Friday, 23 October 2009

The death of Stephen Gately and the rise of public pack mentality

I’ve been biting my tongue since receiving news of Stephen Gately’s death for two reasons. First, I was waiting to see how the media would handle the story. Second, I was waiting to see who would be first to ask a few bloody obvious questions and start the complaints ball rolling. The latter was inevitable, like watching a car crash in slow motion…

Jan Moir’s article on Stephen Gately’s death has attracted 25,000 complaints and counting and she has been vilified for her allegedly homophobic comments, but I detected something much more sinister lurking beneath this whole debate when it hit the headlines earlier this week. Leaving the content of Moir’s article aside (we’ll come to that later) lets start with how the story broke. What really concerned me was the way in which the whole thing kicked off on Twitter. I watched it happen first hand and was amazed at how quickly it spread across the Twitter network. By the time that I had read Charlie Brooker’s first tweet on the subject (which read ‘Jan Moir manages to walk the difficult tightrope between being a bitch and a c**t’ – lovely sensitivity there, Charlie, now what’s that you are saying about causing offence?), clicked the link, read the article and returned to my Twitter page, my news feed was crammed full with fellow twitterers complaining about Moir. Now I’m a fast reader, but that was pretty fast work! Then a number of other celebrities retweeted the link to the article and shortly after, within only minutes, the bandwagon had picked up full steam and was fast rolling out of control. I watched the whole network light up and before long a real sense of pack mentality had set in. Regardless of the article content, the rabid eagerness with which we scrambled to ‘burn the witch’ was pretty scary stuff. Moir herself noticed this, as she pointed out in her subsequent article:

‘Certainly, something terrible went wrong as my column ricocheted through cyberspace, unread by many who complained, yet somehow generally and gleefully accepted into folklore as a homophobic rant. It lit a spark, then a flame and turned into a roaring ball of hate fire, blazing unchecked and unmediated across the internet.’

I can’t say that this sort of outcry was entirely unexpected because for some time now I have observed a worrying change in public behaviour. It is becoming cool to complain. It almost feels as though the public are trying to trump the number of complaints mustered from the previous mass outrage. But why are we doing this?

There have been several incidents in the entertainment business over the last few years that have attracted a large number of complaints. Take, for example, Jade Goody’s argument with Shilpa Shetty in Big Brother 2007? Hands up all of you who registered a complaint about the treatment of Shilpa on BB8? And how many of you actually watched the entire series of BB8? Now I watched that series (it was a slow summer *ahem*) and way, way before the Jade-Shilpa incident occurred I had made up my mind that Shilpa had a seriously self-righteous princess syndrome thing going on. And who knew that the argument was sparked off by Shilpa’s decision to undercook a chicken? In hindsight, I would have reacted in exactly the same way in the face of any potential food poisoning and ‘don’t you know who I am?’ pomposity regardless of my dinner host’s race, colour or ethnicity...only with a little more decorum and a great deal more vitriol. Many felt the same as the backlash on the BB forums and support for Jade was considerable, with even a few BB related celebs throwing their support behind her. And how many folk who were calling for Jade’s head on a pole after her ‘racist attack’ were fawning over her at her funeral?

And then there was the Brand/Ross/Sachs incident. First we were led to believe that the twosome had taunted a delightful elderly actor whose innocent granddaughter had fallen under the spell of lecherous old Brand. Yes, I thought, Brand and Ross should both be castrated for revealing the gruesome details of this liaison to the woman’s grandfather. And sure enough, the complaints came flooding in. Shortly after the story hit the headlines, a number of comedians on both the TV and radio noticeably toned down their acts, clearly afraid to draw criticism while this vast wave of prudishness was washing through showbiz land. I genuinely thought that I would eventually be reduced to Miss Marple, a pack of cards and a sing-song around the piano for evening entertainment. It then transpired that Sach’s granddaughter was a member of the dance group Satanic Sluts and a number of saucy images of her posing half-naked started to appear in the press. Then rumours began to circulate that Sachs was using the incident to jumpstart his acting career. Sure enough the backlash began, a number of celebs spoke out in defence of Brand and Ross and some of those who complained – and I certainly speak for a large number of people here - felt more thoroughly shafted than anything that Brand was capable of.

