Above: this whopper illustration from Hostile Hand graced the cover of our print issue. Go browse his talents on his website. Laughs for days and days.
Listening to Marian Finucane interviewing anyone on a Sunday morning can be a slog but sometimes she makes a comment that sheds light on the modus operandi of the national broadcaster. Her “from both sides” comment when interviewing Katie Ascough last November got Sean Finnan thinking about RTÉ’s juggling act when it comes to balance.
The Overton window is a term used to describe the range of politically acceptable opinions in public discourse. It determines the range of politically reasonable solutions to any given problem. Which opinions can be given credulence and which are determined ludicrous.
There are countless examples of it at work in Irish political discourse. Think back to Bertie’s famous statement that those talking down the economy should go and commit suicide, where both the extremity and bravado of the ex-Taoiseach’s words made any criticism of fuelling an economy on property development alone appear mad.
It’s in the discourse surrounding abortion since well before the Eighth Amendment in 1983 when the fervent language of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign overshadowed the possibility of any nuanced argument on the nuts and bolts of the amendment. You either loved babies or murdered them.
Rather than interviewing Ascough, the impeached former president of the UCD SU, as an activist steeped in Pro-Life activism, a columnist for the staunchly conservative Alive, a member of Students For Life and the daughter of Sean Ascough, board member of The Iona Institute, the largest conservative lobby group in the country, Finucane framed her as a well-meaning student marginalised due to her conservative views. Not, as a student representative that denied the pro-choice mandate of the union.
“I saw where you said your stomach was in knots going in to work. That’s usually what you hear from someone who feels bullied,” states Marian, 20 minutes after messaging the listener with quirks about Ascough’s personal life, rather than exploring her political views .
As Ascough gave her account of her impeachment, Finucane comforted her about the experience stating “we’ve been through many referendums on abortion that end up very vicious from both sides”, before emphasising, “from both sides”. The boogeyman of balance once again haunting RTÉ in the twilight of an approaching referendum.
In January 2014 two incidents occurred that have shaped RTÉ’s approach to balance in current affairs , especially if they relate to an upcoming referendum. The first was the BAI’s decision to uphold a complaint against the broadcaster. The Mooney Show’s discussion of marriage equality was deemed impartial as it featured no voices that didn’t support gay marriage.
As Seamus Dooley, of the National Union of Journalists then noted:
“The requirement of fairness, objectivity and balance has now been interpreted to mean that broadcasters are required to seek out alternative views in a range of programme settings. Any matter ‘of current public debate’, to quote the phrase used in the BAI note, is apparently deemed so sensitive that researchers, producers and presenters have to make contingency provision for the expression of a counter-opinion in all settings.”
In the run up to the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum, Scott de Buitleir resigned from The Cosmo, the only LGBTQ show on RTE’s digital platforms. He explained to rabble the reasons that led him to quit hosting the show.
“In the lead-up to the marriage equality referendum, The Cosmo was the only national LGBT radio show in Ireland, so I felt great pressure to cover the key event for the LGBT community and their history. I understood and appreciated RTÉ’s duty to be objective and impartial, but there was no other chat show or debate programme which was pro-LGBT in its nature, and so The Cosmo was in a unique difficulty,” states de Buitleir.
“For as long as I stayed silent on the issue, I felt that I was doing a disservice to its audience, and making a mockery of the whole purpose of the show: LGBT representation on the national airwaves. Ironically, what caused me to quit was the angry reaction RTÉ management had to an interview I did with Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who voiced his support for the Yes vote without me actually asking him about it.”
The BAI guidelines state that there is “no obligation to automatically ‘balance’ each contribution on an individual programme with an opposing view”. However, in the aftermath of the second incident that occurred in January 2014, it was clear that RTÉ management were in panic and not taking any chances.
Panti Bliss’ appearance on the Saturday Night show that same month would cost the national broadcaster the guts of a hundred grand after John Waters (also a board member of the BAI at the time), and the Iona Institute filed a defamation claim against them. The Iona Institute, despite consistently and actively being the loudest voice in preventing gay men and women from having equal rights in Irish society, took offence to being described as homophobic. Not only did RTÉ kowtow to their demands for an apology, they also censored the clip of a person from a minority group expressing the source of much of the virulent opposition to the Yes campaign – namely the Iona Institute.
In an open letter to RTÉ, Brian Barrington, a practising lawyer and an expert on Equality and Human Rights stated of RTÉ’s decision:
“It is astonishing… that RTÉ, a national broadcaster, should apologise for what Mr O’Neill has stated, censor his interview on the internet and award public money to those in the Iona Institute who have sought to prevent a free debate on equal marriage by preventing gay rights campaigners from uttering in future that opposition to same-sex marriage is homophobic.”
