Thursday, 18 February 2010

A good decision

Jan Moir's notorious article on the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately was ill-timed, erroneous, distasteful, inappropriate and wrong. Its appearance on the eve of Gately's funeral upset many people, most of all his partner and his family, friends and thousands of fans. For that Moir and the Daily Mail had their just deserts in the unprecedented backlash that, thanks to Twitter, rapidly engulfed them.

But what of the Press Complaints Commission? Had it gone along with the tide of outrage and censured the Mail it would surely have earned the plaudits of the Guardian and the Twitterati. That would have been the popular course of action. It would have been a nod to the fashionable belief - now enshrined in legislation - that the causing of offence is in itself a kind of wrong that deserves to be redressed. Instead, by rejecting the complaint the PCC stands accused of being a toothless tiger, while its opponents mutter darkly about Paul Dacre's place on the board.

Around 25,000 people were sufficiently aroused to enter a formal complaint about Moir's article - a large number even in the era of online complaints forms. At least some of those who complained will have been genuinely distressed by the article. A far greater number, I suspect, will have been merely outraged, which is a far more enjoyable emotion. They will have relished being part of a group of the righteously indignant, just like the Christians who complained about Jerry Springer the Opera or the Muslims who protested against the Danish cartoons. Whatever else it was - an expression of mass grief, a symbol of the changing moral codes of early 21st century Britain, an anti-Mail hatefest - the protest against Jan Moir was a great communal experience. It had its high-profile cheerleaders - Stephen Fry, Charlie Brooker - but it was at heart a popular rebellion.

The PCC refers to this in its adjudication:

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. The newspaper itself had published a response to the piece the following Monday, which criticised the columnist's views; the article online had attracted over 1,600 comments, mostly from individuals criticising the columnist; and the column itself had been widely circulated on social networking sites.

This highlighted that there were a number of forums in which challenges could be made to the columnist's opinion. Ultimately, this was evidence of a healthy system, in which an initial viewpoint could be so publicly analysed and countered. Both the newspaper and the columnist were confronted with the impact of what had been published.

Some have been surprised, and others disappointed, by the PCC's decision not to uphold the complaints. Iain Dale accuses the regulatory body of "wimping out" and claims that the article "clearly breached" the PCC Code of Practice. That, I think, is to misunderstand what the Code is designed to achieve. Dale refers specifically to the requirement not to publish homophobic comment. This is contained in Clause 12:

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Moir's article, in its general tone and in some of its particulars, would at first glance seem to fall foul of this provision. She refers to "happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships" and "the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle". Some detected homophobia in her remark that Gately "could barely carry a tune in a Louis Vuitton trunk". But all this was implication and innuendo. She did not write "Stephen Gately was a screaming poof and deserved to die". And the clause refers specifically to individuals. Moir's comments might have been critical of gay lifestyles in general, but as the adjudication is quite correct in stating, "it was not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article."

This is the nub of it. If Clause 12 were interpreted broadly as a prohibition of anything that might be considered homophobic, then it would come into direct conflict with another statement in the code, that "there is a public interest in freedom of expression itself." The PCC in this case had to balance the hurt caused by Moir's article with wider principle of free speech. It came down in favour of the latter:

Individuals have the right to express honestly-held opinions, and newspapers have the right to publish them, provided the terms of the Code are not otherwise breached.

As a general point, the Commission considered that it should be slow to prevent columnists from expressing their views, however controversial they might be. 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. Robust opinion sparks vigorous debate; it can anger and upset. This is not of itself a bad thing. Argument and debate are working parts of an active society and should not be constrained unnecessarily (within the boundaries of the Code and the law).

This is both important and right. The adjudication stresses that there is "a distinction between critical innuendo - which, though perhaps distasteful, was permissible in a free society - and discriminatory description of individuals". Furthermore, to rule against Moir's article because of its unfortunate timing "would be to say that newspapers are not entitled to publish certain opinions (which may be disagreeable to many) on events that are matters of public discussion. This would be a slide towards censorship, which the Commission could not endorse." It also pointed out that "issues of taste and offence do not fall under the remit of the Code."

Put these elements together and you end up with a clear statement by the PCC of what it is and what it is not. It is there to provide redress for individuals who have been misrepresented or intruded upon by newspapers. It is not there to police the boundaries of acceptable thought. There are other, less formal, mechanisms for that, as the Stephen Gately episode demonstrated. Public opinion, even among the Mail's core readership, no longer has much time for the attitudes that underpinned Moir's badly misjudged column. The Daily Mail is a business. If it regularly offends its readers it will lose them - a greater sanction than anything the PCC can offer.