In an adjudication published last Thursday, the Press Complaints Commission decided that a front page Daily Mirror story entitled “Stuart Hall Judge visited gay brothel” did not breach the discrimination or privacy clauses of the Editor’s Code. This was on the bizarre basis that a 1996 News of the World sting was “genuinely relevant” to a debate about whether or not a sentence passed by a judge in 2013 was too lenient.
The Daily Mirror reported that Judge Anthony Russell QC had, in 1996, resigned as a Recorder (a part time judge) after he was “caught visiting a gay brothel” in a “newspaper sting”. It went on to say that, after Judge Russsell had sentenced former BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall to 15 months imprisonment for indecent assaults on 13 girls, “senior figures lined up to criticise the lenient sentence”.
The visit to a “gay brothel” was reported as fact – although in the online version, the headline had subtly changed to “Stuart Hall judge and the “gay brothel visit”” – the inverted commas indicating that such a visit might, after all, never have taken place.
The “Mail Online” published its version of the story later the same – taking its lead from the Mirror. This story is entitled “Judge who gave pervert Stuart Hall just 15 months was forced to quit after being caught visiting a gay brothel”.
The PCC Adjudication
The PCC complaint was made by the Judge’s brother, with his consent. The complaint was that the story insinuated, entirely unjustifiably, that the Judge’s sexual orientation was relevant to or had influenced the sentencing of Mr Hall. It was made under clause 3 of the Editors’ Code, (privacy) and Clause 12
Clause 12 is headed “Discrimination” and provides that
“i) 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.
ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story”.
The PCC emphasised that the purpose of clause 12 (ii) is
“to prevent the risk that prejudice may arise when an individual’s characteristics (sexual orientation, in this case) are juxtaposed with their acts (allegedly excessively lenient sentencing decisions) in a context that may imply to readers, wrongly, that a causal relationship links the two”.
The PCC accepted that, although the article made no specific claim about the Judge’s sexual orientation, clause 12 was engaged. As a result, the newspaper had to show that the information was “genuinely relevant” to the story.
The newspaper’s argument, as summarised by the PCC, was that although the Judge’s sexual orientation was not directly relevant to the sentencing decision itself,
“it was entitled to draw to its readers’ attention the circumstances which had led to his resignation. The nature of the establishment was directly relevant to this narrative”.
Although it described its decision as “extremely finely balanced”, this argument was accepted by the PCC. It decided that the newspaper was entitled to bring to its readers’ attention the fact that the Judge had previously had cause to resign from a judicial post and that the cause was a visit to an establishment “which was allegedly the site of sexual activities that were regarded, at least at the time of the original incident, as worthy of comment”.
The PCC said it had “reservations” about the manner in which the material had been presented and the prominence given to the nature of the establishment, it said that clause 12 (ii) did not allow it to uphold a complaint solely based on prominence of information identifying sexual orientation. The complaint under Clause 3 (Privacy) was rejected because the report “contained minimal details about the allegations, which had been previously published”.
What Gay Brothel?
The first point to make is that “gay brothel” is an invention of the News of the World. The club in question was (and is) a gay sauna. The Times reported the story at the time, under the headline “Recorder quits over trip to gay club”
“A Judge has resigned after allegations that he was involved in gay sex. The resignation of Anthony Russell, 45, who sits on the bench part-time as a Crown Court recorder, followed claims in a Sunday newspaper about his visit to a men-only club.
Yesterday Mr Russell, a barrister, said in a statement issued through his chambers in Manchester: ”I have written to the Lord Chancellor tendering my resignation as a recorder.” He confirmed that he had visited the Greenhouse club in Walsall, West Midlands, where the News of the World reported that he spent 30 minutes with two men in the club’s ”dark room””.
So the 1996 resignation was, indeed, about “gay sex”. No criminal activity or wrongdoing of any kind was involved.
Discrimination and Invasion of Privacy
Why then was the Daily Mirror “entitled to bring” this matter to its readers’ attention? The PCC provides no coherent answer to this question.
It is impossible to see how a 17 year old resignation illuminates a debate about sentencing unless there is some link between the Judge’s sexuality and his alleged leniency. The reference, under the heading “Sex Trial Exclusive” to the trial judge having once “visited gay brothel” can only mean one thing: the Judge’s sexuality influenced the way in which he sentenced a defendant. This innuendo was one which the newspaper explicitly disavowed. If that was not its intention it is difficult to see why the old (and false) claim merited a front page splash.
As for privacy, the fact that the allegation had been previously published does not necessarily mean that the information has ceased to be private. A long forgotten story about a sexual encounter was put on the front page of a national newspaper without any justification. The invasion of privacy could not be clearer.
The decision, once again, demonstrates how the PCC has become infused with the values of the tabloid newspapers on which it very often has to sit in judgment. In failing to condemn an obviously offensive and gratuitous front page reference to a judge’s sexual orientation it has condemned itself.