Friday, October 16, 2009

The Daily Mail's Fail

Musing on the death of Stephen Gatley, Jan Moir of the Daily Mail, wrote a spiteful little piece today. It was originally called "There is nothing 'natural' about Stephen Gatley's death", although the title has now been changed at the Mail's website.

In the article Moir first insults Gatley by saying he couldn't sing, then she makes several insinuations about his death, suggesting that there is something fishy about it. She also implies that he died because of his lifestyle. She then makes it clear that the idea of happy gay people in relationships is nonsense by writing "Another real sadness about Gately's death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships."

Reading it made the blood drain from my face. Then I got very angry. I immediately complained to the Press Complaints Commission (along with several hundred other people), causing their site to crash. It seems that Moir and the Daily Mail have hideously misjudged national attitudes, and the power of social networking. The story swept around the internet like a crazy, out of control fire. High profile twitterers like Stephen Fry and Derren Brown urged people to report her. A Facebook group was set up. Charlie Brooker of The Guardian posted one of his quick ripostes. Marks and Spencer, who were advertising on the Mail's site, asked for their advertising to be removed. Moir has issued a response to the furore, where she basically insults the complainers further by implying that none of them have read what she wrote, and that anyone who did simply didn't understand her. So, she's basically saying that thousands of people misinterpreted her article - somewhat worrying, considering that journalists are supposed to be good communicators and get the message across easily. She's admitting to being rubbish at her job really.

I'm taking a special interest in the story. I've been tracking the Daily Mail and its homophobia for several years. In a book I published on how gay men are represented in the media I looked at over a thousand articles about homosexuality that the Mail has published and found some common themes. These are the 10 "rules" of writing about homosexuality that you have to abide by if you write for the Daily Mail.

1) Gay relationships don't last
2) Gay is not a proper identity, it's just filthy sex
3) Being gay will lead to crime and violence
4) Being gay is something to be ashamed about
5) Beware - many gay people hide their gayness for some reason - making them liars and morally dubious
6) Despite (5) many gay people are "obvious" and/or "shameless" so they won't shut up about being gay - and we don't want to know!
7) Gay people are promiscuous
8) Gay people are everywhere - they are many and they are strong
9) They want to infect your children with their ways
10) They are strident, loud and militant. They will never stop demanding "rights" they don't deserve.

To Moir's credit, her article follows the Daily Mail's "rules" on how to write about homosexuality, almost to the letter. She's at least toeing the line.

While the article is upsetting and horrible. The response from the public has been incredibly encouraging. Ten years ago, The Mail got away with this sort of bile on a daily basis. Now they know that if they try it on, they'll get an instant fight, and it'll hurt. Times haven't changed yet - but we are witnessing them changing...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hurrah for the failures of BBC4

As far as British tv goes, BBC4 is about the best that it can get. No wonder that turkey-faced Rupert Murdoch is always complaining about the BBC. While the Beeb has plenty of content that is populist, dumbed-down or cheapo, it can also do enlightening, sensible or minority shows as well - and BBC4 is full of them. They are always having little themed weeks, where they take a topic and devote their whole 6 months budget to making about 8 programmes (which of course then get repeated and repeated). Their themes are usually pretty good though, and when you tune into the channel it's a bit like popping into one of those Arts Cinemas (the Watershed in Bristol, the Tyneside in Newcastle or the Dukes in Lancaster) where all the patrons wear black square glasses and seem very intense.

I especially like it when BBC4 cannibalises its own history, and produces a biopic of one of its stars of yesteryear - usually blending comedy, drama and tragedy in equal proportions. These shows are invariably set in a version of the 1960s or 1970s where the colour has been turned right up. Everyone wears lurid lime green jump-suits, rooms are pine-panelled, carpets are white shag. They make the Austin Powers films appear rather restrained and shy by comparison. However, I get the impression that the (probably quite young) people who make these programmes have a wry passion for the period they're recreating.

The acid dropping Kenneth Williams and cooking monster Fanny Craddock have been perfect fodder for these scandlous stories. Julia Davis plays Fanny as a kind of piss-elegant, angry version of Jill from Nighty Night: "You could kill pigs with that menu." Poor Fanny was just ahead of her time though - had she been starting out now, Channel 4 (whose remit is to teach Britain how to bully other people), would have simply given her a ten year contract and a whip. In the BBC4 show though, it all ends in tears...

