The cruel way newspapers treated Freddie Mercury’s death will chill you to the bone

Freddie Mercury performing at the Milton Keynes National Bowl in 1982.

On 24 November 1991, Freddie Mercury quietly passed away at the age of 45 in his Kensington home. His death came just 24 hours after he publicly announced that he had AIDS.

Just like that, the queer icon who had defined much of ‘80s rock music in the UK was gone. Mercury’s death sent shockwaves across the world – and it’s not hard to see why. Throughout his life, the Queen frontman was so full of life, so exuberant – the idea that he was dead seemed hard to grasp, and even harder to accept.

In the weeks after his death, Freddie Mercury’s legacy was dragged through the tabloids. In one newspaper column, he was described as a pervert, while other journalists zoned in on his sexuality and his AIDS diagnosis as a cruel moral critique.

That fraught time is explored in the new BBC 2 documentary Freddie Mercury: The Final Act. The film tracks the final months of the singer’s life and culminates with the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, which was held on 20 April 1992 in Wembley Stadium. 

Through interviews with Freddie’s bandmates, his sister, his friends, and with others who lived through the AIDS epidemic, Freddie Mercury: The Final Act gives a view of what it was like to live through a moment in time when being gay or bisexual turned you into a social pariah. 

Director of new Freddie Mercury documentary was horrified by salacious, cruel headlines about the singer

James Rogan, director of Freddie Mercury: The Final Act, was just a child when Mercury died. He was shocked to discover just how vicious the tabloids were in their assessment of the Queen frontman in the days and weeks after his death.

“I’m essentially a human rights filmmaker, so I’m quite used to observing human rights abuses and I’ve documented many over the years,” James tells PinkNews. “But I find it unconscionable – one wonders how somebody writes into print some of the things that were said about Freddie after he died, and what the conversation is with oneself – what that journalist is saying to themselves as they write this stuff.

“There were headlines like, ‘I’d shoot my son if he had AIDS,’ and ones where they’d catch you unawares and you’d read it and think: ‘How did this manage to make it into print?’ I just can’t get my head around it. And then you hear Margaret Thatcher saying children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay as if that is a bad thing, and you realise it’s very much a product of its time.”

Freddie Mercury of Queen on 9/19/80 in Chicago, Il.

Freddie Mercury of Queen on 9/19/80 in Chicago, Il. (Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Dan Hall is a producer on Freddie Mercury: The Final Act – and he was also a young gay man who was in the process of coming to terms with his own sexuality when the singer died in 1991. Looking back on that time, he thinks people used Freddie’s celebrity to dehumanise him in the weeks and months after his death – which is why they set out to dispel that fame and remind audiences that behind the performer was a man who was suffering, just like so many others who were facing AIDS-related illnesses.

“There was this sense of, ‘Well, I wasn’t that happy with his promiscuity’ – whatever that means – or, ‘I didn’t really like the gay thing, but I forgave him because he entertained me,'” Dan explains. “That’s just appalling, and it reduces him to not being a human being, to just being an entertainer. And so, therefore, it doesn’t really matter when he dies, which is why immediately after he dies people start running foul headlines about his dirty, sordid life, because he’s not a man – he’s not a person who’s died in pain. He’s a celebrity whose only role is to entertain.

“By equating him with [other people who lived through the AIDS epidemic] – and by equating him with his sister, to whom he’s not a celebrity, just a brother – he becomes a person who is in pain and who is shamed by society. And in that way, he’s the same [as other people with AIDS]. We were so keen in the edit that everybody’s stories were treated with equal respect. Just because one of you sells lots of records, your voice is no more or less valid than anybody else’s.”

Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor were horrified by the tabloid’s treatment of their friend

Nobody could have been more disgusted by the tabloids’ mistreatment of Freddie than his bandmates, Brian May and Roger Taylor. Both appear in the documentary, and both speak movingly and honestly about their close friend. Throughout the film, Brian and Roger reflect on some of the worst examples of the tabloids hounding Freddie.

Newspapers published probing, speculative pieces questioning whether he had contracted HIV, while others drew attention to his increasingly gaunt appearance in a bid to find out what was going on behind the scenes. The message from Brian and Roger is clear – what the tabloids forgot was that Freddie was a human being, a man who was suffering and struggling and likely terrified of what was then a terminal diagnosis.

“[In the documentary], Roger Taylor says, ‘We were very angry about what happened to our friend,’ and my response to that was, ‘Damn right,’” James says. “We’re angry. We’re very angry about what happened. You cannot look at that situation and not be angry. People died alone. People died without an acknowledgement of their humanity. People were shamed after they died, and I don’t think you can respond to that with anything but anger – and also with slight alarm that these behaviours still exist very much today.”

Freddie Mercury

Freddie Mercury performing on Queen’s 1982 tour (Steve Jennings/WireImage)

Dan points out that, at its core, Freddie Mercury: The Final Act is a story about allyship – it’s a documentary that centres those who loved Freddie for exactly who he was, and it serves as a powerful reminder of the power allies can have when they stand up for their queer friends.

At a simple human level, that band was a family of sorts and they had lost a loved one and they wanted to express their love publicly.

“Things like It’s a Sin are fantastic, and there are lots of amazing HIV/AIDS documentaries around that, but a lot of them feel like they are very aimed at a queer audience,” Dan says. “What I really realised on a very personal level about our film is that it felt like my queer story but with members of the heterosexual community, members of the allied community, stepping in and saying: ‘You are not shamed, you are not wrong.’

“For me, my two favourite moments in the film are the bit of interview we had with Roger [Taylor], who said, ‘We had to stand up for our friend, for our best friend,’ and that’s a straight man saying that. The other moment is Brian May going on TV-am in 1991, going: ‘We’ve got to stop saying that being gay is wrong.’ As a closeted man, seeing a very, very influential, very world-famous heterosexual man say that – the power and importance of allies can’t be understated.”

James hopes the love of those allies shines through in Freddie Mercury: The Final Act.

“At a simple human level, that band was a family of sorts and they had lost a loved one and they wanted to express their love publicly, and I think that’s the most human thing in the world. And that was a beautiful response to what was an extraordinary life.”