PCC: Off piste

When the Press Complaints Commission responded to the outcry about Jan Moir’s infamous column on Stephen Gately in February, it did not uphold the complaint (25,000 lodged complaints with the PCC, an all-time record). Why, then, has it upheld Clare Balding’s?

Balding complained to the PCC that AA Gill’s description of her as a “dyke on a bike” (paywall)  discriminated against her in breach of  the editors’ code of practice; according to clause 12 of the code, newspapers must avoid prejudicial, pejorative or irrelevant reference to an individual’s sexual orientation. In the case of Gately, the PCC said it could not identify “any direct uses of pejorative or prejudicial language”; in Balding’s case, however, the PCC ruled that “the use of the word dyke,  whether or not it was intended to be humorous – was a pejorative synonym relating to the complainant’s sexuality”, and ruled that the newspaper had been in breach of the code. 

The application of the code however appears to be a very blunt instrument. Gill is  a known provocateur who appears to delight in causing offence. By upholding Balding’s complaint, the PCC has actually weakened the force of its code and undermined the right to freedom of expression.

Twitter outrage over Jan Moir decision is wrong

I’ve just been on the BBC news channel, commenting on the Press Complaints Commission decision not to uphold complaints about Jan Moir’s controversial Daily Mail article after the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately.

Moir, if you need reminding, wrote a column for the Daily Mail asserting that there was nothing “natural” about Gately’s death in his holiday apartment in Mallorca. The columnist heavily insinuated that Gately’s demise at just 33 years of age was somehow due to his homosexuality and accompanying lifestyle.

It was a sordid piece of work, and the insensitivity was heightened by the fact it was published before Gately’s funeral in Dublin (it’s worth noting that the Irish edition of the paper chose not to publish the article).

The subsequent Twitter storm was impressive, and, by and large, correct. It’s entirely right that people should be able to voice their concerns, and a Twitter hashtag is extremely useful in uniting people in a single cause.

But despite days of #janmoir trending, and 25,000 complaints to the PCC (a record!), the commission decided not to censure Moir or the Daily Mail.

The PCC, let’s be clear here, has made the right decision. Moir’s article was offensive, and the PCC acknowledges this, several times over. But it emphasises a couple of key points:


Matters of taste and offence do not fall under the remit of the commission.


“Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of an open and democratic society…
“…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.

“Indeed, the reaction to the article, and the publicity which had ensued as a result of its publication, was a testament to freedom of expression, and was indicative of a broader process at work demonstrating the widespread opportunity that exists to respond to an article and make voices of complaint heard.”

This is true: Moir has not exactly suffered from a shortage of criticism. And rightly so.

But the reaction to the PCC ruling has been nothing more than an appeal to argumentum ad populum. “There were 25,000 complaints, therefore the PCC should have done what we told them.”

This morning’s outrage is wrong on two levels: just because a lot of people believe something, doesn’t make it right. And just because a lot of people demand something in the name of justice, doesn’t mean it’s fair or just.

More importantly, the PCC, though it refers to the volume of complaints in its adjudication, is not dealing with all these third party complaints: it is dealing with the complaint of Gately’s partner, Andrew Cowles (a curiously unmentioned figure in the Twitter outrage).

Put simply, people of Twitter, this wasn’t about you. God knows the PCC has its problems, but they got it right this time.

PCC rejects Stephen Gately complaint

Stephen GatelyThe Press Complaints Commission has dismissed a complaint by Stephen Gately’s partner about a Daily Mail column on the Boyzone singer’s death. The watchdog argued reprimanding Jan Moir for the beliefs expressed in her article ‘would be a slide towards censorship’ (more…)

BNP and Boyzone

Index on Censorship chief executive John Kampfner was a guest on Channel 4 news last night, discussing the free expression controversies surrounding BNP leader Nick Griffin’s forthcoming appearance on Question Time and the Twitter campaign against Jan Moir’s article on the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately. Watch it below (segment starts six minutes in).

Read journalism.co.uk’s Judith Townend’s round up of the argument here