PCC under attack in Bristol over Mail story

"What's the LGBT story?" Maddie Shapland and Sian Norris from Bristol Feminist Network presenting findings from the Representation of Women in the Media project. (Photo © Simon Chapman)

WHAT’S THE LGBT STORY?

THE Press Complaints Commission has promised to listen to the concerns of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people after facing a barrage of criticism for failing to take action on stories which appear discriminatory.

A spokesman for the embattled PCC was asked if he was ashamed to be representing the organisation at an event in Bristol organised by media charity Mediawise called to discuss the way LGBT issues are handled in the media.

Anger was centred on the PCC’s decision not to act against the Daily Mail despite 25,000 complaints when in October 2009 columnist Jan Moir described gay singer Stephen Gately’s death as “unnatural” and referred to his lifestyle as “dangerous” and “sleazy”.

But Will Gore, director of public affairs for the PCC, urged the Bristol audience to continue to raise their concerns even though the PCC had decided Moir’s article had failed to breach its editors’ code of practice.

The Moir story, he pointed out, had most unusually been singled out for criticism by PCC chair Peta Buscombe, and was clearly a “really unpleasant” article.

The Bristol event, called What’s The LGBT Story? heard calls for the PCC to start taking advice from affected communities when it considers complaints about discrimination.

“It’s difficult for people who are not from the affected group to even recognise that discrimination has taken place,” one audience member told Gore.

Gore made no promises about consulting LGBT groups, but did hold out the prospect that they could help to influence the all-important editors’ code, which is reviewed every year, and which can be amended after submissions from the public.

An example of positive action, he said, was a recent PCC ruling censuring a Belfast paper for use of the word “tranny” – meaning transexual. The PCC said that many people found it to be offensive and it was “a needless abbreviation”.

The meeting was also addressed by Maddie Shapland and Sian Norris of Bristol Feminist Network, the NUJ’s national equality officer Lena Calvert and Darryl Bullock, editor of the lesbian and gay section at Bristol magazine Venue.

Shapland and Norris revealed research carried out in Bristol showing the skewed way in which women are portrayed in the media. Lesbians are often seen as objects of male sexual desire rather than as individuals in their own right, and problem pages often focus exclusively on heterosexual issues.

Bullock followed with his own finding that in a search of all the stories mentioning the words “gay” and “lesbian” appearing in the Bristol Evening Post over 18 months, only two articles were remotely positive.

“We see time and time again the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender used in a pejorative way,” he said.

But he noted that the Evening Post now appears to have toned down “what appeared to many to be a homophobic stance”. The paper took heavy criticism in August 2009 when it reported a Conservative attack on a charity, EACH, which tackles homophobic bullying.

Calvert outlined what the NUJ does to promote even-handed reporting, with an ethics council to debate equality issues and a code of conduct for all members which says journalists should not write anything likely to lead to hatred or discrimination, including on the grounds of marital status or sexual orientation.

But the NUJ can only take action about articles written by union members, and only considers ethical complaints that are made by members, she said.

Asked if Jan Moir is an NUJ member and if so what action the union could take against her, Calvert said she couldn’t answer as data protection rules prevented her from revealing if individuals belong to the NUJ.

The union has limited resources to investigate complaints and is largely focused on educating journalists, she said. But if members of the public can persuade an NUJ member that an article should be investigated, action may be possible, she added.

Paul Breeden, acting chair of Bristol NUJ, said the union’s local officials would attempt to help if the public raised concerns about articles which appeared to be homophobic.

Most attention, however, focused on the PCC. Mike Jempson, director of Bristol-based Mediawise, who chaired the event, attacked the watchdog for failing to protect individuals.

In some cases, he said, the PCC used the fact that an individual had at one point agreed to publicity as justification for continued press interest in their private life.

He cited the case of a family with a surrogate child who sold their story to one newspaper – and were then told by the PCC 10 years later that they could not be helped to prevent more publicity because they had put their family life in the public domain.

Gore disagreed with this interpretation, saying the PCC would not allow the press a free-for-all just because an individual had once agreed to publicity.

But all on the panel agreed that readers, viewers and listeners should complain if they see media coverage which discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. Letters to the editor are better than comments on websites, the panellists said.

“Complain, complain, complain: make a scene and they do listen,” said Bullock, pointing out that Marks & Spencer was among firms to withdraw advertising from the Daily Mail website in the furore following the Moir article.

“Advertisers really do take notice”, agreed Calvert, noting the impact of Twitter and Facebook in promoting the anti-Moir backlash.

“Make a fuss,” advised Shapland, pointing to the attention that Bristol Feminist Network received for its detailed research counting the types of images of women in the media.

“If you have the facts and figures you can do this,” she said.

The BBC has a head of diversity, Amanda Rice, who will receive complaints, she said, while Ofcom was active when Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was attacked for using the word “gay” as a derogatory term.

All broadcasters have a log of complaints, added Jempson, and they get passed direct to the programme makers. “At the BBC this can start the ball rolling on [changing] editorial policy,” he said.

Mediawise, which was set up to help people who feel under attack from the media, will work with groups which want to take action, he said.

Links:

http://www.bristol-lgb-forum.org.uk

http://www.mediawise.org.uk

http://www.bristolfeministnetwork.com

http://www.pcc.org.uk

http://www.nuj.org.uk

http://www.venue.co.uk

http://www.thisisbristol.co.uk

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