Gay politicians and the tabloid press

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News


A new book - Sex, Lies and Politics - analyses the coverage of gay politicians in British newspapers and asks how much has really changed since they were routinely "outed" by the tabloids?

"Readers of The Sun know and speak and write words like poof and poofter. What is good enough for them is good enough for us,'' Sun editorial, May 1990.

Politicians' private lives have always been a source of intense fascination for British newspapers and their readers.

But when homosexuality is thrown into the mix, the scandal is always served up with extra relish and, all too often in the past, distaste.

Homosexual acts in private between two men were decriminalised in 1967, but the 1960s also saw the Profumo scandal and an end to automatic deference towards those in authority.

Image caption,
Lord Boothby's private life was exposed by The Sunday Mirror

Politicians like Labour MP Tom Driberg and Tory peer Lord Boothby, whose homosexuality was widely known among colleagues and political journalists, had been able to use their contacts and influence to keep details of their private lives out of the press.

Even when a newspaper broke ranks, as the Labour-supporting Sunday Mirror did in 1964 when it exposed Boothby's sexuality and links to the criminal underworld, it often paid a heavy price. The Mirror retracted its story, paid Boothby £40,000 in damages and sacked its editor.

But by the 1980s, the "outing" of gay MPs and peers had become a tabloid staple.

And the advent of HIV/Aids had snuffed out growing signs of tolerance in favour of widespread homophobia, according to Open University lecturer Donna Smith's new book, Sex, Lies and Politics.

'Gay mafia'

By the time The Sun published an editorial defending its use of the word "poof" in a headline, in response to a Press Council rebuke, attitudes in Fleet Street were starting to change.

But it took another eight years - and a new editor - for Britain's biggest selling daily newspaper to finally rethink its whole approach to stories about gay issues and, arguably, catch up with the shifting attitudes of its readers.

David Yelland, who took over the top job from Kelvin Mackenzie, says: "In 1998 The Sun ran a front page story claiming that the country was being run by a gay mafia.

"That was the turning point for me as an editor. I immediately felt ashamed that I had allowed the story in and I wrote an editorial the next day saying that in future The Sun would no longer invade the privacy of gay people by outing them.

"The gay mafia story felt wrong to me but I also believe it was out of step with the public, who were becoming far more tolerant and accepting of gay people.

"I think there was a golden age for tolerance during Tony Blair's first term, but in recent years I think some newspapers have gone backwards.

"Having said that, there is a world of difference between the tone of coverage now and some of the overtly homophobic stories of the past."

'Gay PM'

The greater tolerance towards gay people in the tabloids "undoubtedly had an impact on the political climate", argues Yelland, now a director of PR firm Brunswick.

He adds: "I think it would now be possible, for example, to have an openly gay prime minister in the UK.

"I think that is very possible indeed because the British people are more tolerant than some of their newspapers."

The change in attitude has been remarkable, according to Donna Smith, but, she argues in her book, true equality will not have been achieved until there is "equality of scandal".

Suggestions of a gay relationship still bring out the prurient instincts in the tabloids and add an extra frisson to stories about politicians, as can be seen, she argues, from the coverage of David Laws, the Lib Dem cabinet minister forced to reveal his sexuality during a row about his expenses.

"Gay politicians who have a positive persona generally are ones who are in a relationship. There is no scandal around their sexuality," she told BBC News.

"They are open about their lives. There is no possibility of them being "outed" because they have pre-empted it."

'Ridicule and denigration'

The newly tolerant climate came too late for Peter Tatchell, an openly gay political campaigner who was the victim of a tabloid witch hunt in 1983 when he stood as a Labour by-election candidate in inner-London Bermondsey.

"I was subjected to what is widely accepted as the most homophobic political campaign in history," says Tatchell now.

Image caption,
Gay rights campaigners have fought a long battle for equality

His victorious Lib Dem opponent, Simon Hughes, who years later was forced to admit having had gay and heterosexual relationships, has since apologised to Tatchell for the tone of his campaign.

But the real venom came from the press, says Tatchell, who believes his decision to stand on a "radical" gay rights platform meant that he was regarded by the tabloids as "completely beyond the pale", while more high-brow media simply shrugged their shoulders at the homophobic coverage.

"I was subjected to constant ridicule and denigration. Reporters went through my rubbish bins, they staked out my flat with telephoto lenses, The News of the World published a photo which made it look as though I had plucked eyebrows, lipstick and eye liner.

"And they got away with it. The then press regulatory body did nothing."

'Genuinely shocked'

Far from putting him off public life, Tatchell's defeat in Bermondsey inspired him to step up his campaign for equality - often meeting journalists face-to-face to persuade them to change their approach.

"Even some who previously were not that sympathetic, or even a bit homophobic, when it was brought home to them the scale of violence against our community and the ongoing arrests of gay people for completely victimless, consenting behaviour, some of them were genuinely shocked," he says.

"And it motivated them actually to change the tenor and the tone of what they wrote and said."

Tatchell believes that if he had begun political campaigning now, rather than 30 years ago, "I suspect I probably would have won the by-election".

But he says he has no regrets and - like David Yelland - believes the climate has changed to such an extent, with several openly gay MPs now in the upper echelons of British politics, that a politician's sexuality no longer has to be a handicap to their career.

"I went through that baptism of homophobic fire in 1983. That's history. I'm living for the present and I hope that one day in my lifetime we will have an openly gay prime minister," he says.

Sex, Lies and Politics: Gay Politicians in the Press, by Donna Smith, is published by Sussex Academic Press.