I am writing to complain about the apology to members of the Iona Institute given by Brendan O’Connor, a broadcaster on RTE television, last weekend in connection with an interview the previous week with Rory O’Neill, a well known gay rights advocate in Ireland.
Mr O’Neill had expressed the view that the Iona Institute was homophobic. He made clear that he did not mean by this that they wanted to beat people up. Rather, he made clear that his definition of homophobia involved treating gays and lesbians differently.
That is, in fact, within the definition of homophobia accepted by many – including the Merriman Webster dictionary, which makes clear that homophobia includes discrimination against gays or lesbians. I refer you in this regard to the definition contained at the following link:
Mr O’Neill’s comments arise in a context where the Iona Institute is well known in Ireland for its opposition to affording equal marriage rights to gays and lesbians and also for its opposition to same-sex parenting. It seeks to maintain the current discrimination whereby same-sex couples are prohibited from marrying whereas opposite sex couples are free to do so.
In these circumstances, it is clear that Mr O’Neill was entirely entitled to express his honestly held opinion, which was based on facts that were reasonably known to the public.
It is astonishing, therefore, that RTE, a national broadcaster, should apologise for what Mr O’Neill has stated, censor his interview on the internet and award public money to those in the Iona Institute who have sought to prevent a free debate on equal marriage by preventing gay rights campaigners from uttering in future that opposition to same-sex marriage is homophobic. It is positively Orwellian (or even Putinesque) that, having done so, Mr O’Connor in his apology should stress the importance of free debate, as if Mr O’Neill had in any way tried to impede it.
It appears that there will be a referendum on the introduction of equal marriage in the next two years. By its censorship of Mr O’Neill, RTE has undermined confidence in its impartiality and has also made clear that it will not facilitate a free and fair debate. This is a profoundly serious matter for any broadcaster, not least one which purports to be the national broadcaster.
For these reasons, I wish to complain. Given the seriousness of the implications of what has happened for the ability of LGBT communities to express their opinions in the context of the forthcoming referendum on national television, I am sending a copy of this complaint to Mr Niels Muiznieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. You might be good enough to copy your response to Mr Muiznieks also. As you will be aware, Mr Muiznieks has been clear in recent times that silencing voices against homophobia violates human rights. I am sure that, in those circumstances, you will be keen to explain to him why RTE took the actions that it did.
In the event that I do not receive a satisfactory response, I will be writing to the Council of Europe Commissioner and also encouraging NGOs in Ireland also to do so.
However, I should stress that this is not merely a matter affecting LGBT groups. It seems to me that the apology provided by RTE has rather far reaching implications for other groups also. I am sure that RTE would not want to be seen simply to have treated one minority group differently to other groups in society.
In those circumstances, it is now incumbent on RTE to provide clarification on what it will not permit to be stated in other contexts also. RTE should therefore make clear what it will and will not tolerate in the following scenarios:
- A person states that women should not be allowed to work outside the home. Is it permissible on Irish Television to offer the opinion that the person is a misogynist, even if one makes clear that he or she believes that misogyny includes discrimination against women?
- A person states that Ireland should have fewer immigrants. Will RTE censor any person who states that the speaker is xenophobic?
- A Northern Ireland politician objects to an Orange Order march, stating that the Orange Order is sectarian. Will RTE prevent the broadcast of such utterances and provide compensation to leading lights in the Orange Order?
If, however, any of the above is permissible, will RTE explain why it is not equally permissible to state that a group that campaigns against same-sex marriage is homophobic?
If the above is not now permissible, it is important that the public are made aware of what they may and may not say on Irish television. RTE should therefore issue comprehensive guidance on the above new restrictions to, for example, women TDs, women’s organisations, Northern Ireland politicians, ethnic minority organisations who commonly make such utterances, quite without consequence, on RTE at this time. Please confirm that you are willing to do so. I would also be grateful if you could in due course furnish me and, more importantly, Mr Muiznieks with a copy of any guidance issued.
Brian Barrington is a practising barrister and expert on Equality and Human Rights. He has long been involved with the Marriage Equality campaign, offering advice and legal opinion.
This letter first appeared on Marriage Equality’s Facebook page.