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Column: Panti Bliss controversy raises major questions about RTE's role in public discourse

Some privately-owned news media can be described as having a particular editorial slant – but the state broadcaster has a duty to be balanced and challenge opinions that promote inequality, writes Catherine Murphy TD.

Catherine Murphy TD

I LISTENED IN DISMAY earlier this week as I was informed that the state broadcaster, RTE, had agreed to pay damages to a number of parties who felt they had being wronged by having the word ‘homophobic’ attributed to them. If this proves to be true, then major questions have got to be asked about the role of the public service broadcaster in public discourse.

While some people may argue the toss over the definition of the words homophobe or homophobia, nobody can dispute the definition of the word equality. The Oxford Dictionary defines equality as: the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities. Clearly, if you disagree that another person, by virtue of their sexuality, is not entitled to equal status, rights or opportunities, then you are not an advocate of equality.

The purpose of public discourse

In relation to this particular incident, the primary tenet here is the difference between public discourse and private discourse. In private discourse you are entitled to express any belief you so wish, whereas in public discourse the debate must be balanced and allow for equality of views. A balanced media, particularly the state broadcaster, has a duty to challenge opinions that promote inequality.

There is an insistence, by some, in public discourse that we must listen to the voice telling us that a gay person’s relationship is somehow lesser than a straight relationship – essentially that they are unequal. That is the promotion of inequality. If inequality is to become the currency of public discourse then we have a societal problem that will continue to grow.

Let’s, for a second, presume that women had never been given the right to vote and they were now fighting for that right. Imagine now, that every debate on the topic focused on women’s mental capacity to participate in civic life. Would you have a problem with that? If you believe in equality, you believe that men and women are equal. The same holds true with every category of people.

Different types of news media

Most people could very easily point to certain sections of the international, privately-owned media and easily describe them as having a particular editorial slant, be it conservative anti-immigrant, anti-gay etc, or liberal and openly left-leaning in its views on social reform. However, when we consider the role of a public service broadcaster we expect it to be free of those types of biases. We expect an impartial service that delivers rounded debate, a plethora of opinions and provides equal opportunities to all sides of the argument. Indeed it is for this reason that we pay a licence fee.

If we have a situation where the public service broadcaster is so easily intimidated by some litigious conservatives – or any other group for that matter – then we have a problem, a big problem. How can we honestly expect there to be reasoned and equal debate on any topic if a strongly worded letter from someone who perceives an insult, will result in the mitigation of that debate, its removal from the airwaves, and a public apology for the fact that it ever happened!

We can be pedants or we can be realists. Whilst one might not like a particular word attributed to them, one cannot dispute the definition of a word. Utilising the Oxford Dictionary again, we see that the definition of homophobia is a “aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people”. If you argue that homosexual people are not entitled to the same consideration as straight people then you are, by definition, a homophobe.

Espousing beliefs

If the public service broadcaster is to capitulate every time someone cries foul when a well-founded and fair opinion is expressed about them, then they will find that the budget very quickly runs dry but – more importantly – so too does public discourse. For example, I am always introduced as an Independent TD. This is, by dictionary definition, correct. Now suppose I decide I’m not happy with that label despite the fact that it is accurate. Should I write a letter to RTE and expect a cheque by return? Where does it end?

You cannot openly espouse a belief then decide to be offended when the appropriate label for that belief is applied to you. The public service broadcaster has a duty here to exercise discretion, common sense and most importantly, to provide an equal platform where one side, or the other, is not afraid to openly address an issue using appropriate wording, not slurs, but actual dictionary definitions that are not open to dispute by pedants with well-paid solicitors behind them.

Catherine Murphy is an Irish independent politician from Leixlip in County Kildare. Follow her on Twitter @CathMurphyTD

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