Wednesday, August 15The Voice of London

The Sun and HIV Shaming: Why It Needs To Stop

The Sun are running a story today, shaming an un-named Hollywood Actor to come out as being HIV positive. The journalist behind the story is their Head of Showbiz Dan Wootton. We need to stop shaming people with HIV in order to beat the stigma.

Words: Matt Hooper, Subeditor: Alice Marshall

Image: The Sun
Image: The Sun

Next to a story about Victoria Beckham smiling on the cover of The Sun today is a story called ‘Hollywood HIV Panic’. Details of an A-Lister being diagnosed are teased, with the diagnosis apparently “rocking” showbiz.

The story inside talks about a “womanising A-List actor” with a string of ex-lovers, who are all expected to sue this man. The tabloid goes on to detail the former beaus, naming an “award-winning actress”, “a stunning movie star”, “a celebrated media personality”, “a celeb with a chequered history”, “the telly show favourite” and “a busty glamour model”.

Out of context, this could be a teaser line-up for the next series of Celebrity Big Brother. But this is someone’s HIV diagnosis, and isn’t something that should be trivialised.

According to HIVaware, there are now around 100,000 people in the UK with HIV. A fifth of these people are undiagnosed, with heterosexual and homosexual cases being almost equal. The figure is still rising, with the homosexual statistic being the highest ever.

Throwing details of actor’s diagnosis out so flippantly isn’t going to help this. Had the actor publicly come out as being HIV+, we would be in a different place entirely. When Jade Goody announced that she had cervical cancer, the number of women taking smear tests increased by 400,000. But this Hollywood actor hasn’t announced it himself; he’s been forced.

And Dan Wootton should know better. HIV is slightly higher in gay men, and as a gay man, Dan shouldn’t be publishing this. Stigmatising a treatable disease isn’t going to make people put a condom on, more that it’ll make people keep it a secret.

Gay rights activist Peter Staley commented on HIV shaming in gay men, saying that: “[HIV shaming encourages] HIV-negative guys to bareback with those who tell them they are negative and shunning the few brave ones who admit they’re positive”. By publishing something that reads like it’s from the 80s, it re-introduces the panic from that time.

On the 6th January 1985, The Daily Mail published the headline ‘Britain threatened by gay virus plague’. The Sun headline is eerily similar to that of The Daily Mail. Fortunately, the phrase ‘gay virus plague’ is now obsolete, but they both suggest that a certain spectrum of people are being threatened by the HIV virus.

But why, thirty years on, does it matter. An un-named journalist told someone from the Terrence Higgins Trust that “AIDS sells more stories than bingo”. Perhaps this is still true. Perhaps, in a country where PrEP still isn’t available on the NHS, HIV still produces enough of a scandal to sell newspapers. It was, of course, the disease that killed Freddie Mercury.

The amount of vitriol on Twitter though says otherwise.

As much as The Sun can be seen as a “vile, vicious rag”, it is the fifth most-read, paid-for newspaper in the UK. Rather than stigmatizing the disease, the newspaper could be doing more to raise awareness for the disease. Outside of the gay press, HIV isn’t really spoken about. Seeing as there are 2,880 heterosexual cases of HIV in the UK, it should be the duty of the mainstream press to more widely publicise the disease.

But here we are. Let’s just hope that the public anger about this piece will stop them doing it again. And more importantly, let’s hope it hasn’t stopped the actor getting treated.