What a carry on in the dark!
The very widely-reported story of the Avon firemen disciplined for bringing the Fire Brigade into disrepute and unauthorised use of their fire engine (and torches) is both fnarrr funny and funny peculiar. But the most peculiar aspect of it, and certainly the most serious, is the light it casts on the minds of newspaper editors.
The ‘bare’ facts that can be ascertained from the various reports are these: on their return to their fire station, four on-duty firemen from Avonmouth Fire Station’s ‘Blue Watch’ (no kidding) drove out of their way at night in in a fire engine to a remote cruising/dogging area and shone their powerful Fire Brigade torches into some bushes, supposedly revealing a group of four men involved in ‘a gay sex act’.
According to the newspaper reports, one of the participants in this night-time tryst in the bushes illuminated by the firemen’s torches complained to the Terrence Higgins Trust who then contacted Avon Fire Brigade. Avon Fire Brigade suspended the men on full pay for three months before finding them guilty of bringing the service into disrepute, demoting, fining and moving them to different stations and compelling them to undergo ‘gay awareness’ training.
The Sun, for whom the story was almost tailor-made, devoted most of a page to it: ‘Firemen expose gay doggers‘, with the strap-line ‘Four firemen have been carpeted after disturbing an outdoor gay sex romp.’ The Sun suggests of course that the case was an example of ‘political correctness gone mad’ (and some of the details, such as the ‘re-education’ of the firemen appear to lend themselves to this). It also makes a meal of the ‘criminal’ nature of the acts these public-spirited firemen allegedly witnessed.
However, perhaps surprisingly, The Sun, unlike most other newspapers, made some effort to avoid whipping up indignation at the very idea of men having sex with other men outdoors – e.g. the use of ‘gay romp’ (‘romps’ used to be strictly hetero in The Sun; gay sex was ‘sordid’ or ‘sleazy’ or ‘perverted’) and the interesting phrase ‘gay dogging’ (when dogging, a very recent phenomenon, might actually be described as straight cruising).
Funnily enough, The Sun‘s sister-with-a-degree-paper The Times, the UK’s paper of record, ran a report that was much more misleading, right down to the headline: ‘Firemen are disciplined for disturbing orgy in bushes’, which in its very ambiguity (are the fireman having the disturbing orgy?) is rather ‘revealing’. The piece failed to make it clear that the firemen had quite literally gone out of their way in council taxpayer’s time, in a fire engine bought and fuelled with taxpayers money, to shine their powerful FB torches on this ‘criminal activity’ – when they should have been back at the fire station awaiting a call from a member of the public whose chip-fan was on fire.
More importantly, like most reports, it also conveyed the impression that the (disturbing) act the firemen witnessed was of course illegal and seemed founded on the absurdity that they should be punished rather than the uppity criminal ‘gay’. (If you think I misread the piece, see the indignant comments about ‘criminal gays’ posted at the end – e.g. ‘I am astounded. Fine upstanding citizens, hardworking firemen who risk there lives to help people, disturb people in an ILLEGAL act and it is they who get into trouble, not the individuals who are behaving in an ILLEGAL and immoral way. This country is going to the tubes’.)
The Daily Telegraph, which doesn’t pretend to be as metropolitan as The Times does these days, managed a better fist of it, despite their equally confusing/revealing headline: ‘Firemen reprimanded for disturbing gay sex act’. The article seemed like the others to presume the ‘illegality’ of the disturbing gay sex act, and the courageousness of the uppity gay who complained, but, crucially, included (in the print version) a small box at the end by their legal correspondent which contained the rather important point – neglected from all the other reports I saw – that reforms to the law in recent years, doing away with discriminatory laws that criminalised only sex between men, and introducing the concept of ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’, mean that consensual sex between men – or anyone of any gender – in a remote place (in the bushes, at night) isn’t illegal.
So the angle presented in the Sun, The Times, the Telegraph (main story) and the Mail, and in countless Richard Littlejohn style ranting blogs — criminal gays get off (arf) while heroic, upstanding straight firemen are punished — wasn’t an angle at all. Or at least, a highly debatable one.
Even the ‘gay-friendly’ Guardian, in a lengthy report, failed to mention this rather salient fact and conveyed the same erroneous impression, despite quoting prominently, as most if not all of the reports did, an ‘unnamed firefighter’ (who wasn’t present on the Downs that evening), complaining:
“This is a complete farce. All four officers have been let down by their senior officers when they needed their support the most. They have been treated as the criminals in this case and it has been completely forgotten that they witnessed criminal activity occurring in a public place.”
Umm, nice try mate, but they didn’t. And they didn’t report what you now say they claim they saw, either.
The Telegraph‘s useful little box also mentioned that unwanted voyeurism was potentially illegal. In other words, if you want to get all hoity toity and talk about ‘criminal acts’ the firemen should perhaps consider themselves lucky that they weren’t disciplined and prosecuted.
It’s difficult not to conclude that the firemen, homophobic or not, were in that place at that time of the night shining their torches around in the bushes because they wanted a cheap thrill. They were dogging themselves – but on our time. (Though of course we now get to dog as well by reading the newspaper reports.) If they had observed the usual etiquette of such places and not shone their bloody torches in everyone’s eyes to get a better butchers no one would have rung the THT and they wouldn’t have got into trouble.
As someone who has been cruising in such places myself in the past I know how long it takes to get your night vision back after being blinded by some idiots un-dipped headlights. I think they deserve everything they got.
But the newspapers deserve much, much worse for their dereliction of duty.
