On the outing of gay offenders in the press

Around about the time we blogged the story on how many gay men have contemplated suicide, the Belfast Telegraph published a story on ‘cottaging’ in Coleraine. It caused something of a storm of protest, since it not simply published the names of the men involved, but their photographs as well. We re-print two of the letters sent in in protest, which outline important concerns about such graphic outing. The name of the first has been withheld for fear of attacks:

Dear Editor,

I was deeply disturbed when I saw last night that you had printed photographs of seven of the ten men convicted of a cottaging offence in Coleraine which merited a fine.

I have never seen photographs, and so many of them, in your newspaper in relation to such minor magistrates court appearances.

Your story itself made clear that there had been an unprecedented campaign of violence including a “potentially fatal” arson attack against a number of these men since their first court appearance. You report the magistrate as saying that “he condemned attacks on a number of the defendants, some of whom were forced to flee their homes as a result.”

Why then make those men even more identifiable?

The Coleraine police chief Superintendent Dawson G. Cotton has admitted that he was unaware of draft PSNI guidelines that had been long circulated, based on those of ACPO, which lay out a graduated response in such situations and lay emphasis on the use of cautions in the first instance. In his defence he added “cautions were not appropriate given the seriousness of the offence.
This view was later supported by the Public Prosecution Service”.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Alistair Fraser, is now investigating whether his response was in line with their endorsement of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act which requires an even handed and non-discriminatory approach in public policy.

It is well recognised that investigations of this type lead to suicide in perhaps 10% of cases. I can give you instances. Indeed it is feared that one unexplained death in the locality already, involving a man missing for several weeks, is related.

I hope when you come to publish an editorial later today or tomorrow on the government’s new suicide policy you consider and review your own decision to publish those photographs. Or hold your peace.

To the Editor,

Today I had the unenviable task of informing one of my clients that his photograph had appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, in connection with an offence committed in a Coleraine convenience. This information floored him. Given what had been said by the magistrate about the harassment, threats and violent acts, as well as criminal damage to property that those charged had faced, and the appeal by the court that the press look at this issue sensitively, there was some hope that the men involved would not have had their lives put in further danger by an action as callous as this.

This man’s life has; he has lost his job, suffered abuse and humiliation, and has been forced to flee his home and his town. He has been forced to seek emergency accommodation at a secret location because of threats passed on to him by the PSNI. He is completely and utterly traumatised by his treatment at the hands of the police and by the rampant homophobia he has experienced. All this was made clear to the court. His vulnerability and suffering was clear for all to see and for those too blind to notice all this, it was reiterated by the magistrate.

The team at the Belfast Telegraph should be ashamed of itself. The action it has taken has ensured that all involved are now recognisable, and it has placed all those involved in greater danger than before. It was a totally unjustifiable action and served no purpose – these men pose no risk, as was made clear in probation service reports. There is no public safety issue to be served in this instance. This was simply about ensuring complete humiliation and selling papers in a way that panders to the lowest of standards.

The Belfast Telegraph, as the most widely read paper in Northern Ireland, has a responsibility to report the news, not make the news. The headlines, ‘Paper puts Lives at Risk’, or ‘Journalist Ensures Complete Humiliation’ would have been more appropriate. I appeal to the Belfast Telegraph to abandon this cheap and nasty style of journalism, better suited to the British tabloids of of the 1980’s. This story could have been covered so as to serve the public interest, without placing these men in further danger.

Your paper could have heeded the court, but instead chose to try and titillate its readership with the shabby sex scandal approach to journalism. In the same issue your paper carried an article about homophobia and suicide; clearly you have no concept of what the article was about. Your paper has fallen into the gutter and is most definitely not looking at the stars.

David McCartney
The Rainbow Project

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty