Why papers should be pink

Prejudice in the press is alive and kicking. How far should the principle of freedom of speech be allowed to excuse these excesses, asks Johann Hari
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The Independent Online

THE GAY Police Association has made a formal complaint about Richard Littlejohn after yet another bout of his anti-gay poison in The Sun last month made them retch. The Gay Police Association's decision to report him is a mistake for two reasons. Firstly, censorship of political opinions - no matter how repellent - is never legitimate. But there is a second reason. By singling out Littlejohn, the GPA implies that he is a unique figure, a homophobic carbuncle on the otherwise pristine Fleet Street ship. In fact, Littlejohn is only one of a surprisingly large school of journalistic homophobes who still infest our newspapers.

It is a sign of the extent to which homophobia is still tolerated that one of the nastiest prejudices against gay people continues to be voiced by eminent journalists, and nobody considers it odd that they remain in their jobs. In a piece entitled "Why I Don't Want Gays Minding My Children", Tom Utley of The Daily Telegraph said that "a higher proportion of homosexuals than heterosexuals molest children". For this he offered no evidence. The reason for this is simple: academic studies persistently find it to be wholly untrue. Why was this piece published?

Utley is at least honest in one respect. He has in the past candidly confessed his prejudices, saying: "I disapprove of homosexuality; I find public displays of sexual desire between members of the same sex distasteful; I think that even long-term and faithful relationships between homosexuals can never be more than a parody of heterosexual marriage; oh, and the very thought of buggery disgusts me." Would a man who "disapproved" of, say, Asians - and found the idea of them having sex "disgusting" - be given a platform in a respectable newspaper? I do not advocate censorship, but it is a strange use of The Telegraph's editorial freedom to print this pure prejudice.

Diary columns are a popular home for more subtle anti-gay hatred. Jasper Gerrard, the writer of The Sunday Times' "Atticus" column, has long waged a sniggering hate campaign against the openly gay government minister Ben Bradshaw. As it happens, there is nothing camp about Bradshaw. Yet Gerrard refers to him variously as "lisping", "spending too much time with his powder puff", "mini-Mandy", "delicate" and "Big Boy Ben". When Bradshaw rebukes somebody, Gerrard describes it as "handbagging". He found it hilarious, moreover, that Bradshaw answered a parliamentary question on the National Fruit Show. The layers of repression in Gerrard are themselves "hilariously" apparent; what is more surprising is that he considers it acceptable to adopt these playground bullying tactics towards another adult in full view of his readership.

Other mainstream journalists have expressed worrying feelings about gay people: Paul Routledge, Simon Heffer, Garry Bushell... the list goes on. This is not about vilifying anybody who opposes the gay rights agenda. Melanie Phillips (who writes for The Daily Mail, but used to be a columnist at the more traditionally liberal Observer), for example, passionately opposes gay marriage, but never couches her opposition in homophobic or abusive terms, or impugns the dignity of gay people. Of course, none of the bigots who fail to match her standards should be prosecuted, GPA-style. They have a right to their stupidity, and anyway, using the law would merely exacerbate their bizarre idea that they live in a world where straight people are persecuted by uppity gays.

But these writers should be named and shamed. They help to foster a culture where "gay" is still the worst insult in Britain's playgrounds, and where gay teenagers are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight siblings. I still remember the strange, stinging pain of reading - when I was 10 and coming to the realisation that I was gay - an article that described Steven Fry as "a self-confessed homosexual". Oh, I thought, so there is something wrong with me - there is something to "confess".

Every foul comment by an Utley or a Gerrard demoralises vulnerable young gay people a little bit further. Blatant racism is no longer expressed in the British press. It is time for newspaper editors to exercise the same judgement when it comes to publishing prejudicial material against gay people.