The Advertising Standards Authority has this week ruled that The Belfast News Letter was in breach of The Committee of Advertising Practice Code Clause 5.1 in publishing a full-page advertisement from Sandown Free Presbyterian Church.
The advertisement, published on 1st August 2008 and headlined 'The Word of God Against Sodomy' was timed to coincide with Belfast's annual gay pride festival and parade. It voiced its disapproval of homosexuality in typical Biblical vitriol.
Seven people complained to the ASA, who initially recommended that the complaints should not be upheld, although noted that a final decision would be taken by its Council.
The Council this week ruled out any consideration that the News Letter or Sandown Free Presbyterian Church acted to incite hatred but instead upheld complaints on the basis of CAP Code Clause 5.1, which notes that "Marketing communications should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence," and "Particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability."
Commenting on the advertisement, Sandown Free Presbyterian Church quoted "God's truth," to mask its homophobia, while the Belfast News Letter noted it felt it appropriate "to express relevant views surrounding the issue, despite the fact that those views may be abhorrent to some," and that a refusal to publish the advertisement would have been "an infringement of freedom of expression on a matter of public interest."
The ASA has recommended that the advert should not appear again in its current form. The ASA has also informed Sandown Free Presbyterian Church to "take more care in future," to avoid causing offence and advised the church to seek a view from the CAP Copy Advice team before publishing future marketing material.
Since the ASA doesn't impose fines and holds no direct powers of legal censure, it seems likely that the Free Presbyterian Church will take little notice of its ruling. However CAP Code 61.8 notes that persistent offenders may be required to have some or all of their marketing communications vetted by the CAP Copy Advice team until the ASA and CAP are satisfied that future communications will comply with the Code.
CAP Code 61.10 goes further. It notes that if marketing communications continue to appear after the ASA Council has ruled against them, the ASA can refer the matter to The Office for Fair Trading for action under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008. The OFT can seek an undertaking that the marketing will be stopped from anyone responsible for commissioning, preparing or disseminating it. If that is not given or is not honoured, the OFT can seek an injunction from the Court to prevent its further appearance. Anyone not complying can be found to be in contempt of court and is liable to be penalised accordingly.
This suggests that any further homophobic pamphleteering by Sandown Free Presbyterian Church could be directed back to the ASA, with the possibility of the church ending up in court.
At the very least, a warning shot has been fired. However, one wonders what happened to all those complaints to the police earlier this year, regarding Iris Robinson MLA's outspoken views on lesbian and gay people.
I recently attended a performance of DV8 Physical Theatre's 'To Be Straight With You' at London's National Theatre. During one scene, Robinson's homophobic ranting was played to barn-yard music, while performers in animal heads trotted around the stage. The audience hooted with laughter at the narrow provincialism described by the piece.
Such provincialism is the preserve of the Belfast News Letter. A newspaper of integrity would not have carried such an offensive full-page advertisement. Rather than engage in any significant journalism, the Belfast News Letter colludes with the rhetoric of fundamentalist loathing and echoes the spirit of a faded empire. I see nothing within the pages of that newspaper to convince me otherwise, although I hope it sees fit to print a full-page apology in one of this week's editions, along with a copy of the ASA's final adjudication.
To access the text of the full-page advertisement, as it appeared in the Belfast News Letter, click the image above.