The Press Complaints Commission has rejected a complaint from Stephen Gately’s partner over articles written by Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir in the wake of the Boyzone singer’s death.
A controversial article published in the Daily Mail on 16 October by Moir headed “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death” caused widespread outcry when it suggested there was something “sleazy” about the tragedy.
It also suggested the truth had yet to emerge “about the exact circumstances of Gately’s “strange and lonely death”.
The piece became the most complained about article in the history of the PCC as 25,000 people registered their objections with the press watchdog claiming the piece was insensitive to Gately’s family and that it was homophobic.
The PCC today rejected that complaint, ruling that freedom of expression was a ‘fundamental part of an open and democratic society’and that ‘argument and debate are working parts of an active society’which should not be constrained unnecessarily.
In its lengthy ruling the PCC said that it could ‘quite understand how the column had generated wide anger, given the stance taken by the columnist’but that issues of taste and offence did not fall under the remit of the press watchdog.
The PCC said a ruling against a newspaper’s entitlement to publish opinions, disagreeable or not, would be ‘a slide towards censorship”.
The PCC ruled: ‘The commission considered that it should be slow to prevent columnists from expressing their views, however controversial they might be.
‘The price of freedom of expression is that often commentators and columnists say things, with which other people may not agree, may find offensive or may consider to be inappropriate.
‘Robust opinion sparks vigorous debate; it can anger and upset. This is not of itself a bad thing.”
Stephen Abell, director of the PCC, said the case was ‘difficult but important’issue to deal with.
He added: ‘In the end, the commission, while not shying away from recognising the flaws in the article, has judged that it would not be proportionate to rule against the columnist’s right to offer freely-expressed views about something that was the focus of public attention”.
Gately’s partner Andrew Cowles triggered a full PCC investigation by filing a complaint to the PCC in December, through solicitors Mishcon de Reya.
He said the 19 October article, which appeared six days after Gately’s death, and a second piece by Moir, which appeared the following week and included an apology for the timing of her original story, were inaccurate, intruded on grief and were discriminatory.
Rejecting the accuracy claim, the PCC said the article amounted to speculation and it was important to recognise the article clearly referred to the official verdict on the cause of death: ‘It was against this context that the columnist had stated her views on the matter.”
The claim about the “happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships” might be considered ‘illogical argument’the PCC said, as it sought to draw a general conclusion from two separate issues, but ‘did not equate to a breach of the code”.
The PCC said the press must avoid ‘prejudicial or pejorative reference’to an individual’s sexual orientation. However, it rejected claims of discrimination against Muir’s articles.
It ruled that it ‘was not possible to identify any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language in the article’despite claims of an ‘underlying tone of negativity towards Mr Gately and the complainant on account of the fact that they were gay”.
The context of the article was all important when considering if it intruded into the grief of those close to Gately, the PCC ruled.
The press watchdog said the article was a comment piece by a columnist known for provocative nature of her articles; it did not report the facts of death nor seek to provide new information about what had happened.
‘It was indisputable that the article had caused the complainant great distress, as it had many others.
‘This was regrettable, and the newspaper had to accept its responsibility for this. Indeed, the columnist had acknowledged that the column had been ill-timed and had apologised to the family. It was right for her to do so.
‘The timing of the piece was questionable to say the least, and the commission considered that the newspaper’s editorial judgement in this regard could be subject to legitimate criticism.
‘However, after extensive debate, the commission did not consider that it would be a proportionate response to proscribe a certain type of comment purely on the basis of the proximity of a funeral or memorial service.
‘It was the overall context of the article that was important. On balance, the commission felt that it should not deny the columnist the freedom to express her opinions in the way she had.”