I never was particularly a fan of Boyzone. Like Louis Walsh's other band Westlife, they were wallpaper music to me. Never offensive, I liked a few of their songs, I even knew the names of at least some of the band members, but that was as far as it went. So when I heard of the sudden death last weekend of Stephen Gately I was sad, not so much because Stephen Gately himself had great meaning to me but because any death at the age of 33 is a tragedy.
So I was disgusted on Friday to be led, via lovely Twitter friend Keris, to the most odious piece of journalism I think I have ever read, written by Jan Moir in The Daily Mail. I was not the only person to feel disgusted by this piece of gutter journalism. Over 1000 complaints were made to the Press Complaints Commission (including mine). The PCC website crashed. At some point during the day the Mail changed the title of the piece from the original wording 'There was nothing 'natural' about Stephen Gately's death' and advertising on the web page was removed, presumably at the request of the advertisers who included Marks and Spencer.
So what was it about this piece which offended so much? Well it was clearly homophobic (though Jan Moir, in a subsequent statement full of self delusion has denied this). It was inaccurate. Yes, apparently healthy young men can just die suddenly, it is medically recognised as Sudden Adult Death Syndrome and such heart problems apparently ran in Gateley's family. It gratuously brought in the recent death (by suicide) of another young gay man who had been in the public eye but whose passing had nothing to do with Gately. The whole piece intruded on the dignified grief of family and friends and was even published the day before Stephen Gately's funeral.
I've been thinking a lot about journalism recently, because I am considering dipping my toe into the water of that area of writing. I know that writing for a paper or magazine is not as straightforward as it might look and opinion journalism must be particularly difficult. The challenge to find, on a weekly basis, something that will grab the attention of the public and sell papers, without offending a large minority must be difficult. But this piece managed to offend in so many ways and this was recognised by so many people. It is even being reported today that a complaint has been made to the Metropolitan Police.
We do, of course have free speech in this country, but the flip side of that is that those who express strong opinions in such a public fashion must be able to take the consequences of others also expressing their views by putting in formal complaints. This was no organised internet campaign, as Jan Moir suggests, but the result of a large number of people who were offended by her column taking action and discussing the issue online. The result of free speech in the digital age.
Let's hope it makes a difference. But don't hold your breath. One of the leading lights of the PCC is Paul Dacre, none other than the editor of The Daily Mail...