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Letter of complaint to the Mirror

Sarah Radcliffe
17/11/2015

On 11 November the Mirror published an article online called 'The Hollywood actor with HIV deserves everything he gets – and worse'. We have written a letter to the Mirror to complain about the stigmatising nature of the article. The letter is below.

I am writing in response to the opinion piece “Hollywood actor with HIV deserves everything he gets – and worse”.

This article is highly stigmatising and places HIV above other medical conditions, as deserving of judgement. NAT requests that The Mirror remove the article and publish an apology for the impact it may have had on people in the UK who are living with and affected by HIV.  We would remind The Mirror that in the UK HIV is legally considered a disability from the point of diagnosis, under The Equality Act 2010.  

My complaints with the article are as follows:

Firstly, the author speculates at length about the identity and behaviour of an individual patient whose medical confidentiality had been breached.  This is completely unnecessary and irresponsible.  People living with HIV have a right to privacy about their personal medical records.  There is no public interest to be gained from pressuring a high profile individual into discussing any medical condition in public.

Secondly, the article encourages prejudice against all people living with HIV.  I would highlight, for example, the following phrases:

“I’m only sorry he won’t find it impossible to get treatment, that he won’t have to come out as gay in an intolerant community, and that his family won’t abandon him to rot in a squat.

I’m sorry I can’t strangle him with a cheap condom he couldn’t be bothered to use, and I can only hope his former lovers sue him so hard that he does at least die in the same misery, poverty and pain as so many others do.”

These statements actively incite hatred of people living with HIV.  This has a direct impact on people living with HIV in the UK, many of whom already experience unlawful discrimination, harassment and hate crime, purely because of their medical diagnosis. 

The author attempts to disguise her stigmatising views by contrasting her imagined experience of people living in Lesotho with the, at the time of publication, undisclosed male celebrity’s experience. This is disingenuous and infective.

Indeed, her comments about Lesotho encourage further prejudice of people living with HIV in that country, as well as other countries which carry a disproportionate burden of HIV:

'He was, in just about every way you can think of short of going to Lesotho to get laid, asking for HIV.'

and

'I’m only sorry that I can’t make him switch places with a 15-year-old rape victim from Lesotho who didn’t ask for any of it and deserves a chance to make something of her life.'

These statements are not empowering to people who are experiencing the brunt of global health inequalities.  Rather, women and girls living with HIV in Lesotho are used as rhetorical weapons to punish the celebrity for engaging in behaviour which the author disapproves of.

The article’s position that only some people living with HIV are deserving of sympathy and support is extremely damaging.  The author outlines in extremely close detail, with reference to ethnicity and sexual orientation, the personal demographic characteristics which would make the celebrity more ‘deserving’ of decent treatment by the media:

'He’s not under-privileged, gay, and from the way he’s been described I don’t think he’s black either.'

It is dangerous to encourage the, unfortunately still prevalent, opinion that only some people living with HIV are deserving of the basic human dignities of privacy and health.

The article is effectively telling people living with HIV, those who meet people living with HIV and those who are concerned that they may be living with undiagnosed HIV, that their basic human rights are conditional upon society’s approval of their lifestyle and actions.

By publishing views such as these, The Mirror is giving assent to the view that it is acceptable to judge some people living with HIV because of their perceived behaviour.  This in turn is a tacit acceptance of the breached confidentiality and blackmail experienced by the celebrity concerned.

Thirdly, the article contains inaccurate information about HIV:

'They’ll hate him because he allegedly had unprotected sex despite knowing he could infect partners with a disease that, without help, could kill them horribly.'

In the absence of any facts, it cannot be assumed that the celebrity would have exposed any sexual partners to HIV infection – even in the absence of using a condom.  HIV treatment reduces someone’s viral load so that they are non-infectious.  (And the celebrity has now indicated that this was the case).

There are significant gaps in HIV knowledge in the general population, especially with regards to the preventive impact of treatment. Inaccurate comments like the above will only fuel misunderstanding about how to prevent HIV.

In NAT’s experience, The Mirror’s has a record of accurate and constructive reporting on HIV and issues affecting people living with HIV.  We hope that the publication of this opinion piece is an aberration, which can be addressed by its withdrawal and a statement of apology.

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Sep 7, 2016 By hugo