Thursday, 5 March 2015

Michael Mason: Goodbye

As one of Britain’s most respected gay journalists, Michael Mason felt “bemused” when the coalition government legalised gay marriage in 2013. For a man who had reported on “gaybashing” by police, suicides of persecuted gays, Section 28 legislation, which forbade the promotion of homosexuality in schools, and misunderstandings about HIV/Aids, he found it hard to believe just how far things had turned around.

Mason did much to help gay people in London to feel a sense of identity and community by co-founding Capital Gay, the first weekly newspaper for the gay community, in 1981. Many newsagents still refused to stock gay literature and Mason and his co-founder Graham McKerrow built up a circulation of more than 20,000 in London and Brighton by paying van drivers to hand out the paper for free at gay bars and clubs.
[It wasn't literally 'handed out'].

It was not a typical newspaper office. Joints were known to be passed around if “Marge” (his camp name) was not around. However, he ensured that high journalistic standards were enforced and his staff lived in fear of being outed for split infinitives or sloppy sentences. The only liberties Mason took with facts was in the horoscope — which he wrote himself.

In his thoughtful way Mason did much to encourage gay people not to be satisfied with the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 but to fight to break down prejudices. While Britain became engulfed in what Mason called a second front of homophobia in the 1980s, the paper began to mobilise the London gay scene, centred around clubs such as Heaven.

Under his editorship, the paper was influential in educating the population about HIV, which had been characterised as a “gay plague”. Mason recruited experts on the subject to write about the disease; the paper was credited by the Oxford English Dictionary as the first to use the term “HIV/Aids”. Capital Gay also investigated a spate of gay suicides in the Isle of Man that were connected with police persecution, and police “gaybashing” in Huddersfield, where homes were ransacked.

Mason exuded a slightly patrician air in his well-cut flannel suits, carrying black briefcases, but he cut his colleagues some slack. The rules could be relaxed if nights out were planned. Mason once came to work in his leather club gear; he hadn’t been home.

He could be charming and was effective at mediating between what a former colleague called “bickering queens” in the office. The regular assortment of male escorts, models and masseurs walking in to place adverts created a chaotic scene at times but Mason was not distracted from writing hard-hitting front-page leaders. When Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced Section 28, Mason issued a rallying call on the front page: “The Government is introducing the most serious attack on our rights since male homosexuality was outlawed more than 100 years ago. It will give succour to every bigot and tinpot dictator who wants to go queerbashing.”

Not long after his leader was published, the office of Capital Gay was firebombed. [The office was on an upper floor of a locked building on Mount Pleasant, so it is hard to see how it was firebombed]. When one of the paper’s columnists and the only openly gay MP at the time, Chris Smith, mentioned the incident in the Commons, the Conservative MP Elaine Kellett-Bowman shouted, “Quite right”.

Michael Aidan Mason was born in Dulwich, south London, in 1947. His father Kenneth was a Fleet Street journalist. Michael attended Lancing College in Sussex, where he was a house captain; he was a model pupil and his only run-in with authority was for being found with another boy in the dark space under the school stage. He won an exhibition to Edmund Hall, Oxford, to read jurisprudence. He joined IBM computers, but his first encounter with the Gay Liberation Front changed his life. He gave up his well-paid job at IBM to campaign for gay rights full-time; he joined Gay News in 1972, quickly becoming news editor. Progress seemed slow but he was encouraged by Tony Benn, who was the first politician to tell him that he believed in the cause and that they would one day succeed.
[Think Michael was still a Tory at this time].

At Gay News, he disagreed with the editor, Denis Lemon, over publication of a poem about a man who has an erotic vision of Christ on the cross, which led to the paper being sued for blasphemous libel by Mary Whitehouse. Mason felt, above all, that it was a bad poem. He took the editor’s chair while Lemon fought a two-year legal battle and lost.

Mason pursued a story about a landmark legal ruling in Northern Ireland that led to homosexuality being decriminalised in the province. He also covered Ian Paisley’s campaign to “Save Ulster from Sodomy”. Mason expected a tirade of homophobia when he spoke to Paisley on the phone, but was surprised to hear a courteous man who patiently explained his belief that homosexual acts were against the teachings of the Bible. Mason was impressed; not many people had had the courage to voice such views to him in so friendly a fashion.

Looking to the US West Coast for inspiration from a society that had accepted homosexuality, he failed to find it immediately. When he travelled to San Francisco for its gay pride march in 1979, he was arrested at the airport for being gay. He was then invited to lead the celebrations. [Eh?]

Latterly, as publisher, he was unable to halt Capital Gay’s decline in the face of growing competition from new titles such as Pink Paper and Boyz. [Cap Gay lost scene and phonelines advertising that had kept them afloat]. The paper closed in 1995; Mason then worked for a firm of solicitors that specialised in gay, bisexual and transgender cases and moved into a Modernist 1930s seafront house in Brighton that he had lovingly restored.

Stricken with cancer, he recently cheered himself up by rereading EF Benson’s Mapp & Lucia books and listening to recordings of Hinge and Bracket — with tears of laughter running down his face.

The Times, a mere 33 days after he died, published in full (with annotations) as it's behind the Murdoch paywall - something Michael would have hated.

Ah, remember the good old days when gay journalists used to care about stuff?

Would love to know who wrote this.

Update: It was written by Damian Arnold, after talking to Neil McKenna. Thanks to DS. x

1 comment:

  1. I worked at Gay News when Michael and Graham were in the newsroom. Great days and a very sad loss. RIP Michael.