Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

#MarRef The Aftermath: How Broadcast Media Failed

Many of the television and radio debates did “debate” a disservice.

Wed, Jun 3, 2015, 17:52


One of the constant frustrations I felt during the referendum campaign was listening to debates on the radio or watching them on TV. Often, I just switched off, which is not the most encouraging reaction when you’re meant to be taking in what people are saying. Too many times I found myself screaming at the radio/TV/app. Sure, people scream at the things people say on the airwaves all the time, but for me, this campaign played out often poorly on radio and television.

As someone who has a lot of respect for broadcasters at the helm of national TV and radio shows, and as someone who participated in some of the referendum debates, ultimately I think Irish radio and TV put on a patchy performance throughout #MarRef. I’d like to highlight some specific areas regarding those failures because (a) I don’t think we should let poor standards be the baseline from which broadcasting operates, (b) I think there are lessons to be learned, and most importantly, (c) I’m pedantic.

The Red Herrings
Perhaps the biggest failing of television and radio throughout #MarRef was that many of the debates were not about the referendum. Again and again, the red herrings from the ‘No’ campaign went unchallenged, and sometimes even offered up as valid topics of discussion by broadcasters. The biggest red herrings were around surrogacy and adoption. No matter how many times it was reiterated from numerous quarters that these had nothing to do with civil marriage equality for same-sex couples, they were returned to again and again as matters of debate. Other red herrings included what children would be taught in schools, “gender balance” in marriage as an argument against equality, the “slippery slope” argument that if gays could get married then all of a sudden polygamy and other relationships units would be recognised as marriage by the State, the quality of gay people as parents, and so on.

We know that these red herrings were offered as arguments by the No side because they failed throughout the course of the campaign to come up with a valid argument against marriage equality. If people want to try and divert the debate, that’s fine, but the constant failure of broadcasters to challenge these distraction tactics was rather stunning. It also meant that it was rare a listener or viewed tuned into a debate on the marriage referendum and heard a debate on the marriage referendum. This failure by broadcasters aided the No campaign, as broadcasters would voluntarily suggest surrogacy and adoption as valid topics for debate even though they were unrelated to the referendum.

The ‘No’ Voices
On the Yes side, those debating varied from journalists, people affiliated with campaigning groups, politicians, children’s charities, civil rights groups, parents of LGBT children, the children or LGBT parents, youth workers, and so on. The lack of diversity of voices on the No side was a huge issue for programme producers and researchers. That’s why you heard the same voices over and over again.

The No campaign said the voices were repetitive because No voters were shy in coming forward. The reality was, alternative No voices just weren’t there. Towards the end of the campaign, when Keith Mills – one of the No campaign’s most prominent voices – went on holidays to the Eurovision (a fact that was underreported in mainstream media even though it was a newsworthy own goal), the No campaign pushed more voices to the fore, most of whom audiences would not be familiar with. These voices were sometimes presented as experts or authorities in their field, yet their level of expertise, position of authority, or even what their field actually was, often remained ambiguous. This lack of interrogation by broadcasters on the plain question of what people were actually doing on panels or as contributors from the audience and why we should be listening to them, showed at the very least a lack of oversight. Perhaps it was because No voices were so thin on the ground that anyone new would do, but the listener or viewer deserves to know who these people were and what their vested interests were.

And what about the No campaign’s assertion that the gay men on their side campaigned vigorously for civil partnership? That assertion was never challenged, but it was news to those who did actually campaign for civil partnership.

The Poorest Radio Performer
Marian Finucane’s Sunday show has a jaunty theme tune and a wide remit, and its format provides ample opportunity to dissect what print media says about the issues of the day. Finucane’s show tends to excel at seeming wandering and elitist, yet is often great listening, and there’s no doubt that Finucane is an excellent broadcaster. But still, the show has some deep flaws. Week in, week out, the programme is largely male, middle aged or above, and achingly middle-class. So when it came to tackling an issue that required insight and empathy, diversity and democracy, it’s hardly a surprise that the programme failed. One of the debates on the show were so nonsensical, I switched off, only to switch back on again a few minutes later to see if my incredulity was misplaced. It wasn’t. That was the almost all male (shocker!) debate featuring Stephen McNamara, Eoin Jackson, Patrick Treacy, Eoghan McDermott, Thomas Finegan, and Laura Harmon. Even on the day after the referendum, when there was a chance to grasp what had actually happened in Ireland on that great day, the tone that was struck could not have been more inappropriate, instead rerunning the red herrings of the No campaign, in a depressingly downbeat fashion. When it came to marriage equality, what it meant, who should be talking about it, and why it was important, Finucane’s show was out of touch.

The Best Debates
For my money, the best television debate was the Late Late Show debate. I’m not just saying that because I was on it, but I do have an insight into how it was run because of that. The format, which sounded strange on paper, really worked. People got to know who those debating were, rather than seeing them as randomers behind a podium. The contributions from the audience were valid. People didn’t shout over each other. The introductory statements gave each contributor a fair lash at laying out their stall. Ryan Tubridy acted as an excellent moderator. The balance of time was fair. The whole thing was far more personable and respectful in comparison to some of the bear pit debates that followed.

The best radio programme throughout the debate in my opinion was The Last Word on Today FM, where Matt Cooper robustly challenged each side, yet still kept a sense of decorum in stark contrast with some of the debating anarchy that reigned on other radio programmes. Chris Donoghue of Newstalk was also one of the few presenters who didn’t put up with red herrings from the No side and dissected diversionary tactics throughout the campaign, although at times his frustration – much like the listener’s – was palpable.

