Friday, 17 September 2010

PCC takes stand against pejorative language...sometimes

The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint from Clare Balding about an AA Gill column in the Sunday Times.

Gill had 'reviewed' Balding's TV programme Britain by Bike and referred to her as a 'dyke on a bike', said she looked 'like a big lesbian' and he also indulged in some crude innuendo. She complained to the paper but an obnoxious reply from Sunday Times editor John Witherow compounded the problem.

So Balding wrote to the PCC, arguing the comments breached 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.

The paper issued a feeble defence:

There was no reason why – in an age where homosexuality carried little social stigma – the reviewer could not discuss the sexuality of a TV presenter who had no problem with being openly gay.

Calling someone a 'dyke' and a 'big lesbian' is not 'discussing sexuality' but hurling crude insults. Can the Sunday Times really not see the difference?

Thankfully, the PCC has ruled in Balding's favour:

The right to legitimate freedom of expression is a key part of an open and democratic society and something which the Commission has sought to defend in the past. In this case, the columnist was clearly entitled to his opinion about both the programme and the complainant. As the paper had pointed out, the Commission has previously upheld his right to offer such opinions in his columns.

Of course, freedom of expression is – and should be – appropriately restricted by the Editors’ Code of Practice. Clause 12 of the Code is clear: newspapers must avoid prejudicial, pejorative or irrelevant reference to (amongst other things) an individual’s sexual orientation. The Commission itself has said that the use of pejorative synonyms for homosexual individuals would represent a certain breach of the Code.

In this case, the Commission considered that the use of the word “dyke” in the article – whether or not it was intended to be humorous – was a pejorative synonym relating to the complainant’s sexuality. The context was not that the reviewer was seeking positively to “reclaim” the term, but rather to use it to refer to the complainant’s sexuality in a demeaning and gratuitous way. This was an editorial lapse which represented a breach of the Code, and the newspaper should have apologised at the first possible opportunity.

If Clause 12 is to mean anything, the PCC has got this one right.

But there still seems to be a problem with the inconsistency of the PCC.

It has said that the use of 'dyke' in this article was pejorative, demeaning and gratuitous.

Yet only a few weeks ago, when two readers complained about the Sun's use of 'bender' to refer to a gay man, the PCC hid behind its 'third-party' rule to ignore the complaint. It didn't reject the complaint, it didn't even consider it.

But who could argue that 'bender' wasn't also
pejorative, demeaning and gratuitous?


  1. The difference seems to be that in Balding's case she complained directly, wheras Spence did not. What this amounts to is that the PCC seems to adopt the rule that offending anyone reading an article is OK, but offending the people they're directly writing about is not. So, just enough to stop the papers getting sued then. Remind me again who the PCC's supposed to be serving here?

  2. ... and what happens now?

  3. Bob - The Sunday Times will print some kind of apology (which will, of course, be behind a paywall), and hopefully, we won't see the word 'dyke' used as a cheap jibe by a newspaper any time soon.

  4. The PCC has the third-party rule because it knows it would be inudated with complaints were anyone be able to pick up newspapers on their breaches of the code.


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