News coverage of Daryll Rowe, the only person to be convicted of intentional HIV transmission in the UK, accentuated stigma around HIV, according to an analysis by Professors Rusi Jaspal and Brigitte Nerlich, published in the journal Health. The overarching focus was on communicating the evil of Daryll Rowe and the suffering of his victims. None of the newspaper articles challenged social representations of HIV as a devastating and destructive disease.
“Reporting reinforced dominant social representations of HIV in the pre-treatment era but did not acknowledge, or explain, modern developments in HIV science which ensure a good prognosis and normal life expectancy if one is diagnosed and treated early,” comment the authors.
Daryll Rowe is a Scottish man in his 20s, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2015. He refused antiretroviral therapy and moved to England where he had condomless sex with a number of men whom he had met on gay dating apps. In most cases, Rowe claimed to be HIV negative and pressured his partners into not using condoms. If they refused, he covertly removed the condom or cut off its tip. Rowe subsequently sent some of his sexual partners taunting text messages telling them that he was HIV positive and that he had removed or tampered with the condom.
In November 2017, he became the only person in England and Wales to be convicted of causing grievous bodily harm with intent for infecting five sexual partners with HIV. He is also the only person to be convicted of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent, for five further cases in which transmission did not occur. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The case is unique because it concerns intentional (deliberate) HIV transmission. All other convictions in relation to HIV transmission in England and Wales have been for ‘reckless’ transmission, in which HIV was passed on without the intention to do so.
The investigators analysed the 178 articles which appeared on the case in UK newspapers between 2016 and 2019. While articles appeared in 22 different national, regional and local newspapers, over 100 of the articles appeared in just five titles: The Daily Record, The Sun, The Herald, The Scotsman and The Times. While the first two are tabloids, the latter three are generally considered to be more serious and less sensationalist. All five papers are based in Scotland or have a Scottish edition.
The analysis did not include newspapers' photography and graphics, specialist gay publications or social media.
The headlines of articles rarely mentioned Rowe’s name and usually referred to him in ways that emphasised HIV. He was often described as an ‘HIV hairdresser’ and sometimes just as ‘HIV man’. The authors say the language used was often animalistic – “Virus brute caged in UK” and “HIV fiend hounded from jail” (both from The Sun). The papers also referred to an ‘HIV rampage’, ‘HIV sex charges’, ‘HIV attacks’, the ‘HIV court case’ and the ‘HIV life sentence’.
“HIV was foregrounded in these epithets and a connection was established between the virus and the negative traits that the articles purported to associate with Rowe,” the researchers argue. “It is HIV that was being emphatically negativised alongside Rowe as the perpetrator.”
Stigmatising representations of gay sexuality were also drawn on, describing the ‘date app fiend’ or ‘Grindr monster’ having ‘unprotected romps’ and ‘lining up trysts’ (all from The Sun or The Daily Record).
Although the case was unique because Rowe was convicted of intentionally infecting his sexual partners with HIV, headlines were frequently unclear about intentionality. This ambiguity “served to obscure whether it was the act of transmitting HIV or doing so intentionally that was deplorable,” comment Jaspal and Nerlich.
For example, headlines said that Rowe was “held over HIV infection” (The Herald), “charged over HIV infection” (The Western Mail), “pleads guilty to infecting victims” (The Scotsman), “gets jail term for giving partners HIV” (Daily Telegraph) and was “jailed for life for infecting men with HIV” (Daily Mirror).
"Ambiguous headlines obscured whether it was the act of transmitting HIV or doing so intentionally that was deplorable."
“The anchoring of HIV transmission to judicial metaphors served to construct HIV transmission invariably as a criminal act and to establish a discursive connection between the act of transmitting HIV and judicial retribution,” comment the authors.
The newspapers quoted extensively from testimony and interviews given by some of the men who became HIV positive as a result of Rowe’s actions. The men were described as ‘victims’ who had been given ‘the deadly virus’ and were now living with a ‘life sentence’.
The men’s own words harked back to the beginning of the AIDS crisis, with reference to suicidal thoughts, to death and misery, and to lives being shattered or wrecked irreparably.
“I felt like I had been left with a poison inside me,” one man was quoted as saying. “Rowe claimed he was clean so we didn’t use condoms. Then I caught HIV. He has ruined my life,” another man said. “It was a lifelong sentence, which would eventually kill me off,” a third man said.
“The psychological distress was attributed not to the specific circumstances of their acquisition of HIV (namely, through intentional transmission by Rowe) but rather to the experience of living with the condition per se,” say the authors.
Words such as ‘poison’ and ‘clean’ were reported without comment, while no information was offered about scientific developments in HIV medicine. Indeed, the only article which did mention treatment advances presented them as being irrelevant. One of Rowe’s defence lawyers had said that HIV was not a terminal illness and that people living with HIV have a good life expectancy. For the Independent columnist Janet Street-Porter, this was insulting: “Imagine the horror these poor men lived through in court, only to have a smart QC claim their lives were going to carry on as before, belittling their situation.”
The academics acknowledge that communicating public health messages is not journalists’ primary concern but suggest that they “have a responsibility towards society to provide truthful, balanced, factual and objective information”.
Jaspal R & Nerlich B. HIV stigma in UK press reporting of a case of intentional HIV transmission. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, online ahead of print, 8 August 2020 (open access).