Columnists "should be able to offend": UK watchdog

LONDON Thu Feb 18, 2010 10:27am GMT

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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britain's press watchdog said on Thursday it had dismissed complaints over a newspaper article which described the death of gay Boyzone singer Stephen Gately as not "natural", saying columnists should be allowed to offend.

Gately, 33, died while on holiday on the Spanish Island of Majorca last October, with a post mortem concluding that the cause of death was fluid on the lungs.

In an article for the Daily Mail newspaper under the headline "A strange, lonely and troubling death", columnist Jan Moir wrote that something was "wrong with the way this incident has been shaped and spun".

"Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one," she wrote.

"And I think if we are going to be honest, we would have to admit that the circumstances surrounding his death are more than a little sleazy."

The article, published the day before the singer's funeral, provoked fury with a record 25,000 people, including Gately's civil partner Andrew Cowles, contacting the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

Some argued it was homophobic and broke the law as Moir had also written that the death had struck "another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships".

Moir later apologized to Gately's family for the timing of her story, while the Crown Prosecution Service concluded that there was no evidence that any crime had been committed.

In its ruling, the PCC said it had not upheld the complaint from Cowles, saying columnists should be allowed to air their views, however contentious.

"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. "Robust opinion sparks vigorous debate; it can anger and upset."

PCC Director Stephen Abell said it had been a difficult case for the watchdog.

"In the end, the Commission, while not shying away from recognizing 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," he said.

The Lesbian and Gay Foundation's communications manager Andrew Gilliver said he had no doubt the article had suggested Gately's lifestyle as a gay man had led to his death.

"We can only hope that as a result of this incident, columnists will in future write with responsibility when debating lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues, and take into consideration the feelings of those involved," he said.

(Editing by Steve Addison)

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