The Gender Problem
Irish current affairs radio and television is not the best arena for female voices. Women as panelists are fewer than men. Fact. Unfortunately, this did not change throughout the referendum debate, which focussed on gay men.

This played into the messaging on the No side, which was mostly about gay men. The constant references to surrogacy was really about men as parents. No one seemed to take lesbians into account, with wombs all of their own. The No campaign wanted people to think about gay men raising children, and so lesbians weren’t much used to them. While there were some lesbian voices in print, and the likes of Grainne Healy and Katherine Zappone on air, the debate was male-led.

Here’s an example. On the Claire Byrne Live programme on May 11th, there were two video reports from gay men (Eamon Farrell and Paddy Manning), Farrell spoke to David Norris, and Farrell’s partner also spoke from the audience, a No voter called Timothy spoke from the audience, a guy called Derek Byrne spoke from the audience, the father of a young gay woman spoke, then there was one female voice before Ronan Mullen and Simon Coveney debated, Geoffrey Shannon gave his opinion, there was Tom Finnegan in the audience (a guy who used to work with Ronan Mullen), then a female voice on the Yes side, then Fidelma Healy Eames, and… well actually I had to stop watching it back because it was just making me frustrated all over again! Suffice to say, there were a few female voices in the audience, the rest were all male. That’s just one example on one programme about how things stacked up. Often, across radio and television, there were two heterosexual men debating gay marriage, while LGBT people at home banged their heads against walls.

The Personal and the Private
Gay people were constantly asked about their private and personal lives. Some of us offered ourselves up in order to reach out to voters hoping that our personal stories would show that we deserved equality in our own country. I’m sure Ursula Halligan did not want to have to do what she did in coming out so publicly when it was clearly still so raw for her. I certainly didn’t want to tell everyone at once that I had cancer and was embarrassed to say “girlfriend” in a hospital. I’m sure John Lyons is sick of talking about his sexuality. I don’t see why Colm O’Gorman had to answer how he came to have children. Yet all the time, gay people on the Yes side had to expose themselves, put their personal lives forward, talk about intimate and private things, and expect to be questioned on those things.

This was simply not the case with No campaigners. Was Ronan Mullen asked about his relationships? Was David Quinn asked about his children? Was Fidelma Healy Eames questioned on when she first knew she was straight? It was not equality that was a matter of public debate. It was not the issue of marriage that became a matter to be discussed, it was the lives and identities of gay people. That was dreadfully exposing. There was a vast empathy deficit throughout the media on what it means to question people about the things that are so intrinsic to who they are, to stand up for who they are and who they love, and to debate who they are and who they love and whether or not they should be allowed be that and do that. I still don’t think many broadcasters appreciate how unfair that was.

How RTE failed its LGBT workers
One of the most upsetting aspects of the campaign in broadcasting was RTE’s directives to staff, contract workers, freelancers, etc., not to express opinions about the marriage referendum on social media or elsewhere, and certainly not to outwardly campaign, regardless of whether or not people were working in current affairs, which has its own set of rules when it comes to impartiality which should be upheld.

By issuing memos to staff, RTE management alienated and upset LGBT people who work for them. I have lost count of the number of people who work for RTE who contacted me privately who were incredibly upset about what they viewed as directives that further oppressed them, marginalised them, made them invisible in work, undermined their identities, and stressed them out. Some of these people cried when they told me the pain of this situation. Some of them wondered whether they should just quit.

What RTE so spectacularly failed to understand – especially in the wake of their ham-fisted handling of the Pantigate affair – was that such a directive was felt as an attack on people’s identities in an environment where they had already been marginalised. For RTE management to turn around to LGBT people, who are numerous amongst their staff, and say to those people that they were not allowed take a personal position in their own private online communication for example on an issue that many of them had been fighting for their entire adult lives, was upsetting. The lack of sensitivity afforded to LGBT workers in this circumstance – and indeed many straight people who work for RTE who were equally annoyed although the directives were not an attack on their identity – was very poor.

The Balance Myth
Often instead of “balance”, broadcasters frequently gave a platform to red herrings that had nothing to do with the debate. The distraction tactics the No campaign had manufactured around surrogacy and adoption suddenly became valid points of view to be presented, and largely went unchecked. Broadcasters sometimes mistook “balance” for equal time given for whatever the hell you want to say, whatever its merit in a debate. I took part in a debate on TG4 where a representative of ADFAM spoke about the longevity of gay relationships, of spreading disease and so on. This seemed to be adequate because it was the “balance” of “another side”, but the points made were upsetting and outrageous. That wasn’t fair.

When the votes were counted…
It’s worth pointing out that when the referendum actually passed, television and radio suddenly did a brilliant job! Miriam O’Callaghan and Brian Dobson excelled on the television coverage as usual, Claire Bryne’s show on the day of the count was also excellent. Vincent Browne’s show from The George was surreal and fantastic, and so on. When broadcasters were allowed to breathe a bit more without the (totally unnecessary) stopwatches, without the impossible striving for “balance”, and – it has to be said – with both sides no longer at war and making demands of broadcasters, we finally got some great radio and television across the board.

It’s also worth pointing out that while I do present a TV show, I’m not a current affairs broadcasters aside from being a contributor and panelist and so on. The demands of keeping the lid on a heated debate as a moderator are alien to me. I’m not for one moment suggesting that any broadcaster had a bias or wanted to sway things one way or the other. I, on the other hand, have an absolute bias and plenty of skin in the game, so am bound to see things from a very specific point of view. I get that.

Previous Aftermath post: The Feeling Of Freedom, and still to come #MarRef Digital, A New Canvassing Movement, How Print Media Succeeded, and more.