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Jan Moir’s article on Stephen Gately – “bigoted and homophobic”?

October 16th, 2009

Dr Petra

“Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death”. That was the headline on the Mail Online’s website today. Where, in their Femail section, journalist Jan Moir aired her thoughts on the death of Mr Gately.

In the piece that followed Ms Moir managed to combine factual inaccuracies with sweeping judgements and gross insensitivity. After all, Mr Gately’s funeral is tomorrow.

The piece that caused all the fuss can be found here. Although now the Mail have altered the headline to “A strange, lonely and troubling death”. I would caution that Moir’s piece may well upset you, although it does need to be read and responded to (more on this later).

Moir makes several inaccurate and uniformed claims within her piece which should be challenged.

“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”.

Not true. Aside from the crassness of this statement, Sudden Adult Death is not completely unheard of. It’s estimated around 500 adults die annually in the UK from Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome. Unfortunately many apparently ‘healthy and fit’ young men (and women) do die every year. Sadly Ms Moir and the Mail failed to check on this basic scientific fact before going to press.

Building on that, Ms Moir claims “Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one. Let us be absolutely clear about this”. In a statement released by Ms Moir via the Mail today, Ms Moir argues she was only using this piece to raise questions about Mr Gately’s death. Something we may feel more inclined to believe if the quote above was not followed by these comments:

“And I think if we are going to be honest, we would have to admit that the circumstances surrounding his death are more than a little sleazy. After a night of clubbing, Cowles and Gately took a young Bulgarian man back to their apartment. It is not disrespectful to assume that a game of canasta with 25-year-old Georgi Dochev was not what was on the cards. Cowles and Dochev went to the bedroom together while Stephen remained alone in the living room. “

This is speculation by Moir. She wasn’t there and doesn’t have any better idea than the rest of us what went on. It is her judgement that the situation was ‘sleazy’, and I would argue if it had been a straight couple and a male friend going back to an apartment Ms Moir would not have made the same remarks.

From this, Moir moves to again question the explanations of Gately’s death put forward by his family, then uses the confession that cannabis had been smoked by Gately to hint other drugs might have been used. Again, there is no evidence for this, she is speculating.

Having built her case, Ms Moir moves to what seems to be the real purpose of her piece. An attack on gay marriage.

“Another real sadness about Gately’s death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.
Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael. Of course, in many cases this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately’s last night raise troubling questions about what happened.”

It’s hard to tell exactly what Moir is trying to claim in the statement above. Although it is clear she is not condoning gay partnerships. If Moir is hinting that gay marriages aren’t the same as straight ones because gay men aren’t monogamous (something other parts of the press have also alluded to in their coverage of this case), then she is again factually incorrect. Gay couples as well as straight ones may be monogamous – or have open relationships. And whether a couple opts for an open relationship or not this does not make their relationship ‘sleazy’ (as Moir suggests), nor is it appropriate to imply anyone who is not in a monogamous relationship is somehow doomed to a suspicious death.

Moir has claimed in her statement that she wasn’t criticising gay marriage at all, but was simply highlighting that any marriage – gay or straight – may encounter problems. Which again we might feel more sympathetic to if at the start of her piece Moir hadn’t described celebrity (while refering to Gately in particular) as “a life that is shadowed by dark appetites or fractured by private vice”. The constant juxtaposition between hints at ‘vice’, ‘dark appetites’ and ‘dangerous lifestyle’ suggests very clearly Ms Moir certainly does not see homosexual marriages in the same way she views heterosexual ones.

As you may expect there has been a public outcry against Ms Moir and the Mail. Charlie Brooker has a typically acerbic take on Moir’s article, which is worth reading not least because Brooker explains how and why you should complain to the Press Complaints Committee about Ms Moir.

[There were so many attempts to reach the PCC today because of this piece that their website crashed. So you may find you have to wait to make your complaint].

Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of faith in the PCC, so I would additionally recommend a more direct approach to this problem. The Mail Online is funded entirely by advertising and sponsorship. You may wish to identify all the companies who have online advertising contracts with the Mail and put pressure on them to withdraw their advertising until an apology is issued. Some companies whose adverts appeared alongside this piece have already asked for them to be withdrawn. I’m sure no reputable company would want their products associated with Moir’s remarks.

Which brings me to Ms Moir’s statement, where she defends what she has written and concludes: “I think it is mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones.”

I don’t know how you feel about Moir’s piece. Call me mischievous in the extreme if you like, but I can’t see it as being anything other than homophobic or bigoted. There are no undertones, it is blatant. And if people aren’t so bothered about the alleged homophobic content, what about plain old accurate reporting? Ms Moir misreports sudden adult death, misunderstands gay relationships, and speculates beyond the coroner’s report about events leading up to Mr Gately’s death. All of this is unacceptable.

The good news about this story is it really has hit the headlines and is already running across blogs and through twitter. I’m glad to see the general view is against Ms Moir’s take on gay relationships. And I’m glad to see journalists speaking out against Ms Moir.

But while we’re right to judge Ms Moir, let’s not forget that she has only put in more graphic terms what the majority of the media have been hinting at in their coverage of Mr Gately’s death. The mentions of the trips to the gay clubs, the third man brought back by the couple to their apartment, the hint that Mr Gately’s husband and said man spent the night together, and the use of quotation marks to describe Mr Gately’s ‘husband’. All of which have hinted at possible suspicious circumstances and devalued gay relationships.

The media in general don’t come out of this case looking particularly good. And the media now seems to be turning on Ms Moir, perhaps forgetting the role they’ve played in this sorry coverage. Which, at the heart of it, leaves a grieving husband and family who have not only had to cope with a tragic loss. They’ve had to endure speculation, rumour, and the belittling of a marriage.

Update 18/10/09 – over the weekend this story has become massively popular, due in part to it being picked up on twitter. I’m sad to report some responses to Ms Moir have been threatening and breached her right to privacy. Those responses are utterly unacceptable and make it more difficult to challenge bigotry in the press. Moreover the focus has been on Ms Moir, when it ought to have been directed in equal measure at the Mail for publishing the piece. If you are still planning to complain about this story I would recommend you focus on the Mail (and target its advertisers), not just Ms Moir.

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