“By its censorship of Mr O’Neill, RTÉ has undermined confidence in its impartiality and has also made clear that it will not facilitate a free and fair debate. This is a profoundly serious matter for any broadcaster, not least one which purports to be the national broadcaster.”
What emerged out of this rather public incident was an understanding both of the chilling effect that lobbies can have on public debate and the power (financial and otherwise) they have in commandeering any debate on social mores according to their terms. In its role as a public broadcaster, RTÉ’s duty should of course come to the voices that it has invited onto its platforms that represent this public. Instead, it is scared of allowing opinions for fear that it will upset certain lobby groups who have weaponised balance to keep the debate on their terrain.
Mark Cullinane is a post-doc researcher who focuses on the national broadcaster’s mediation of political and economic issues. He spoke of the internal struggles that confront RTÉ in times of referenda.
“I think it’s clearly the case that referendum campaigns regularly provoke this heightened sense in RTÉ of regulatory, public and political scrutiny that damages the broadcaster’s willingness and ability to do justice to the range of issues wrapped up in a given referendum question. It’s not confined to issues like abortion or marriage equality either. I spent some months in the RTÉ newsroom doing research around the time of the Fiscal Treaty referendum campaign in 2012 and from listening to discussions in editorial meetings and interviewing journalists and editors, it became really clear that this external scrutiny was felt acutely and that it was contributing to mechanistic and contrived debate and stopwatch timed coverage that they often frankly weren’t proud of. This even led to a conscious decision to reduce coverage as the campaign wore on.”
He continues, “But what I found most interesting about it was that for quite a few of those I spoke to, what really bothered them about it was the feeling that for the sake of achieving a numerical form of balance between the two main sides, they were being more or less forced to give airtime during the campaign to groups and perspectives that their normal editorial judgements would generally marginalise or exclude on the grounds of a lack of representativeness or legitimacy.”
“For me, this shows how the contortions that RTÉ tends to get into when struggling to mediate referenda shouldn’t be separated from the broader set of issues around how journalism sees its democratic roles, not least in relation to how political ‘balance’ is routinely defined and who gets to decide where the fulcrum lies.”
As Marian Finucane’s “both sides” comment attests to, this leads to an expectation that in the upcoming referendum, “both sides” are fuelled by an irrational, sectarian point of view. To avoid an actual position of mediating a debate on the specifics of the referendum, the national broadcaster is experimenting with a ‘Pro-Voice’ methodology.
Exhale Pro-Voice is an organisation that describes itself as “leading the way into a whole new kind of dialogue about abortion – one that transcends partisan divisions, diffuses abortion as a political issue, and shifts the dialogue toward the health of wellbeing of women and their families.”
It features an example of its methodology at work on its YouTube channel with RTÉ’s Drivetime, described by Boucher Hayes as “a way of mostly listening to and sharing personal experiences, of taking the dogma and the ideology out of the conversation.”
“The problem with politicised campaigns,” he continues, “is that it excludes real people’s stories in all their ambiguity and complexity. When you lose those voices you inhibit the possibility of people reaching a more human and less doctrinaire understanding, never mind the possibility of people changing their view.”
The problem is though that the Pro-Life campaigners have constantly de-politicised the debate by claiming abortion as a moral issue, continuously stigmatising it so that it became barely acknowledged in the public realm. The whole point of the Pro-Life campaign’s fervency was to prevent any reasonable discussion from taking place. Ignoring that fails to challenge them on what is an orthodox position, that no circumstance justify an abortion.
Despite not being able to offer any reasonable solution to the problem of say, women in need of an abortion due to a medical complication, Pro-Life voices can still dominate the debate on the premise that they are against any legislative solution at all. This is something that even Simon Harris has surprisingly hinted at in a comment that followed RTÉ allowing a Keep The Eighth spokesperson to misconstrue repealing the eighth with the immediate introduction of a “very liberal regime”.
As Simon Harris stated afterwards: “I hope that during this campaign, journalists won’t just ask me about the proposals that would follow a referendum, but will also ask the other side, ‘Well what is your alternative proposal for a woman, for a child perhaps that has been raped?…To put forward no alternative proposals and to suggest that the status quo is fine . . . I don’t think that’s reflective of the majority view in this country.”
It seems that the more RTÉ runs from its role as a national broadcaster and the responsibility that entails, the more the boogeyman of balance emerges as the repressed instinct of an institution damned to cowardice.