A complaint that a newspaper comment piece about Boyzone star Stephen Gately’s death was “inaccurate”, “intrusive” and “discriminatory” was not upheld, the British Press Complaints Commission (PCC) said today.
Gately, 33, died of natural causes due to a pulmonary oedema on October 10 last year at his holiday home on the island of Majorca.
His civil partner Andrew Cowles made a complaint to the PCC about two articles written by columnist Jan Moir in the Daily Mail on October 16 and October 23 last year.
The PCC said today it could fully understand why Mr Cowles and a record 25,000 other complainants were upset by the article but ruled that Ms Moir’s comments had not breached press guidelines.
Mr Cowles said the articles headed “Why there was nothing ’natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death” and “The truth about my views on the tragic death of Stephen Gately” were inaccurate, intrusive at a time of grief, and discriminatory in breach of clauses one, five and 12 of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Ms Moir’s claim that Gately had died a “lonely” death in the living room after Mr Cowles went into the bedroom with another man was inaccurate, he said.
Mr Cowles said he was asleep on the sofa with Gately when the singer died.
The PCC ruling said Mr Cowles was also concerned that the initial article had made a number of “pejorative references” to Gately’s sexuality and appeared the day before the funeral at a time of immense grief.
Mr Cowles said the follow-up piece failed to mitigate the offence and hurt caused and represented an intrusion into grief.
The PCC said the 25,000 complaints it received about the first article was by far the largest number it had ever received on a single issue.
The Daily Mail told the PCC the article was clearly marked as the opinion of its columnist and a contrary opinion had been expressed strongly by a separate columnist, Janet Street-Porter, the following Monday.
It had published a selection of letters on the controversy and its website comment facility had been kept open for all sides to set out their views.
The record number of complaints was an internet phenomenon “whipped up in a few hours on the social networks of Facebook and Twitter” and had to be kept in perspective, the newspaper said.
It argued that the points raised by Moir would have been just as pertinent had Mr Gately been heterosexual and it was unable to find any pejorative references to Mr Gately’s sexuality in the article.
Moir’s second article had apologised to Gately’s family for any upset caused by the original piece, the newspaper added.
The PCC today said the Daily Mail had to accept responsibility for the distress it had caused although its ruling welcomed Ms Moir’s apology to Gately’s family for the ill-timed nature of the article.
The press watchdog said it also had to consider the complaint in the wider context of press freedom and added: “As a general point, the commission considered that it should be slow to prevent columnists from expressing their views, however controversial they may be.”
Its ruling said: “The price of freedom of expression is that commentators and columnists say things with which other people may not agree, may find offensive or may consider to be inappropriate.”
It said argument and debate “should not be constrained unnecessarily”.
PCC director Stephen Abell said it was “a difficult but important case”.
“The article clearly caused distress to Mr Cowles, as well as many others, and this was regrettable.
“It was right that those concerned about the article should be able to register their anger in a variety of ways: by writing to the newspaper, by communicating on the internet and by complaining to the PCC.”
He said the numerous forums for challenging Ms Moir’s view was “evidence of a strong culture of public debate and accountability”.
“In the end, the commission, while not shying away from recognising the flaws in the article, has judged that it would not be proportionate to rule against the columnist’s right to offer freely expressed views about something that was the focus of public attention.”
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) yesterday said Moir’s first article did not break the law after it was asked to consider two complaints made to the Metropolitan Police.
Tony Connell, CPS London complex casework lawyer, said: “Having considered that material I have decided that there is insufficient evidence that any offence has been committed.
“In coming to this conclusion I have paid particular attention to Article 10 of the Human Rights Act which protects individuals’ freedom of expression. It is an established legal principle that this freedom applies equally to information and ideas that are favourably received as to those which offend, shock and disturb.
“Though the complainants and many others found this article offensive, this does not make its publication unlawful.”