Tuesday, 31 August 2010

PCC refuses to take on Sun over use of 'bender'

On 27 July, The Sun ran the headline 'Bender it like Beckham' over an article about Louie Spence attending a party thrown by the Beckhams.

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.

Yip replied:

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?

Cobbe replied:

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...


  1. Every time that a derogatory word is used publicly and goes unchallenged, then it demeans the person almost in an ambient manner, dehumanises them. Louie Spence is either unlikely or unwilling to complain, he is developing a media profile and dependent upon the good will of News Corp for any publicity he can get, that he is handmaiden to the slow degradation of every gay man and lesbian is beside the point. The PCC is a joke, that became less funny as the papers grew more avaricious and militant in their agenda and it needs to stop pretending that it is anything other than a panacea.

  2. I've had similar experiences with the PCC, when complaining about homophobic language. Isn't it possible to go round the PCC next time, as they don't listen? It is after all only a industry self-regulatory body, it should not help to protect them.

  3. This is really quite sad. Does it mean that The Sun can happily get away with calling an individual a "nigger" and get away with it?

  4. Such an infuriating correpondence with the press complaints commission!
    I think the series "The office" Highlighted the issue of third party offense extremely well when David Brent makes a supposed defense of the racist joke he told in the company of a black person.
    "Well he wasn't offended" Said Brent, pointing at a black colleague who heard the joke.
    "Why should only black people be offended by racism?" Asks a white woman.

    This is exactly the same situation here and the PCC is being deliberatly ignorant in it's defence of The Sun.
    If anyone, regardless of gender or association, is offended by something in the press then surely it is up to the PCC to take these complaints seriously!
    Self regulation is a joke and this blog has proved that time and time again. Well done MacGuffin.

  5. I think it was the Sun that referred to Derren Brown coming out with the headline "Mind Bender". In theory equally offensive but unfortunately a play on words that would have proved irresistable once thought of. What's tricky about the Louie case is that he presents himself on TV as very flamboyant and does use words like poof. But I'm sure he wouldn't use bender.

  6. So it's OK to call Martin Luther King a nigger because the dead cannot take offence?

  7. As much as I agree that the Sun is a nasty bigoted little rag and that this headline was distasteful I think lashing out at the PCC seems odd.

    I think the rule regarding 3rd parties is sensible.

    Moreover their rationale for waiving it regarding those with mental health issues also seems reasonable.

    Just my two cents.

  8. Celebrities like Louie Spence are in a no win situation with the 3rd party rule. If Louie complains about offensive language and wins all he will get is a small apology hidden somewhere in the paper. But at the same time he could wave good bye to any more work on Sky or any positive publicity in 'The Sun', if the complaint is thrown out he risk losing work plus it would give the green light to 'The Sun' to use similar remarks in the future.

    I work as a teacher, if schools had a rule that bullying could only be investigated if the person being bullied made a complaint most bullying would go unpunished because most victims would be too scared to report it for fear of reprisals.

  9. As Crispin says, pupils rarely make complaint as they know all too well the nightmare ahead.
    First hand:
    Complaint made, offender pulled in, sometimes paraded infront of victim(s) (sometimes not).
    May or may not be restricted from victim - though rarely moved from class.
    If moved - its mates will pick on victim, else victim is picked on behind teachers back (unless weak-willed teacher).
    Out of school, victim is followed. If victim gets home safely, they tend to be attacked at door or when seen otherwise.

    Compared to:

    Not complaining, taking the abuse in small pockets.

    If victim takes matters into their own hands, they will ALWAYS suffer consequence, either from reprisal or via bully 'playing the system'.


    For someone in the public eye, as above - although if Mr Spence made a complaint he won't have 'The Sun' chasing him down alleyways, they will do the next worse thing by smear campaign, but with the twist of playing by the rules - 'playing the system'.
    Common thought is for 'The Daily Mail' is known (apparently) for this 'playing the system' method - with much of a stigma attached to them, however with no PCC restrictions or remark...

  10. Anonymous 1 - the term bender is offensive and was used to make a joke about louie spence's sexuality. it doesn't matter if he describes himself as a poof - there's a history in the gay community reclaiming words to stop them being offensive, but if an offensive word is used against you, it's different. It's like black people reclaiming the n-word, or women reclaiming the c-word - it doesn't make it acceptable for that word to be used against you.

    Anonymous 2 - if the 3rd party rule applied to libel say, or writing something untrue about someone, it makes sense. only the person being written about can know whether to complain. but langauge that normalises racist/sexist/homophobic language effects all of us. it doesn't just effect louie spence, as it says that homophobic language is acceptable to use.

  11. I posted http://www.libdemvoice.org/reform-of-press-complaints-commission-to-be-debated-at-conference-20703.html#comment-137635 on Lib Dem voice for anyone interested on how to give the PCC more teeth and make it accountable to Parliament:

    This is what I’d like to see happen regarding the PCC:

    1) Create a new backbench Commons Select Committee for the print and broadcast media (which by its very nature will contain NO government ministers);

    2) Give that committee powers of summons – i.e. like that of a court but greater – in that it can “send for papers and persons” – and compel them to appear before that committee;

    3) Make the Press Complaints Commission the investigative branch of that Parliamentary Committee and ultimately responsible to Parliament – similar to what the National Audit Office is for the Public Accounts Committee;

    4) Have a transparent system of complaints and redress where people, writers and publishers are clear about what standards are required in the publication of articles;

    5) Have a post of “Reporter General” who can adjudicate (in the same way the PCC does now) in all but the most serious of cases, and require publishers to set the record straight – as is now;

    6) Give the Reporter General the ultimate sanction is to refer such cases for a public hearing involving all parties – including editors, journalists and publishers;

    7) Where a journalist, editor or publisher disagrees with the ruling in 5, they can appeal to the Select Committee – who can then decide whether to hear or dismiss the appeal, and whether to allow the appeal or uphold the original decision;

    8) When the Select Committee has issued its report on a case, the publication will have to publish the summary ruling in full, provide appropriate links to the full ruling and comply with whatever decisions the Select Committee decide;

    9) Failure to comply with 8) would leave those concerned in contempt of Parliament;

    The grounds for this being that Parliament is the representative of the people, and that through Parliament the people should have a right to redress and to scrutinise publishers, editors and journalists on the content that they publish.

    It could also be incorporated into the reform of libel laws.

    What do people think?

  12. this is an aside but it is related to the overall piece.

    I was quoted in an evening post article today about a licensing application for a restaurant in bristol. commenters on the thread have started calling me names e.g. you're probably fat and ugly (which is shit, but i can deal with) but have now started calling me:
    'Sian Two Mums Norris'

    because i have two mums.

    This is why it is unacceptable for newspapers to print homophobic language - like bender. it normalises homophobic teasing and bullying, writes it off as a 'joke' and 'harmless'. So that people can then use a newspaper website to write homophobic insults to me.

    Obviously i'm sure this idiot would be homophobic anyway, but perhaps if homophobia wasn't so normalised in the public sphere he might think twice about being so blatant about it.

    When the PCC refuse to rule on stuff like this because Louie Spence didn't directly complain, he ignores the fact that Spence isn't the only gay person in the UK, he isn't the only person in the UK who might be offended by homophobia. I'm not gay (not that it's important) but i am a victim of homophobic nastiness today, and it is all part of the continuation of this nasty, 'joking' use of offensive language.


  13. I'm sorry but what is the PCC for?


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