I expect that in 30 years time BBC4 will be recreating the lives of its current stars. Russell Brand would give them enough material for a mini-series. And Matt Lucas will be strait-jacketed as the Kenneth Halliwell of the current age. Not only did he have a disastrous high-profile gay relationship that ended tragically. Not only is he bald and fat. He was also playing Halliwell in a stage version of Prick Up Your Ears when his ex-partner committed suicide.

I suspect that BBC4 has got a bit bored of the 1970s though (or they ran out of avacado bathroom suites), and so they have now moved onto the 1980s with a new season on the Micro Age. At the heart of this season has been a documentary/dramatisation of a power struggle between two computer creators of the early 1980s, Clive Sinclair (Alexander Armstrong pretending to be Blackadder) and Chris Curry (Britain's favourite everyman: Martin Freeman). It is all played out against a backdrop of genteel Cambridge, and there is humour in the fact that these men are basically nerds acting like they're involved in something very important (in fact it was).

I had one of these when I were a lad.

It was always over-heating. You had to load in games via a tape deck. It took ages, and sometimes it just wouldn't work. The graphics were blocky, the sound annoying. The games themselves were often impossibly difficult (usually to hide the fact that there wasn't much content). I would sometimes spend hours typing in program code (in BASIC) from computer magazines, and the games rarely worked - usually due to misprints. But despite all that, I loved my little Spectrum with its funny-smelling rubber keys and its huge (for the time) 48K memory. I was/am such a Spectrum geek that I noticed an error in Micro Men when one of the characters talked about their son being on level 8 of Jet Set Willy (impossible as JSW didn't have levels).

The interesting thing about Micro Men (for me anyway), is that it explains how those early microcomputers and their associated games were conceived by somewhat autistic men who didn't really have much concept of usability. It is like they wanted to make them difficult to use. Because they were boffins themselves, they didn't seem very good at putting themselves in the shoes of the average consumer. If only they had used a few focus-groups or carried out more market research, the British computing industry could have been very different. As it was, it got swallowed up - first by "barrow boy" Alan Sugar (who, in the 1980s looked like a serial killer - now he just looks like the victim of one), then by Americans - who Got it Right.

It's a peculiarly tragic tale of British failure, as are most of the BBC4 biopics. Fortunately, as a nation, I think the British are very comfortable with failure. We are a nation of under-dog lovers, and failure gives you a chance to reflect and grow... or just become very bitter. It makes for much more interesting drama at least.

Friday, October 02, 2009


I've done a meme (via Kaz, who didn't even ask me to).

1) My mother once: won a Miss Beautiful Bride contest
2) Never in my life: have I or would I vote Tory
3) When I was five: I got measles and missed our street's Silver Jubilee party
4) High school was an: American construct that has no relevance to my life
5) I will never forget: my first week of university
6) I once met: one of the Big Brother psychologists in rather sordid circumstances
7) There's this person I know who: has a shoe fetish and doesn't realise everyone knows
8) Once, at a bar: I met my life partner
9) By noon I'm usually: hungry
10) Last night I: ate hommous, watched Glee and went to bed in my dressing gown
11) If only I had: lower standards
12) Next time I go to church/temple: I will try not to look down on everyone
13) Terri Schiavo: is probably an American celebrity who I'm pleased to have never heard of
14) I like: orange juice and Singstar
15) When I turn my head left, I see: a castle
16) When I turn my head right, I see: my cat
17) You know I'm lying when: I'm being nice
18) In junior school: I was a nerd
19) If I was a character written by Shakespeare: I would be tragic
20) By this time next year I: will be pretty much the same probably
21) A better name for me would be:Alice
22) I have a hard time: with very poor or very rich people
23) If I ever go back to school, I'll: beat up the bullies and sass the teachers
24) You know I like you if: I turn down the good manners
25) If I won an award, the first person I'd thank would be: the Baby Jesus
26) I hope that: I see the end of religion in my lifetime
27) Take my advice: don't go on sunbeds - they give you cancer and they're common
28) My ideal breakfast is: sugar free Alpen, orange juice and toast
29) A song I love but do not have is: The Boy does Nothing by Alesha Dixon
30) If you visit my home town, I suggest: you bring an umbrella
31) Tulips, character flaws, microchips and track stars: I have no response
32) Why won't anyone: offer to have my children
33) If you spend the night at my house you'd have to: not mind the cat
34) I'd stop my wedding: if your outfit didn't match your hair
35) The world could do without: about 90% of humanity really
36) I'd rather lick the belly of a roach than: let anyone get the better of me
37) My favourite thing is: beauty
38) Paper clips are more useful than: earwax
39) And by the way: this is taking ages
40) The last time I was (really) drunk: some time in the early 1990s
41) My grandmother always: treated me like a little Prince