Effortless alignment of RTÉ with Repeal campaign a cause for concern

The Eighth conveys to viewers that there is, really, only one possible take on abortion

Programmes like The Eighth are not happening in a vacuum; the context is the three-year review of abortion legislation that the Minister for Health is undertaking.  Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

Programmes like The Eighth are not happening in a vacuum; the context is the three-year review of abortion legislation that the Minister for Health is undertaking. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

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Let’s start with a salute to the makers of The Eighth, an account of the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, broadcast on RTÉ on Wednesday. It was, as the RTÉ entertainment guide puts it, a “passionate, skilfully executed and deeply moving documentary”.

Directors Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O’Boyle followed the genesis and explosive growth of the Together for Yes campaign from 2017 until the moment, just over three years ago, when cheering, weeping crowds of young women at Dublin Castle learned that Repeal had won by a landslide.

The Eighth told us quite a lot, perhaps more than it intended. This was RTÉ’s way of marking a historic event. And it did so with a celebration of the Yes campaign.

There were some clips of the No lot in action – a rally here, posters there, a brief clip of Maria Steen versus Mary Lou – but they were ciphers, symbolising the challenge that the Yes campaigners had to surmount. There was a shot of one activist walking by a poster showing a nine-week foetus, dismissing it out of hand.

Did it not occur to anyone at the State broadcaster that an element of balance might be in order, that there could even be a sympathetic, nuanced account of the No campaign?

There were moving accounts of the Magdalene laundries and the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, and an odd conflation of these scandals with the case for Repeal. There were a couple of quotes from the No man John McGuirk, but his arguments were never addressed.

What we got was a fully-fleshed account of one side, of women with stories to tell while the other lot were somewhere on the margins, mostly faceless, baffling obstacles to progress.

What’s remarkable is that it seems nowhere to have crossed the minds of commissioning editors that there was anything problematic about this. Naturally, the documentary merited broadcasting, but by itself? Unchallenged? With no counter-narrative?

Did it not occur to anyone at the State broadcaster that an element of balance might be in order, that there could even be a sympathetic, nuanced account of the No campaign?

Did they not, at any point, discern a disproportion in their approach to the two sides? The No lot weren’t, aren’t, negligible; they accounted for a third of those who voted.

Diversity of outlook and coverage isn’t just mildly desirable; it’s an obligation. Perhaps the regulator could, you know, drop a hint to this effect?

Wendy Grace, a radio presenter who made a fleeting appearance as a token No campaigner, said that she had been told beforehand that the documentary would be a balanced piece of journalism; it wasn’t. What’s worrying isn’t that the directors of the documentary took that view; it’s that the broadcaster went with it.

But when it comes to presenting nuanced, relatable individuals, or a coherent moral case, there is an almost hilarious unconscious bias evident in the State broadcaster’s coverage of this issue, of which Wednesday’s documentary was entirely typical.

For RTÉ editors and journalists, Repealers are people like us – they are us; Pro-lifers are the unaccountable Other – possibly rural, probably Catholic, not with the programme. This effortless alignment of RTÉ with Repeal was evident during the campaign, still more after it.

Put aside the elusive question of tone; the air time given to the two sides is wildly asymmetric. The Pro-Life Campaign did an analysis of RTÉ Radio 1 coverage over a fortnight in May, before the third anniversary of the vote, in four presenter-led programmes, and found that it gave 38 minutes to one side, two to the other. Might you guess which got more?

It is a complex issue, with very high stakes and there are stories to be told on both sides

Cultural conformity, the perennial problem of Irish journalism, might be excusable on this fraught question in paid-for newspapers, but it’s quite another matter when it characterises the State broadcaster funded by a compulsory levy on television owners.

Diversity of outlook and coverage isn’t just mildly desirable; it’s an obligation. Perhaps the regulator could, you know, drop a hint to this effect?

Programmes like The Eighth aren’t happening in a vacuum; the context is the three-year review of abortion legislation that the Minister for Health is undertaking. It matters.

The Eighth conveys to viewers that there is, really, only one possible take on abortion. But it is a complex issue, with very high stakes and there are stories to be told on both sides. A pity, then, that we get so little nuance.

Melanie McDonagh is writer at large at the Evening Standard

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