As part of the same misrepresentation of the story, most of the reports refer to the (anonymous) four men supposedly involved in the public sex scene unequivocally as ‘gay’ or (in The Times) ‘homosexual’.
How do the newspapers know this as a fact? Were they there in the bushes themselves? Would this have even helped? This was, after all, a pick-up area, we’ve been told, popular with ‘gays’ and ‘straight doggers’. Even exclusively ‘gay’ cruising areas, if there are any left now that straight dogging has become so popular, are not that gay, which is, after all, the point of them: they appeal to married and bisexual men, and men who regard themselves as straight but like a bit of cock every now and again.
And from what I’ve seen of dogging, quite a few ‘straight doggers’ will get involved to some degree with the all-male action if it’s a slow night – or at least have a good look if someone’s putting on a show. Dogging by its very nature tends to wander outside the the usual boundaries of ‘straight’ and ‘gay’.
Besides, the claim that the firemen witnessed any sex at all, let alone a ‘gay orgy’, is just that, a claim, not a fact as presented by the newspaper reports. A claim which seems to have been made only after the firemen were disciplined — and by a disgruntled firemen chum who wasn’t even present that evening. In other words, it’s about as dubious a claim as you could imagine.
So the widely-reported ‘fact’ that it was one of the ‘gays’ taking part in the ‘illegal’ ‘public’ ‘gay orgy’ who contacted the THT – and the basis of all the torrents of righteous indignation – is actually pure fantasy.
Absolutely nothing is known about the man who wanted to know what the firemen where doing there at that time of night other than what the THT has put in the public domain as they were the only people to speak to him and the ones who presented his concerns to the Avon Fire Brigade. They (confirmed in an email to me) have made no statement about his sexuality – and the THT doesn’t ask anyway. He didn’t say anything about what he was doing on the Downs. And he didn’t report any sexual activity to them.
There was never a ‘complaint’ about the firemen made to the THT – a member of the public (we do not ask questions about the sexuality of individuals) merely enquired via the THT as to why the fire engine was at that location.
None of the officers at the time of their disciplinary made reference to seeing anything (illegal/sexual activity) taking place.
There was no ‘gay orgy’ or indeed any sexual activity reported by either a member of the public, the firemen, the police or the THT.
So two facts finally emerge from the bushes:
a) the sexuality of the ‘gay’ who rang the THT and was subjected to national vilification is in actual fact as unknown as his identity and
b) the only source for the ‘fact’ that he was part of a ‘gay orgy’ is the disgruntled chum of the disciplined firemen who wasn’t there that evening. And even if he had been, how the blazes would he know who had contacted the THT?
It seems to me that on this one, everyone’s in the dark, thrashing around the bushes with their pants down.
An excellent piece by Rachel Johnson dissecting the farrago, setting the legal record ‘straight’ and and going some way to restoring The Times’ honour appeared the day after I posted this blog.
UPDATE 2008: PCC Complaint
I decided to shine a torch of my own around and referred this widespread misreporting to the Press Complaints Commission. Surprisingly, the secretariat took up my complaint. They don’t usually do this if you are not the party concerned (in this case the party concerned would be the alleged doggers and/or the anonymous man who contacted the THT).
But I explained that as someone who has visited such places in the past the widespread misreporting of the state of the law in regard to outdoor sex criminalised me – and made me and others more likely to be attacked by vigilantes and queerbashers. As a result, a few offending newspapers including Metro and The Yorkshire Post published letters from me pointing out their errors (though in fact they should have been required to publish proper corrections themselves). The Daily Mail of course refused any such resolution. Despite being the biggest offender — and running a column by Littlejohn on the matter which stated as fact that ‘outdoor sex is illegal’ and essentially encouraging attacks on men who have sex with men outdoors.
The Executive Managing Editor of the Daily Mail Robin Esser’s reply to the PCC began:
‘First of all the Daily Mail is not homophobic, nor, I believe, is our columnist Mr Littlejohn.’
And that was probably the least absurd part of his letter. In a later one responding to my rebuttal of his, turning down the resolution option of publishing a letter from me, he came out of the closet about the Daily Mail‘s political agenda in its misreporting of the story – and exploitation of it:
‘I do not think the Editor would be in favour of a letter which encouraged the pursuit of ‘dogging’, either heterosexual or homosexual, legal or illegal.’
The PCC Commission – a panel of national newspaper editors – chaired I think at that time by Paul Dacre the editor of the Daily Mail — ruled against my complaint, stating that there was not a ‘significant’ breach of their regulations. And anyway, I was a ‘third party’.
In other words, they couldn’t deny that the story and the legal position had been misreported, but it wasn’t ‘significant’ enough to piss off their chum Paul Dacre over.
The Daily Mail did however very kindly agree to ‘put a note in our files’ regarding the story. The PCC declined to explain to me what this actually translates into in terms of accurate reporting in the future and how I would test this statement.
Oh, and in its judgement the Commission (i.e. our national newspaper editors) insisted on referring repeatedly to the ‘gay men’ taking part in ‘an orgy’, despite my having made it quite clear to them with documentary evidence that neither of these statements were fact but merely loaded opinion/prejudice. I complained about this to the secretariat who took it up with the Commission. The response of the most powerful newspapers in the land to that was to state that ‘because these men were men having sex with one another [sic] it is reasonable to assume they were gay’.
Fallacy based on falsehood is an irresistible force. At least when it comes to the great British press.
Thanks to Chris Park for drawing my attention to this excellent article in Flagship the Fire Brigade Union magazine – which strongly suggests that the anonymous quote from a colleague of the disciplined firemen is bogus too.