Fleet Street's perverse cocktail of kinky sex and a serial killer: Neil McKenna berates the reporting of a series of homosexual murders

LIGHTS] CAMERA] Action] Gay Serial Killer. Scene 1. Take 1: A hastily-convened midnight press conference at Scotland Yard. A serial killer is on the loose. He's already killed five gay men and threatens to kill more. It's a perverse cocktail of kinky gay sex, rampant promiscuity, bondage, sadomasochism, dangerous liaisons, a killer gay plague and revenge, set in London's sleazy gay underbelly.

Scene 2: Darkened gay bars. Detectives hunting the murderer apparently consider enlisting the help of the gay serial killers Dennis Nilsen and Michael Lupo. Meanwhile, journalists decamp en masse to London's gay bars to report the horror, the fear and self-loathing, the sadomasochistic agony and ecstasy of it all.

If it reads like a film script, that's because it's been reported like one. In the absence of any understanding - let alone concern or compassion - for London's gay community - heterosexual journalists have fallen back on classic cliches.

Richard Dyer, a film historian at the University of Warwick who has made a special study of representations of gay men in the cinema, believes there are clear comparisons between the press coverage of the serial killer and the way homosexuals are depicted in the cinema.

'Films about gay murders tend to be a semi-prurient, anthropological excursion into this peculiar, other, dangerous world, with endless scenes of gay bars,' says Dyer.

'It's an imaginary, anonymous, fetishistic, sexually-driven and very violent world.'

This prurient approach is evident in the hundreds of column inches detailing what they see as the strange, sordid world of gay sadomasochism.

In a report from the Coleherne pub, a gay landmark in Earl's Court - where journalists outnumbered customers by two to one at Wednesday lunchtime - Gervase Webb, of the London Evening Standard, wrote of the 'literally twilight world' of gay sadomasochists, of their 'air of vulnerability and wariness'. It's 'a dangerous game', he wrote, this 'predatory, risky and anonymous world of multiple sex partners and hasty sex'.

Keith Alcorn, a columnist for Capital Gay, the weekly London newspaper and a respected gay writer, believes the press's reiteration of the dangers of gay sexuality says more about the fears of heterosexuals: 'The press can't resist describing gay sex as dangerous because the idea of sodomy is so deeply threatening to most heterosexual men.'

'The reporting of the murders has been bizarrely sensationalist,' says Simon Watney, writer and Aids activist. The way coverage has dwelt on intimate details of the victims' sex lives shows that 'these men are not seen as human beings, but merely as fetishists whose picturesque perversion has led them to this terrible end.'

Andrew Saxton, news editor at Capital Gay, said: 'London's gay scene is not just about SM men with handlebar moustaches and leather caps. We've got gay swimming groups, gay cycling groups, gay gardening clubs and a varied cultural life drawing upon a rich cultural heritage.'

'The whole tone of the press coverage concentrates on the classic twilight world of the homosexual,' says David Smith, editor of Gay Times magazine. 'Gay men get HIV, are all lonely, vulnerable and promiscuous, desperately running around picking up dodgy strangers. 'It's all very well having a photograph of a male go- go dancer at Crews on the front page of the Independent,' he adds. 'But what does it tell us about this killer and the threat he poses to gay men?'

Mr Smith, a gay journalist for nearly eight years, is especially worried about the widespread reporting of a possible - that the killer is seeking revenge after being infected by HIV.

'A variant on this theme,' he says, 'is that the murderer is revisiting old boyfriends from whom he might have contracted the virus.' Mr Smith argues that such widespread, uncritical reporting of this motive articulates a dangerous fiction. 'It's all about blame,' he says. 'It suggests that it is natural that gay men with HIV would want to seek revenge. The danger is that it's reinforcing prejudice, placing the blame for Aids on gay men.'

Press reports of the murders have made public the HIV-positive status of three of the victims. 'It's assumed that because three of the victims were HIV-positive, the motive must be linked to revenge,' says Mr Alcorn.

According to Nick Partridge, of the Terrence Higgins Trust, Britain's largest Aids support organisation, it should come as no surprise that three out of five murder victims were HIV positive - especially in London where one in five gay men attending clinics for sexually transmitted diseases is positive.

Mr Partridge believes that the police and press have swallowed a mythology of the vengeful Aids victim. Partridge believes that the idea of an HIV revenge killer could mark a new urban myth - 'just as between 1987 and 1989 the myth was of the businessman visiting New York who picks up a hooker and wakes to find 'Welcome to the Aids club]' scrawled on the mirror.'

'We have to understand this as an Aids story,' says Mr Watney. 'The idea of the vengeful HIV serial killer is the latest episode of a saga that the British press has been promoting for the last 10 years. This imaginary person represents nothing more than British journalists' fantasies about their own wish to kill gay men.'

Neil McKenna was the first recipient of the Mike Rhodes Trust Award for his coverage of gay issues in The Independent.

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 22

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