Thursday, 16 August 2007

Publish and Be…

I’ve heard it said, so many times, that you can’t fight the bigots, you just have to ignore them and eventually they’ll go away. I don’t agree, I can’t agree because I’ve seen how effective it can be to stand-up to them.

Back in July 1997 I was a Staff Nurse, working on a hospital ward, and I was on a week’s Night Duty. The ward was very quiet at night, once the patients had gone to sleep, and the patients always gave us their unwanted newspapers to read – ninety percent of the time they were tabloids. I’d rather sell my soul then actually pay money for those awful rags that make-up the British tabloids, the thought that my money going to aiding them is too much for my morals; but if someone gives me one free that eases my conscience. As awful as they are those tabloids make for fascinating reading, their stance that there’s always someone to “blame”, a villain in every story, and the blunt and inflammatory language they use. Also, I was really bored on that Night Duty.

One night, during that airless week, I opened an unwanted copy of The Sun newspaper (One of the worst all the tabloids) and read an opinion article called “It is cruel to ‘gay’ kids try sex at 16” by Anne Atkins – a “professional” vicar’s wife and right-wing Christian.

The article stated “this is not opinion: it is fact” that gay men have a life expectancy of 43 years and are 17 times more likely to be paedophiles then heterosexuals. (This is as much a “fact” as saying unicorns live in the depths of English forests and dragons roam the Walsh hills) The sheer homophobia and lies of that short opinion piece was sickening. Every short paragraph of it contained the most appalling lies, all of them designed to whip up homophobia. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach reading it.

At the time, July 1997, there was a political push to equalise the age of consent for both gay men and heterosexuals – only a few years before the gay age of consent had been lowered from 21 to 18. Months before the parliamentary debate the right-wing were crying homophobia about it; the Evangical Christians quickly added their voices.

Anne Atkins was a vicar’s wife, former actress and very poor novelist. She’d risen to notoriety only the previous year by attacking the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), turning a two minute radio God-slot (for which she was a contributor) into homophobic propaganda – she actually claimed that accepting Lesbian & Gay Christians was causing the fall-off in the numbers of people coming forward to train as Anglican ministers, which was a lie. With this notoriety Atkins found the role of a life-time, she was the fluffy and blonde face of “Christian Morality”, her general persona was of “I’m only saying this because I care soooo much,” and it was completely untrue. Underneath she was just as bigoted, hypocritical, blinkered and truth-light as the rest of the Christian Right-Wing – trying to tell people how to live their lives without any regard to the realities of life. With Atkins there was one difference, she actually seemed to crave the fame her notoriety brought.

As I read and re-read that article I became more and more angry. In her short “career” up to that point Atkins had repeatedly used homophobia to keep her in the public eye, but this time she’d suppressed herself. This article oozed homophobia from every brief paragraph, but it was the lies there that were most shocking. Lies that painted gay men as diseased, corrupt and less then human. (Later I would find out that Atkins had based her article on a piece by Paul Cameron [I would never call the stuff Cameron produces as research, that would give it far more credit then it deserves] were he made the claims about gay men’s life expectancy and being paedophiles. Cameron’s work was no more then statistics with extreme prejudice, Cameron did not fulfil any of the requirements to measure life expectancy; all he did was a crude survey and then poured his prejudice on it. He made no attempt to reduce any of the biases in his survey. Atkins appeared to seize on this work without any attempt to analysis it) How much hate and fear must her little article have generated?

It was then I decided to do something about it.

In Britain we have the Press Complaints Commission, the body that oversees any complaints about newspapers. It is funded by the newspapers and rarely upholds the complaints it receives, it has always seemed to side with the newspapers; but complaining directly to The Sun newspaper would have been useless. So I got their Code of Practice and set about constructing my complaint. I wasn’t the only person who complained about Atkins’ article, they had a record number of complaints about it, though it still took them six months to reach their decision (!!).

I received my reply from the Press Complaints Commission on a Saturday morning, in late January 1998. Martin and I had recently started our relationship and that Saturday morning we were preparing to go out together but when I read the letter I actually jumped up and punched the air. They had found in our favour, they had found that Atkins’ article was not “factual” and she should never have claimed what she did. It was a victory, a wonderful victory for the truth. Rarely did the Press Complaints Commission uphold complaints but here it did, Atkins’ article had so blatantly breeched their Cod of Practice. The full decision can be read at:

I can’t say it was a glorious victory. Anne Atkins didn’t apology for her appalling article, she actually tried to paint herself as a victim in all of it, she claimed the article was re-written her a sub-editor and they had changed it (Anyone who’s had anything published knows that sub-editors do edit, often re-placing our over-writing, but never do they change the tone or emphasis). She never took responsibility for what she wrote. Atkins did claim, in the middle of all the negative publicity, that she would give up journalism to concentrate on novel writing – though this was as truthful as everything else she’d written because weeks later she was in another tabloid, using her usual homophobic tone to tell off George Michael. I certainly didn’t get any “right of reply”, though I’d have loved to have pointed out how Atkins had played fast and loose with the truth. But one important thing did come out of all of this; it stopped the rise of Anne Atkins as a moralist.

Atkins had seemed to be carving out a career as Moral Campaigner, the person who speaks out against society’s “ills”. Being found guilty by the Press Complaints Commission seemed to stop that and instead she was consigned to the bin of “Rent-a-Bigot” – dragged out to disapprove of something. I can’t claim to be responsible for this but I am sure that my fighting back helped towards it.

I would do it all again, too, even though it was a long and frustrating experience. Since I’ve started to write seriously, especially since I have been writing opinion pieces, I have found how careful and accurate you have to be; I’d never dream of being as ignorant, biased and plain slapdash as Atkins was. An opinion piece, by its nature, is an expression of the writer’s opinions but what it is based on has to be truthful, it has to be based on the truth.


No comments: