Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir
Look outside the window, a media storm is brewing. They don’t come around too often but this one is looking like a level 5, last seen in ‘Twister’. I picked up ‘The Guardian’ newspaper for the first time in a while yesterday; it’s usually great on a Saturday and on page 3, there was a rare enough sight- a newspaper openly and savagely criticising another paper/journalist for an opinion article about Stephen Gately who sadly passed away this week and was only buried yesterday.
Journalism is very much a profession conducted in the public domain so everyone sees articles in the papers and has a hop off them. It’s often deserved in some way but still generally done in private. Not so with Jan Moir. She is being tried by media and it’s already getting very personal. For her sake, be glad that lynch mobs have fallen out of fashion.
She writes for ‘The Daily Mail’ in the UK so I’m not sure if the offending opinion column made it into the Irish version. Maybe not, given that it was about a much-loved Irish singer. What could she written that was so bad? you cry.
Her article ended up with the headline ‘A strange, lonely and troubling death…’, which was a change from the original one: ‘There was nothing natural about Stephen Gately’s death’. Moir’s article says things like the circumstances in the case are “more than a little sleazy” and “under the carapace of glittering, hedonistic celebity, the ooze of very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see”.
She said that many celebrity lives/deaths have been “shadowed by dark appetites or fractured by private vice” and that the incident has been “shaped and spun into nothing more than an unfortunate mishap”. “He would want to set an example to any impressionable young men who may want to emulate what they might see as his glamorous routine”, she added. She also implies that she didn’t think it was caused by natural causes, contrary to medical evidence.
She has since had to write a clarification and pointed out that in the last quote I listed, she was “referring to the drugs and the casual invitation extended to a stranger. Not to the fact of his homosexuality”. Well that’s okay then!? Maybe just not say anything from now on Jan.
I’m sure the Guardian article in online and I’d urge you to read both pieces but its headline was: ‘Tabloid columnist’s take on death of gay icon provokes record level of complaints’ and it began: “It must have seemed a routine assignment for one of the Daily Mail’s star columnists; a catty take on the death of Boyzone star Stephen Gately which pandered to the prejudices of its readers.” Whoa! I know the Daily Mail was set up by fascists back in the day and is considered to be ultra-conservative in the UK but that’s still pretty strong.
It goes on to explain that there have been over 1,000 complaints about the article to the Press Council(it has since been reported to police at Scotland Yard too, yikes) and that advertisers had pulled ads from the paper/website. The majority have said that it is hateful at best and very homophobic at worst. The actor and comedian, Stephen Fry, immediately went on Twitter to urge followers to ‘complain where it matters’ and said: ‘I gather a repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with has written something loathsome and inhumane’. Someone else, disturbingly, posted her home address on the internet.
The Guardian also had a short op/ed headed ‘Hateful idiocy-by any yardstick’. It accused her of dancing on Gately’s grave.
It’s a complex case, which is very interesting from a media perspective.
Firstly, there was plenty of thinly veiled speculation about Stephen Gately’s death before all the facts came to light. The exact same situation happened with Michael Jackson and Katie French, among others. The famous facts upon which news is supposed to be based seem to get a little lost sometimes. BUT whatever was theorised is best left to gossip.
Opinion pieces are obviously very subjective but that’s not to say that they can contain anything at all. We all have opinions and inevitably, some can be unpopular! I can remember at least one very similar case where a columnist (who funnily enough writes for the Irish Daily Mail sometimes) took a swipe at the paralympics because she didn’t see the point of it. The editor had to print a front page apology because of the outcry. So it’s hard to believe the editor passed Jan Moir’s article. It was very speculative and implied foul play. It appears to reveal some prejudices by the writer. Perhaps she didn’t even realise she had them but the article made comments that would be interpreted as being about homosexuality as well as being hurtful, particularly to the family and friends involved.
Newspapers are slow to say ‘sorry’ because that can be legally interpreted as an admission of guilt (the law has changed in Ireland but maybe not the UK) that can be used in libel cases. However, I’d say an apology might have to appear in this case. The clarification doesn’t acknowledge that people were offended and why. Either way, I think Jan Moir is in serious trouble career-wise because she will find it hard to salvage her reputation. The buck stops with the editor and the subs who should’ve protected her and the public.
We live in an age where almost anything goes. What was considered offensive 10,20,30 or 50 years ago just doesn’t apply. But just because the League of Decency isn’t around doesn’t mean that the media should run riot. Maybe you can’t libel the dead but that’s not to say that you can say whatever you want about them. There are real people involved and one person’s opinion can have wide ranging implications.
When the storm’s over and the wreckage cleaned up, it will be worth remembering the damage and how it can be avoided in future.