At the end of 1984 I worked at the Terrence Higgins Trust – Britain’s first national AIDS organisation. I began work there in September and things were incredibly quiet; we had only one telephone and it barely rang all day.
Three months later we were receiving so many calls that we had to have another two telephones installed. And yet there had been no significant changes in the spread of AIDS; the rate and method of transmission remained the same; there had been no sudden jump in the number of people diagnosed.
What had changed, however, was that the mainstream Press had got hold of it and turned it into “The Gay Plague” that was, according to The Sun newspaper “Spreading like wildfire”. (Ironically, this claim was made in an article entitled “20 things you didn’t know about AIDS”!)
By the time I left the Trust, in October 1985, we’d expanded to two offices and a lot more telephones. Not because of any increased concern about people with AIDS but because of the hysteria generated by the Press.
As one tabloid journalist told me “AIDS sells more papers than bingo”. (Never mind the impact on people’s lives).
I decided to do a study of British Press reporting of AIDS in the period October 1984 to October 1985 to see what kind of messages they were sending out. I cover this in detail in my eBook Gay in the 80s, which you can find here. But very briefly, the key themes were:
- The Source – AIDS, unquestionably, came from gays and was, in some strange way, actually generated by our lifestyle (what, interior decorating?). The fact that it was labelled “The Gay Plague” and “Gay Bug” by the Murdoch media established this. But there were other examples e.g. “Blood from gay donor puts 41 at AIDS risk”.
- Moral Enterprise – while the gays are down let’s kick ’em as hard as we can. Who cares about sensitivity – or even the facts! “AIDS is the wrath of God, says vicar” (Sun), “Joan [Collins] blasts sins of Hollywood” (News of the World) – talk about a hypocrite! “Permissive Hosts Must Pay the Bill” (Times).
- Infectivity – in complete contradiction of the facts, Press reports stated that AIDS was highly infectious. For example, “Cough can spread AIDS, warns Doc” (The Sun), “It’s spreading like wildfire” (The Sun), “Kiss of Death” (The Star), “A million will have AIDS in six years” (Daily Mail), This issue of infectiousness was reinforced by:
- AIDS Is Everywhere – There was no escaping AIDS – it was reaching into every corner of society. “AIDS on the QE2” (Sun), “AIDS death shock at BBC” (Star), “AIDS: Three British Airways crew die (Sun), “[Government] Minister killed by AIDS (News of the World),
- The Cover-up – you can’t have a good conspiracy theory without a cover-up. “Scandal of AIDS cover up on QE2” (News of the World), “AIDS: This scandalous cover-up” (Mail on Sunday), “Storm over AIDS priest cover-up by hospital” (Daily Express).
- The Solution – “Now slap a ban on gay donors” (The Sun), “AIDS:It’s time to act” – blood donors should declare that they’re not homosexual (The Sun – again), “AIDS: Law to isolate victims” (Daily Mail)”AIDS victims face forced quarantine” (Daily Mirror), “Sex curb on gays” (The Sun).
- Defining Our Priorities – This was an interesting exercise in establishing a hierarchy of concern. Gays were at the bottom of the list whilst young offenders – usually “thugs” and “hooligans” – suddenly became “terrified young offenders” and “lads” when it was discovered that their prison chaplain had died from AIDS. “Barricades Threat in AIDS Fear Jail” (The People), “Gay Plague Seals Off Death Prison” (The Sun).
And even though 32 gay men had already died of AIDS in Britain the Daily Mail had no problems in reporting the death of a haemophiliac in front page banner headlines as “AIDS Virus Kills Man in Britain”.
Readers had to go to the last paragraph on the second page to learn that he was not, in fact, the first to die.
On the other hand, Ken Livingstone was roundly condemned in a show of Press hypocrisy when he joked that the Conservatives should be infected with AIDS. “Sick sex joke by Red Ken” (The Sun), “Red Ken’s AIDS joke falls flat” (Daily Mirror). So, gays do at least rate above nasty lefties.
- Guidelines for Public Reaction – just in case members of the public weren’t clear on how hysterical they should get, the Press gave them a few examples. “BANNED! AIDS-fear club ousts gay couple” (The Sun), “Gays put Mrs Mopps in a sweat over AIDS: ‘Work in your gloves’ order to theatre cleaners'” (The Sun), “Ban on AIDS corpse” (The Star), “Pub ban on gays in AIDS panic” (The Sun).
- The Experience of People Living with AIDS – if you were unfortunate enough to answer yes to The Sun’s symptoms checklist “Have you got AIDS?” then you could expect nothing but utter misery. “Seven-month hell of man dying from AIDS” (Daily Mail), “My doomed son’s gay plague agony” (News of the World), “Victims of Gay Plague long to die; torment haunts final sad weeks” (News of the World).
Eventually the hysteria died down but not before a lot of people were seriously hurt by this mis-reporting. The Press have nothing to be proud of in their handling of the AIDS issue. Indeed, it’s obvious that they are incapable of handling any serious issue with sensitivity and responsibility. They don’t just follow the lynch mob mentality, they promote it.
It’s particularly ironic, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch may well be succeeded by his son Lachlan whom is perceived in some Sydney gay circles as being ‘gay-friendly’. Given the homophobic heritage that he may one day inherit he has a lot of mileage to make up.
- There’s a detailed study of the emergence of HIV/AIDS and the various reactions to it in my eBook Gay in the 80s. Full details are available here.