YESTERDAY’S RULING BY the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has set a new and worrying standard for the media and for the nature of debate and discussion on all issues of current affairs across the airwaves in Ireland. In a response to a complaint, the BAI has ruled that any discussion by lesbian and gay people about their status and aspirations as Irish citizens can no longer be broadcast without being directly challenged on the same programme at the same time. The ruling sets a dubious standard for providing “balanced” broadcasting that forces broadcasters to turn every discussion into an argument.
Does this now mean that contributors to a broadcast programme may not now talk about possible future constitutional change on any issue, unless the programme segment has opposing views? This would turn any national debate on any issue into a sequence of adversarial contests, all in the name of fairness. This can only be detrimental for the quality of national debate.
A climate of conflict
The ruling raises serious questions about what kind of discussions we want on current affairs in Ireland. Providing balance is about ensuring that all sides get a fair hearing, not ensuring all sides get a fair thumping.
So for example in print media, newspapers employ commentators with a wide ranging and often opposing set of opinions. This allows the reader access to perspectives on an issue from both sides and people are intelligent enough to then draw their own conclusions. We don’t believe that every article written with a clear opinion must be accompanied on the same day and on the same page by another article opposing their viewpoint. This would make for a national debate built on the principle that all ideas and political aspirations can only exist in a climate of conflict where the destruction of all proposals isn’t just good but a prerequisite part of public discussion.
We believe that Irish people are capable of pulling together all the information on an issue from a variety of sources over a period of time and coming to a personal conclusion. We believe that people do not make up their minds on constitutional issues on the basis of a three minute interview. We have more faith in the intelligence and fairness of the Irish people.
No date has been set for a referendum
There already are strong rules in place which take effect when an election or referendum is called and which ensures that there is a strict balance on the airwaves on any discussions about the issues, arising from the McKenna and Coughlan judgements. While this is in itself a contentious issue, this BAI ruling has been made where no date has been set for a referendum on civil marriage. This is why the ruling raises serious concerns for the nature of public debate in Ireland.
The ruling has significant implications for lesbian and gay people and for any discussion or representation of their lives in the public sphere. Can lesbian and gay people not now talk about their lives and their aspirations as Irish citizens on the airwaves, or about their experiences of love and commitment, without it being a requirement that they be challenged directly? That is an unacceptable attack on a person’s dignity.
Does this ruling now apply all people who are or want to be married, gay, straight or lesbian?
Will heterosexual couples be challenged?
A national discussion that has been ongoing for years about marriage and whether lesbian and gay people should be allowed access to civil marriage and afforded the same constitutional status as other married couples. It is a debate about marriage, not about “gay marriage”. Does the ruling now imply that every heterosexual couple who talks about the importance of their love and commitment to each other on the airwaves will be forced to endure someone challenging the nature of their relationship or their entitlement to that status?
This ruling overregulates the nature of our public discourse by insisting that all public utterances on an issue that may be subject to constitutional change in the future must be carried out in an adversarial format. It sends a chilling message to lesbian and gay people that their lives, aspirations and love can now never go unchallenged on the airwaves. It presumes the Irish people are incapable of engaging in a public discourse which is balanced on the whole, rather than on a minute by minute stopwatch.
Tiernan Brady is an MA in International Relations and one of the directors of GLEN –The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network.