The paper has also called Spence, among many other things, 'master mincer', 'camper than Christmas', 'fruity' and 'Louise' because it feels the need to highlight his homosexuality every time it writes about him, apparently.
But as No Rock and Roll Fun said at the time:
You can't throw a word like "bender" into a headline about a gay man. Not in a newspaper that still pretends it has any sort of standards. Homophobic name-calling isn't the same as a witty headline.
Two people complained to the Press Complaints Commission about the Sun's headline and one of them, James, has sent all his correspondence with the PCC to this blog.
James complained under Clause 12 of the Editor's Code of Practice which says:
The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
He argued that calling a gay man 'bender' was clearly pejorative.
The PCC's Administrator, Simon Yip, responded with a standard reply regarding so-called third party complaints:
I should emphasise that the PCC will normally only consider complaints from people who are directly affected by the matters about which they are concerned. Indeed, only in exceptional circumstances will the Commission consider a complaint from someone not directly involved. For the PCC to take this matter forward, we would generally require a complaint from Louie Spence or his representative.
In this instance, an initial examination of your case suggests that you are a third party to the complaint. However, if you believe our normal rules should be waived to allow us to take your case further (or if you do not consider yourself to be a third party in this matter) we would be grateful to hear from you in the next ten days.
James replied, pointing out that the use of the word 'bender' in this context affects many more people than just Spence:
I hope the PCC would see this language is not acceptable, see that there is a wider point of principle about the use of such terms and therefore take forward this complaint.
We will now ask the Commission whether it wishes to waive its third party rules and take your complaint forward. If this is the case we will ask the editor to deal with your complaint.
After several weeks of silence, James asked the PCC what was happening. The reply he received from Complaints Officer Elizabeth Cobbe was unsurprising:
The Commission has now considered your complaint about an article in The Sun and decided that it was not possible, in the circumstances, to examine your complaint further under the Code of Practice.
As we pointed out to you in our earlier correspondence, the Commission usually deals only with complaints from those directly involved. On this occasion, it did not consider that it could waive its rules and investigate your third party complaint further. Its decision on this matter is attached.
Here's the PCC's decision in full:
The complainants expressed concern that the article was in breach of Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice as they considered that the headline “Bender it like Beckham” was offensive and homophobic.
Under the terms of Clause 12 (Discrimination), newspapers must avoid making a prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s sexual orientation. While the Commission acknowledged that both complainants considered the article to be offensive on a personal level, it made clear that it generally only considers complaints from those directly affected by the matter about which they complained.
In this instance, it noted that the term “bender” had been used by the newspaper in direct reference to a particular individual, Louie Spence. The Commission considered that it would require the involvement of a party directly affected by the matter – be it Louie Spence or a person acting formally on his behalf – in order to establish that he considered the article to be discriminatory.
As the Commission had not received such a complaint, it was unable to comment on the matter further.
Is Louie Spence really the only person who is affected by the Sun referring to gay men as 'benders' and the only person who can say whether that term is discriminatory?
After all, a 2007 Stonewall report on homophobic bullying concluded:
Homophobic bullying is almost endemic in Britain's schools. Almost two thirds (65 per cent) of young lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced direct bullying. Seventy five per cent of young gay people attending faith schools have experienced homophobic bullying...
Ninety seven per cent of pupils hear other insulting homophobic remarks, such as “poof”, “dyke”, “rug-muncher”, “queer” and “bender”. Over seven in ten gay pupils hear those phrases used often or frequently.
James did not think the Sun's use of the word could go unchallenged. And he feels the PCC have now helped legitimise this insult by not tackling the Sun over its use.
He told the PCC:
If the PCC can't hold the newspapers to account for publishing such derogatory terms and disgraceful name-calling as 'bender', I'm not sure who can. I think it is very regrettable that the PCC has felt unable to take a stand against this behaviour.
A couple of weeks ago, the Sun was subject to a complaint over its use of 'schizo'. The PCC accepted a pledge from the paper that it would use its 'best endeavours' not to repeat the word. Yet in that case, the PCC did accept a third-party complaint.
James wrote to the PCC:
It appears from the wording of this resolved complaint that the 'first party' in that case did not complain, only third parties did, and yet the Commission still went ahead to seek assurances from the Sun that it would not use the pejorative word 'schizo' again.
Could you explain why that case was different to this one?
In the instance of Rethink, Shift and others v The Sun, the Commission has previously issued particular guidance regarding terminology when discussing mental health issues, with specific reference to the use of the term “schizo”. This can be found here.
When dealing with complaints regarding the description of mentally ill patients, it can often be difficult to obtain their permission. The Commission is, therefore, prepared to relax its third party rules in such instances. However, there does not appear to be a reason why Mr Spence would be unable to complain on his own behalf.
Given the earlier guidance note on reporting mental health it seems odd the PCC did not, therefore, come down harder on the Sun rather than just accept its 'best endeavours' over 'schizo'. It is this type of inconsistency which does the PCC few favours.
At the very least the PCC should have tried to extract a 'best endeavours' pledge from the Sun over the use of 'bender'.
The PCC should have set aside their third-party rule for this case, as they will in other cases, when it suits them.
If this was a complaint on some matter of accuracy, then it is not unreasonable to prioritise a first-party complaint.
But the complaint made by James was essentially asking the PCC to say whether, as a point of principle, it considered 'bender' pejorative and discriminatory.
The PCC decided it didn't want to answer.
Hopefully Clare Balding's first party complaint about the Sunday Times' use of 'dyke' will fare better...