Gay lives should no longer be a matter for ‘public debate’
The Yes vote means broadcasters can throw away their stopwatches, for now
Thousands of people celebrate in Dublin Castle Square as the result of the referendum is relayed on May 23rd. Voters in the Republic of Ireland were taking part in a referendum on legalising same-sex marriage. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
The glorious positives from the resounding Yes vote in the same-sex marriage referendum should not distract from the fact that the campaign was at times distressing – precisely because the rights of gay people were deemed “matters of public debate”.
Too often, it seemed that a satirical Waterford Whispers News headline from 2014, “Gay Couples Not Allowed Appear on Radio Without a Bigot Present”, was not satire at all. Gay people, whether they were active campaigners or not, found themselves repeatedly confronted by a No side that demanded tolerance of their intolerance.
Well no more. We have had the debate and the question has been settled.
Last December, I interviewed Michael O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), which produces referendum guidelines and a code on fairness, objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs.
I asked him whether same-sex marriage would still be regarded as the subject of current public debate if the referendum were passed. Could the No side continue to insist, citing the code, that expressions of equality must be countered by faith-fuelled pronouncements?
Calling all producers: It’s time to banish any nerves about inviting gay people onto your programmes. Their intimate lives should never have been politicised in the first place and now they don’t have to be.
If a gay celebrity is booked onto a show to discuss his or her latest book or media venture, the chat might naturally turn to marriage rights, or wedding planning. Producers can now be confident that any objections to the regulator that follow the item will be dismissed. Up to now, sad to say, they have not always been so sure.
Presenters, who are not supposed to make their views known on air, have been in the firing line. Last year complaints about coverage of same-sex marriage on RTÉ Radio 1’s Mooney show and Newstalk Breakfast, were upheld by the BAI’s complaints committee, which criticised the presenters involved. A memo was sent to broadcasters, prompting the National Union of Journalists to warn of a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech.
In reply, the regulator said it was not singling out same-sex marriage from the full range of future referendum topics, it was just that it had received a number of complaints on the subject. O’Keeffe also said it was completely wrong for production teams to believe there was “an automatic need for an opposing-view person” in any single item.
Broadcasters can interpret the guidelines in different ways. RTÉ, for instance, is fond of the principle of equal allocation of airtime – a matter the BAI says “rests with the broadcaster” and is just one way of being fair, objective and impartial.
No campaigners, who insist the media has colluded against them, have had a distinct influence on broadcasting culture over the past year, from the complaints that triggered the BAI’s memo to their recent success at twisting the debate in the direction of surrogacy, especially on RTÉ.
Producers and presenters across the industry may feel bruised by the sense that they are forever in the wrong, even when they are trying to do everything right. But it is too cute to say “well, we achieved balanced by annoying everybody”.
So what now? It would clearly be a massive mistake to throw out the regulator’s codes. Fairness, objectivity and impartiality remain laudable principles. But some conversations between broadcasters and the regulator are surely necessary. Because in practice there remains a horrible collision between these inherently conservative guidelines and the reality that human rights in Ireland are a matter for “debate”.
The Irish Constitution continues, thanks to the eighth amendment, to deny human rights to women. Until Saturday, gay broadcasters found their personal lives were controversial, not merely personal. They were disadvantaged in their coverage of the debate because they were the debate. Women broadcasters and journalists, asked to be “impartial” and “objective” about their reproductive rights, continue to feel the chill.