Colum Kenny: Cool liberals can be just as deaf as conservative Catholics

Rap over the knuckles for RTE will stimulate rather than stymie debate

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has rapped RTÉ over the knuckles for the way presenter Ray D'Arcy dealt with abortion.

Its decision highlights the sensitive nature of the abortion issue, with the word “abortion” not even mentioned in the new programme for government. The BAI decision also raises questions for RTÉ and others involved in the debate. Can they be fair?

Helen Linehan and her comedy-writer husband Graham were guests of RTÉ. The couple have made a video about her painful experience of pregnancy. They support a campaign to change the Constitution, to decriminalise abortion where the foetus cannot survive, for example.

Every Irish citizen knows abortion is controversial. RTÉ knows well the law has long required broadcasters to ensure programmes are objective and impartial when it comes to public controversy or debate. Like it or not, Irish people voted for a constitutional provision (the Eighth Amendment) that greatly restricts access to abortion. But a RedC poll for Amnesty International suggests most now favour change.


Legal change

The BAI’s compliance committee has found D’Arcy’s afternoon programme “clearly encouraged support” for a change in the law, and that on RTÉ the Linehans made “consistent and strong criticisms” of the current law.

The BAI feels RTÉ did not give due regard to those against looser abortion laws. Opposing views were dismissed on the programme as “fundamentalist”, “simplistic” and “childish”. The BAI describes D’Arcy’s inclusion of comments from the anti-abortion side as “cursory”.

RTÉ knows better. It has long experience of current affairs. Complaints against it are often dismissed. Yet just over a year ago the BAI found a programme presented by Derek Mooney during the gay marriage referendum was unfair and biased. And D'Arcy himself was criticised in December, when the BAI found against his interview with Colm O'Gorman of Amnesty on abortion. O'Gorman was quick to claim last week the latest BAI decision would have a "chilling effect" on debate. On the contrary, it encourages debate instead of mere pronouncements by presenters and guests.

Some liberal critics similarly castigated the BAI for enforcing the fairness law during the same-sex marriage referendum. Yet that referendum was carried despite all points of view being heard. Cool liberals can be just as deaf as conservative Catholics.

RTÉ has made some good programmes about abortion. The BAI has rejected complaints about bias where the content is focused on the human-interest aspect. But impartiality is needed when changes in law are advocated. The entry of Amnesty International into this domestic debate is problematic. Its rationale for sidelining the rights of the unborn, on the basis human rights only begin after birth, is unconvincing.

Even permissive abortion regimes recognise it is not appropriate to terminate a foetus after a certain point sometime before birth. Parents are well aware a moving child in the womb is a human being. Has Amnesty no policy on the healthy but defenceless foetus that might be aborted only for personal or state convenience?

Lifestyle vs justice

Fairness laws were swept aside in the USA, where some now even question if “liberty” is compatible with democracy. The liberal agenda is sometimes more about facilitating lifestyle than furthering social or political justice.

Yet the biggest questions are not for RTÉ or Amnesty but for Dáil Éireann. The Government’s omission of any explicit reference to abortion reform from its 156-page programme for government seems cowardly and sexist.