Good on Gareth Thomas but some people need to take a good hard look at themselves
PUBLISHED: 13:35 16 September 2019 | UPDATED: 13:35 16 September 2019
Rugby star Gareth Thomas has had to reveal his HIV positive status after tabloid journalists found out about it and went to his parents’ home. This is beyond the pale, says Liz Nice
Ours is a maligned profession and sometimes it is deserved.
None of us is immune to a bit of moral flexibility when it comes to getting the story, but for every journalist there is always that moment when you ask yourself, 'What have I become?'
I experienced this as a young editor in my 20s when a celebrity magazine I was working for mocked a particular star and called her 'bonkers', before going on to list all her 'bonkers' actions as though they were some kind of joke.
This was way before there was any kind of mental health awareness and the awful thing was that we thought we were being funny.
You can get swept along in a culture, and, along the way, you can lose yourself.
I was brought up short when the celebrity in question contacted me personally.
Her distress was evident. After hearing the pain in her voice, so was mine.
When you are working in that world, it's easy to forget that the people you are writing about are actually people. They become caricatures and you convince yourself that because they 'put themselves out there', they deserve all they get.
Well, they don't. No one does.
This is why I now work in local journalism.
Bashing people for the sake of it is not our way.
I still defend the journalist's right to expose hypocrisy, notwithstanding that we are all guilty of it at various points in our lives.
The job of the press is to highlight what is in the public interest, which is not necessarily what is interesting to the public.
Without us to call our leaders to account, they would exercise power unrestrained. Bad as things might seem right now, they are nothing to what would be happening without a robust and beady-eyed press calling people out when certain lines are crossed and I am proud to tell people that this is what I do.
But I hope the journalists and others who drove Gareth Thomas to have to reveal his HIV status at the weekend are taking a good look at themselves this morning, just as I did the day I received that phone call 20 years ago.
The rugby star had already shown great courage in 2009 when he came out, the first professional rugby player ever to do so, but when tabloid journalists discovered that he was HIV positive, and exposure of his secret was imminent, he was left with no option than to have to tell first his parents and then, at the weekend, the public at large.
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Once again, Thomas has shown that living with a lie is always a worse scenario than being open.
People are generally understanding and supportive when we are honest about any kind of perceived weakness and secrets always have far more power when they are kept.
But Thomas should have had the right to keep his health situation to himself if he wanted to. That's not just me saying it, it's in the IPSO Code which all journalists are bound by and which governs our ethical decisions every single day. Yes, we do have ethics! You'd be surprised by how often we have a stern conversation with ourselves - is this the right thing? What matters more here? Is this something people need to know, or are we casually mucking up someone's life to satisfy the public's prurience, and our own?
I'm glad I had that phone call 20 years ago, much as it made me despise myself for a while.
I learned from it. And when I taught journalism at Sheffield University for many years, I always told my students about it, so that they might learn from it too.
In being honest and open, once again, Gareth Thomas has become a shining light of truth; someone who has stood up against bullying and been brave enough to ask to be accepted as he is.
From the response, with everyone from Prince William to Jeremy Corbyn sending messages of support, it seems he has been.
All journalists should apply the same approach to themselves and ask - 'If I was to tell everyone the thing I'd least like people to know about myself, would I be accepted?' And if that's an uncomfortable thought, it's time to consider just what you really have become.
On a similar theme, the Guardian has been branded 'inhumane' after an editorial claiming David Cameron's wealth and status meant he only suffered 'privileged pain' when his disabled son Ivan died, aged six.
"Had he been trying to get the system to look after a dying parent rather than a dying child, he might have understood a little of the damage that his policies have done."
The paper has since apologised.
Honestly, no one knows what pain the ex Prime Minister went through over his son, and anyone who doesn't feel empathy for him over the loss of his beloved child, regardless of how one feels about his policies, is being heartless in the extreme.
The term 'privileged pain' is offensive too.
But if that was what the writer of the editorial genuinely believed, why apologise?
Just because people don't like your view, doesn't mean you should immediately backtrack.
I've had a number of moments as a columnist when people have rung in demanding that I apologise for something I have said. But unless what I had written was factually incorrect, I would always say no. I can't apologise for what I believe if I still believe the same thing! To do so is cowardly and disingenuous.
If you're getting a bad rap for your opinion, all the more reason to stand by it - otherwise, you may as well say nothing at all.
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