Breda O’Brien: Some media see abortion bias as a badge of honour

Far from having a chilling effect, some broadcasters appear chilled out about having been found in breach of regulations

Some see debate as the lifeblood of society, because tough yet civil debate enables us to have difficult conversations about profound differences, and somehow work out a way of living together.

Others see even the airing of certain ideas as too offensive to be allowed, and see any challenge to prevailing orthodoxies as deeply suspect.

Notoriously, in many UK and US universities there is a movement to deny a platform to those whose ideas make students feel “unsafe”.

Right where students should be learning to deal with ideas that disturb them and either moderate their views accordingly or develop robust rebuttals, students are instead being sheltered from thinking.


However, there are other ways of short-circuiting vigorous discussion, which are not as crude as no platforming, as the movement to prevent free speech in universities is called.

Gatekeepers such as editors and producers decide what may and may not be said, what may and may not be challenged.

But in Ireland, broadcast media are supposed to adhere to codes of fairness, impartiality and objectivity.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) dismisses the majority of complaints it receives. It is therefore disturbing that in the past six months, two separate sets of complaints concerning the Eighth Amendment have been upheld by the BAI against The Ray D'Arcy Show.

It is even more disturbing because The Ray D'Arcy Show is light entertainment, and therefore not subject to the more stringent current affairs codes.

Human interest

For example, people are allowed to tell human interest stories without balancing voices even if they touch on controversial subjects, so long as they are not overtly campaigning.

This is a good thing. Hearing people’s stories is important. What happens, though, when on a consistent basis, the majority of human interest stories come from one particular worldview, and those stories make it more and more difficult for people to express contrary views?

Or what happens when stories are used over months and years as a softening-up process in order to facilitate societal change? A society functions best when one set of voices are not given a privileged position because the gatekeepers are much more sympathetic to the worldview expressed than they are to the other side of the story.

In a balanced and fair society, voices are added to the debate, not subtracted from it.

The upheld complaints concerned The Ray D'Arcy Show giving Colm O'Gorman of Amnesty International free rein to talk about the launch of a campaign to remove the Eighth Amendment, which protects the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn. Not only were there no balancing voices present, but the broadcasting complaints committee found "that listeners to the programme would have reasonably concluded that the presenter endorsed the views of his interviewee and was articulating a partisan position".

The second complaint concerned Graham and Helen Linehan speaking about the tragic diagnosis of their baby with a life-limiting condition, and their decision to choose abortion. They are absolutely entitled to tell that story.

But the BAI found that in labelling people who disagreed with them as fundamentalist, simplistic and childish and in urging listeners to campaign for constitutional change, they moved from storytellers to campaigners. The presenter then failed again in his statutory duty to provide balance, a responsibility that does not rest with him alone but with the whole editorial and management team in RTÉ.

In general, media workers are more sympathetic to pro-choice voices. Twenty-six years ago, the Pulitzer prize-winning David Shaw, appointed by his LA Times editor to be as critical of media as the media are of every other institution, did intensive research over 18 months on major US newspaper, television and newsmagazine coverage of abortion.

He found “scores of examples” showing news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favour abortion-rights advocates.

Models of balance

What would such a study find here? There are some broadcasters who are models of balance, but groupthink is hard to escape. For insiders, it appears to be the default position of all reasonable people, and anyone querying it is not reasonable.

The BAI complaints mechanism is particularly toothless. Other than a slap on the wrist, there are virtually no sanctions. Some broadcasters appear chilled out about having been found in breach. Some wear it almost as a badge of honour.

And the BAI complaints process has no mechanism to adjudicate on allegations from the public of systemic bias across a range of programming. Only complaints about individual instances are allowed, and attempts to highlight discernible patterns are treated, unsatisfactorily, as distinct and unrelated complaints.

To exclude voices is corrosive of tolerance, pluralism and diversity, and ultimately, corrosive of democracy itself. Thankfully, we are not dependent on the media to express views. A “Celebrate the 8th” event is being held on Molesworth Street, Dublin, at 3pm to 4pm today. It is a forum for voices rarely given a sympathetic hearing in mainstream media.