Una Mullally: If we want a nasty debate on abortion that is what we will get
Media has a role to play in constructing a civilised, honest, open, fact-based, and respectful debate
Scuffles during an anti-abortion rally on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin in 1992. Photograph: Jack McManus
The media has been very quick to moved on from the conclusions of the Oireachtas committee on abortion legislation and is now busy preempting the debate that will take place in 2018 in the run up to a referendum.
The clichés about polarised debate are back. Journalists have immediately forgotten how positive many of the discussions were in both the Citizen’s Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee The assumption is that a referendum campaign will automatically be divisive and it is based on the type of “debate” that has been tolerated on abortion in the past.
The parameters of this debate have often been set by a media that believes opposing forces must always be in conflict. The media - particularly the broadcast media - constructs items on television and radio that are polarised and heightened. If the media insists on a campaign that will be messy, divisive, ugly, traumatic, and so on, then that’s what it will manifest.
The Citizen’s Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee were praised for being conscientious, measured, thorough and honest. Within those structures, experts have been listened to, the facts have been aired, and crucially, people participating have been afforded the opportunity to change their minds and evolve their points of view.
Considering the success of the Citizen’s Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee as democratic tools, the media has a lot to learn from how it constructs debates and discussions on issues such as abortion.
It is very rare to be asked on an Irish television or radio programme to just talk about something. To share thoughts and ideas, and to have an informed discussion that is purposefully designed not to descend into a bun fight. These types of invitations tend to be extended primarily by non-Irish broadcasters, who are seeking to inform their audiences who are less aware of the Irish social and political landscape.
There is no need for the media to participate in nastiness. If people want to tear strips off each other in spaces where editorial intervention doesn’t exist, such as on social media, then so be it. But the media has a role to play in constructing a civilised, honest, open, fact-based, and respectful debate, not sleepwalking towards one it has already decided will be awful.
When it comes to the often abused and misinterpreted term “balance” in referenda campaign, the Irish media has fallen into interpreting this as time allotted, rather than the balance of facts, opinion, and experience. This arbitrary focus on time often allows anything to be said in a given time slot so long as that length of time is equalled by an opposing force.
The problem is that the “No” side in Ireland’s abortion debate is an extreme one. It wants no abortions ever. The opposite to that is a side proposing abortions all the time. But that is not the opposing point of view here. The opposing point of view is a pro-choice one, a nuanced and multifaceted position within which many views reside. That is the so-called “middle ground”.
Journalists, researchers, editors, producers, presenters and moderators have a duty to the truth. The bar is always set much higher for those who are seeking rights or who are historically oppressed. The media needs to extend the same level of scrutiny to those who are fighting against women’s bodily autonomy, including the Catholic Church, and those for whom opposition to abortion is fundamentally rooted in religious beliefs that the media rarely raises in debates.
If the media demands a respectful debate, if we establish a standard of openness and honesty, if we structure debates in a manner that is coloured by reasonableness, expertise, personal experience and factual points of view, then the participants in those debates will be more inclined to play by those rules. But if the media keeps anticipating and naming an ugly debate, then that’s what it will get, and the media will shoulder a fair share of the blame for inflicting that on us all.