How Many Gays in Hampstead?

Here is a craft question for you, GetReligion readers. No, I don’t mean freemasonry but journalism. When should a reporter use his editorial voice to correct or challenge an assertion made by the subject of his story? What if the assertion is not central to the story at hand? What if the assertion is in line with convention wisdom, but is not true?

This item in a suburban newspaper serving the Hampstead and Highgate area of the London borough of Camden, Ham & High, tees up this question nicely. Under the headline of “Hampstead church first in London to allow same-sex civil partnership ceremonies”, Ham & High reports that Rossyln Hill Chapel, a Unitarian congregation, has voted to permit its American minister, the Rev. Patrick O’Neill, to solemnize same-sex civil partnerships. The lede states:

A Hampstead church could become the first in London to hold civil partnership ceremonies in its chapel following an unprecedented vote.

The article recounts the congregations internal deliberations on offering same-sex blessings for civil partnerships and O’Neill’s application to the Camden Council for a license to perform the ceremonies.The congregation voted unanimously in support of the innovation, and O’Neill explained the decision was motivated in part by the church’s belief that it should be a prophetic voice to the community on this issue.

Our motivation for this is always to be pressing for greater equality for all people which is very much consistent with our basic values as a church,” he explained. “The issue for us now is setting an example for the wider community.

The article also offers background on the issue of same-sex blessings under English law and notes the coalition government has allowed religious institutions to solemnize same-sex civil partnerships. It also gives O’Neill space to discuss his views on same-sex blessings and lets him distinguish his denomination’s stance from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, which do not permit its clergy to solemnize civil partnerships.

The article is nicely constructed with strong quotes, good context and an explanation of motivation. Who, what, when, where, why are all here.

There is also this quote from O’Neill:

He added: “We need to raise cultural awareness and recognise that in our society ten to 15 per cent of people are gay, lesbian or bisexual”. He said: “It affects many families, whether they recognise it or not.”

Is this true? I have no reason to suppose that O’Neill has been quoted incorrectly. What I mean by my question is “10 to 15 per cent” of the population gay/lesbian? This is a hotly debated point and has been since the Kinsey studies were published in the late 40’s which first posited the 10 to 15 per cent figure. However in 2010 the Office for National Statistics in the U.K. reported that 1.5 per cent of the British population is gay.

In its account of the ONS study, the Guardian wrote:

How many people are gay in Britain? It’s a question which has vexed government and the tabloid press alike for some time. Estimates vary from around 5% to 7% (from a Treasury assessment before the civil partnership act in 2004) through to a much lower 2.2% from the latest British crime survey.

Well, today, the Office for National Statistics has published the most comprehensive breakdown on the question yet. It survey 238,206 people across Britain — dwarfing even the mighty British crime survey, which “only” asks 22,995 people. In fact, the sample is slightly smaller, once you discount don’t knows, refusals and non-responses — but still a large 247,623.

It’s part of the ONS’ Integrated Household Survey, which comes out once a year to a normally muted response, largely because it’s buried on the terrible ONS website. The questioning involved showing people a card of options and asking them to indicate which category they fitted into. As a result, the ONS is highly confident about the results. Extrapolated nationally, they suggest a population of 726,000 gay, lesbian or bisexual people in the UK.

This also raises the question of what does it mean to be gay? Is it purely self-identification, or does inclination and past experience determine what it means to be gay/lesbian?

In its 2006 study on human sexuality, the Australian Longitudinal Study of Health and Relationships reported that .66 per cent of women and 1.03 per cent of men self-identified as gay/lesbian. This study, in conjunction with the ONS report and other studies would seem to dismiss the claims of O’Neill.

Yet if you go deeper into the Australian study and look at Table 3 you will see the question of sexual identity is rather more nuanced.

Table 3: Sexual Identity, Attraction and Experience of Respondents

Female Male Total
Sexual identity Heterosexual 98.08 97.72 8,027
Homosexual 0.66 1.03 69
Bisexual 1.26 1.23 102
Queer 0 0.02 1
Total 4,121 4,078 8,199
Sexual attraction Opposite sex 90.6 95.88 7,642
Both sexes 8.89 3.31 501
Same sex 0.22 0.64 35
Neither sex 0.29 0.17 19
Total 4,117 4,080 8,197
Sexual experience Opposite sex 89.94 91.08 7,418
Both sexes 7.21 6.06 544
Same sex 0.1 0.37 19
Neither sex 2.74 2.5 215
Total 4,117 4,079 8,196


While the rate of self-identification as gay/lesbian in the population hovers at around 1 per cent, the rates for sexual attraction to the same sex and sexual experience are much higher.

The journalism question I have is: Should the author have responded to O’Neill’s claim of 10 to 15 percent? In defense of the reporter, the issue of the proportion of gays and lesbians in the population is not the central subject of the story. And, chasing down every claim and statement made by a subject in a story can distract from the central issue — which here was that a Hampstead church will be the first in London to offer gay blessings.

Yet the veracity of the proportion of gays in society claim touches upon the motivation for the congregation of Rosslyn Hill Chapel. Should an assertion that something is true be challenged when there is evidence that it is not true? Or, would it suffice to say the question is disputed?

What say you GetReligion readers? Should you believe everything you read in the newspapers or expect the newspapers to make sure everything presented to you is true?

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  • Mike

    I’d say it would have been better for the reporter not to have quoted the pastor and those percentages, but have said that he “claims the figure is 10-15%”.