Now the complaints are flooding in regarding the ‘homophobic’ content of Jan Moir’s article. Homophobes are a pet hate of mine and I’m more than happy to light my flaming torch and storm the castle when faced with anything even remotely homophobic in the media, but there was one thing in Moir’s article that struck a chord with me. It is a fundamental, albeit regrettable, aspect of our humanity that we like to stick our nose into other people’s business. We like to know why marriages break down, or why someone has been seen leaving someone else’s house in the early hours of the morning. Just consider the media interest currently surrounding the separation of Jordan and Peter Andre. And when a celebrity dies we like to know the cause and circumstances of the death, regardless of whether or not we have any right to pry into the private life of another individual. In this instance a pop star has died suddenly at a young age and I expect that many people, including Gately’s own fans, are curious to discover what exactly happened that night. Yes, people can die suddenly of natural causes at a young age and, having had someone very close to me die unexpectedly in their early-thirties, I can accept this as an entirely credible and acceptable explanation. But there has been such a fluster in the media to sugar-coat the surroundings of Stephen’s death that I must confess that it has raised my eyebrows a little. And now further details of Gately’s death are being made public, it seems that things are not as cut-and-dried that the media would have us believe. Talk of drug use and a stranger accompanying Gately and his partner back to their apartment is surfacing in a number of newspapers. Have the public yet again received an ‘edited’ version of events that serves to fob them off with a nice fairytale ending…?

Whatever events took place that night and whoever was present with the couple may be completely irrelevant to the cause of death and Jan Moir may be entirely wrong to speculate that the cause of Gately’s death was anything ‘unnatural’. Certainly the generalisation that a gay lifestyle = a sleazy, hedonistic lifestyle and ultimately = an early death, is more than offensive in itself. And Moir deserves all the fury that she gets in that respect. But I have spoken to some fellow twitterers recently who are offended at the simple fact that she is casting out wild speculations about his death, regardless of her comments on his sexuality. But aren’t we all guilty of this kind of speculation at some time or other? Just consider the death of Michael Jackson. Rumours were in circulation about the circumstances of his death before his body was even cold, but somehow it was acceptable to ask questions about Jackson’s death. Why is that, I wonder? How about all the conspiracy theories that abounded immediately following Princess Diana’s death? And why is it that if, for example, a member of parliament is found dead in the back of a wardrobe dressed in S&M gear then this usually makes for front page news, with graphic colour photos and a cheeky ‘ooer missus’ headline. Why is that ok, I wonder?

Why is it ok to ask questions about certain celebrities and not others? Are we not allowed to ask questions about Gately’s death because he was in a gay partnership? Is that why? If so, will we all be branded as homophobes for asking questions about celebrities in gay relationships in future? Surely not. We are living in the 21st century, not in the Victorian era! If we are to be encouraged to see no distinction between a homosexual relationship and a heterosexual relationship and treat both partnerships equally, then both must be subjected to the same, albeit often vile and intrusive, treatment by the media. If we want to speculate on the breakdown of a gay marriage or the death of a gay celebrity then we must do so in exactly the same way that we would speculate on the breakdown of a heterosexual marriage or the death of a heterosexual celebrity. Surely treating both relationships differently in the media spotlight is keeping homophobia alive and kicking. And Moir obviously feels the hot breath of the thought police breathing down her neck in this respect:

‘Can it really be that we are becoming a society where no one can dare to question the circumstances or behaviour of a person who happens to be gay without being labelled a homophobe? If so, that is deeply troubling.’

I’m sure that there are many individuals out there in the ‘equality business’ who make a decent living out of drawing up fake battle lines and pointing fingers, but there is no need to keep scratching the scab in order to keep the doctors in business. Yes, any articles written with evidentially homophobic content, if that is how it is rightfully deemed, deserve all the complaints that they receive. But our Lord of the Flies eagerness to bay for blood the very second that a celebrity cries ‘offensive!’ also sends shivers up my spine. We fall for it every time and often without giving the matter any serious thought. It seems that the ‘angry mob’ syndrome is kicking into gear a little too often these days and we need to keep a watchful eye on it…

By the way, if you want a genuine reason to light those flaming torches, take a look at this article on Gately’s death in The Christian Voice. Love thy neighbour…?


  1. Good post, Helen. Can't say I like the hysteria-mongering in the media. Particularly loathed it when it was Brand-Ross. (Russell Brand had often talked about Sachs's granddaughter in earlier shows, always in the context of talking about the Satanic Sluts, and with the same content as happened in the fateful episode). I suppose the redeeming feature of the Moir thing was that it was nice seeing the Daily Mail on the receiving end of the hysteria.

    I think you slightly misremember the Jade / Shilpa thing, which was not BB8 but was Celebrity Big Brother in January 2007. I'm a bit of a BB geek so still remember these things :)

  2. Thanks for the correction, Mark!