pages have lied about their lives, made hypocritical statements or done things that are illegal, and the press has exposed the truth. I look forward to Lord Levson’s difficult decision.

 

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