  • Darrell Turner

    You raise a good question, George. In this case, the statistic is a bit incidental to the main focus of the story, which is a church offering civil partnership ceremonies rather than the percentage of gay people in the overall population.
    To challenge someone being interviewed either during the interview or in the story might seem to be discourteous to the person. I’d opt for going with the quote and letting people who read the story in print or online form challenge the statistic.
    I think it would be different for the reporter to present the statistic as an unchallenged fact, but in this case, the statistic is being attributed to a source — the person being interviewed.

  • Does it make a difference that 1 in 8 people are affected (10-15%) compared to 1 in 50 (2%)? Try the difference in those figures with any other news story and see if they make any difference to the actual meaning of the story and you should have your answer.

  • Dave

    I agree with Darrell, though I wish I could say otherwise. I was trained to use math professionally, and abuse of numbers (in particular statistics) sends me right up the wall, whoever does it. And yet I can’t ask a reporter to throw sand into an interview by making a point over a numerical utterance that the interviewee probably regards as incidental to his or her primary point. I guess one must trust the reader to evaluate the validity of quoted numbers in terms of the source — a minister is less reliable than a sociologists, eg.

    Now, if the interviewee comes down hard on the number involved — “A study by the University of Erewhon showed that…” — then a follow-up about the number is fair game.

  • It drives me up a wall when people aren’t challenged when making demonstrably false claims about evolution,in particular, and science in general. I’d think that pointing to concrete figures when someone makes a concrete statement amenable to verification isn’t just reasonable, it should be habitual.

    In this case, one of the reasons this story is being published is the political debate surrounding same-sex marriage. Presenting accurate data should be a journalistic responsibility.

    • IN the least, the article could have remarked about ONeal’s statement itself by saying: “claims that there are 10 to 15 percent…” Then, it’s the writer’s responsibility in THE GUARDIAN to quote the source. Since there are no sources showing 10-15 percent of people being gay, my preference is that the THE GUARDIAN, let alone any newspaper, explain that no survey upholds ONeal’s assertion.

  • Laura Gorman

    Yes! I think anytime we know something to be untrue, we need to speak up. If we suspect something is not true, if we question it, we ought to educate ourselves and find out what the truth really is.

  • Jettboy

    “And yet I can’t ask a reporter to throw sand into an interview by making a point over a numerical utterance that the interviewee probably regards as incidental to his or her primary point.”

    What good is a report then if they can’t, you know, report the truth? Of course, one must ask the question “what is truth?” Part of the downfall of news these days is the absolute bias of the answer to that question.

  • It seems to me that there are two questions here: whether, and if so, when.

    Should reporters fact-check the claims made by the people upon whom they report? This is prettily heavily debated these days, at least in the US. Opponents sometimes call it “gotcha” journalism, and at in excess it can turn into the sort of endless search for minor misstatements (“gaffes” as they are now called) that characterizes coverage of presidential campaigns. This sort of coverage has the net effect of taking attention away from the main point and focusing it on the incidental details. In the case at hand, the numbers are clearly incidental. The minister is taking steps based on “basic values” and “setting an example,” rather than raw numbers. (At least I think he is.)

    Proponents have a strong case, however, when they argue that a newspaper’s duty is to report the truth, and not to knowingly pass on errors.

    So when is it right to challenge an error of fact? I”d answer: Always, provided that the challenge is proportional to the importance of the error. At most, this case calls for a sentence or so, on the order of “recent data from the Office of national Statistics suggests that the real number is much smaller.” Or the reporter could simply have deemed the numbers irrelevant to the story of a congregation’s vote and its “basic values,” and left them out of the quote.

  • Neil

    It is altogether possible that in a particular area of London 10% to 15% of the population is gay. This is not at all surprising. I live in an area of New Orleans (the French Quarter) whose residents are estimated to be 40% gay ro lesbian. The Marigny neighborhood of the city is estimated to be 60% gay, the only neighborhood that is believed to be majority gay.

    I would not trust demographic reports–especially those issued by the government or arrived at through telephone surveys–that say that 1.5% of the population is gay and lesbian. More trustworthy is a recent report from Canada Census that found that 5% of the country identified as gay or lesbian, but that 10% of people from 18 to 30 did and only 2% of people over 65. Clearly, in a country that has grown accepting of glbt people, and afforded them equal rights, older people are still cautious as to how they report their sexual orientation, while younger people, who have grown up under more liberal conditions, are more open.

  • Neil

    Why do you think it curious that an area of London has a population composed of 10 to 15% gay people?

    • geoconger

      The context in which the comment was made as that 10 to 15 percent of British Society is composed of gay and lesbian people. If the context was Hampstead or Highgate that was not clear in the article — and if so would have needed further development by the reporter.

  • SeekTruthFromFacts

    As the headline of this article points out, if “our society” is Hampstead, then 10-15% is probably conservative. 🙂

  • Neil

    I think the quote is referring to the Hampstead area. But even beyond that, our statistics for who is gay or not are not reliable. Census Canada had very interesting report recently. They found that 6% of the adult population identified as gay or lesbian. The interesting thing was that in the 18-29 demographic, 10% identified as gay; while in the over 65 demographic, 2% did. Their explanation for the discrepancy was the the 10% figure was likely more accurate and reflected the greater freedom to be honest that young people who have grown up in a country where gay people face little discrimination feel, while the low figure for older folk reflected their suspicion of government, having spent most of their life having to be fearful of discrimination and harassment.