One newspaper article about the sudden death of the Boyzone star Stephen Gately has provoked more complaints to the press watchdog than the entire newspaper industry would normally generate in four or five years.
Another 1,000 complaints poured into the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) yesterday about comments made by the Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir. Normally, that level of reaction to one story would be a record but yesterday it was a sign that things were slowing down, after a weekend when 21,000 complaints caused the PCC website to crash.
The comedian Stephen Fry and illusionist Derren Brown, who have a million Twitter followers between them, led the online charge. Charlie Brooker, presenter of BBC4's Screenwipe, wrote a newspaper article directing readers to the PCC website.
It is unlikely that many of the 22,000 complainants are regular subscribers to the Daily Mail but they all have access to its website Mail Online, which experienced a urge of traffic after the first complaints about the Jan Moir column were posted on Twitter and Facebook.
The web measurement firm Experian Hitwise said yesterday that it had detected a 21 per cent increase in visitors to the website at the end of last week. More than 1,200 comments have been posted under Jan Moir's column, which questioned whether Gately's death, after a night out in Mallorca, was genuinely from natural causes. The Spanish police and coroner said that Gately died from an undiagnosed heart condition but Moir speculated that a more probable cause was his gay lifestyle.
She wrote: "Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again. Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one." She added that his death was a "blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships".
The PCC has taken up the case although it has not had a complaint from Gately's family or anyone directly linked to the dead singer.
The PCC's normal policy is to act only on complaints from those directly affected by an article but it has waived the rule because of the scale of the public reaction. "It's an unprecedented number of complaints about an article. there is no two ways about that," a spokesman said.
The PCC is funded by the newspaper and magazine industry and has strong links with the industry, although it acts independently. One of its leading figures, who chairs its Code of Practice Committee, is Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail . In a normal week, the commission expects the number of complaints it receives about the entire content of national and local newspapers to be in double figures. It received 4,698 in 2008.
The previous record holder for the largest number of complaints generated by a single newspaper article was the Times columnist Matthew Parris, who jokily suggested two years ago that piano wire should be placed across country lanes to decapitate cyclists. That provoked about 500 complaints to the PCC.
The Metropolitan Police confirmed yesterday that they too have received complaints about the article, alleging that it incited hatred against gays. Andrew Gilliver, from the Lesbian & Gay Foundation, one of the organisations seeking to have the Daily Mail prosecuted, said: "This offensive article has been highlighted by thousands of people as inflammatory and inciting hatred to the gay community."
Jan Moir: Her controversial opinions
*On Jade Goody, written two months after she died from cancer
"A Bermondsey dental nurse and semi-illiterate who received a beatification in death that was never hers in life"
*On Jodie Marsh "I haven't got a clue what Jodie actually does, except apply brown lip liner in a manner that suggests she's mistaken a rusty drainpipe for a didgeridoo"
*On Jacqui Smith "Smith's mad ramblings and ideals [were] forged in the hairy-armpit heat of Seventies feminism"
*On Katie Price "In 10 years or more of interviewing celebrities, I have never met anyone more unpleasant or less maternal than horrible Katie Price"
*Describing Sophia Loren's dress sense "A diaphanous chiffon-layered skirt completed the outfit, which was a nice look – for a transvestite croupier"