The Press Complaints Commission has expressed its regret and discomfort over an article published by the Daily Mail on the death of pop singer Stephen Gately and widely criticised as homophobic, but concluded that the newspaper had a right to publish "opinions that many readers may find unpalatable and offensive".
Declining to uphold the complaint against the article by columnist Jan Moir, published the day before Gately’s funeral and criticising the gay singer’s lifestyle, the press watchdog said: “The price of freedom of expression is that 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.”
The PCC had been deluged with 25,000 complaints, more than it has ever received about a single article, after the piece was published in October, under the headline “A strange, lonely and troubling death…” An online piece had carried the headline: “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death”, in spite of the fact that a post mortem had already concluded that the singer died from natural causes after a night out in Majorca.
The commission considered a complaint from Gately’s partner, Andrew Cowles, who was with him when he died. In a stinging rebuke to the Daily Mail , it said: “The commission could fully understand why the complainant – and indeed the 25,000 people who also complained to the PCC – were upset by the article. At the heart of the story was the tragic death of a young man which had affected a large number of people, and the Commission considered that the newspaper had to accept responsibility for the distress it had caused.”
In a long adjudication, the PCC said: “The fact that the complaint has not been upheld does not mean the concerns did not need to be addressed, but rather that the Commission did not find that it was right for it to censure the newspaper on the grounds of the [PCC] code.” The PCC has recently been criticised for being ineffective and this latest finding is bound to fuel further debate on whether the press industry should continue to be self-regulated.
In her article Moir described the circumstances of the death as “sleazy” and “less than respectable”. She said that “the sugar-coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath”. She also referred to Gately’s “vices” and concluded that “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.”
Cowles said the article was “highly pejorative generally towards gay people” and pointed out that he was asleep on the same sofa and so Gately had not died alone.
In its defence the Mail claimed that it was “emphatically not homophobic to ask questions and express opinions about what happened that night”. The newspaper complained that the level of public complaint was due to an internet phenomenon “whipped up in a few hours on the social networks of Facebook and Twitter” and said that many of the online complainants had not read the article.
But in recognition of the power of social networking sites, the PCC adjudication said the online complaints were “evidence of a healthy system”. The new director of the PCC, Stephen Abell said that such platforms had played a useful role. “The fact that there were so many forums for challenging Ms Moir’s view is evidence of a strong culture of public debate and accountability.”Reuse content