Sunday 28 December 2014

Free speech and not gay marriage is real issue here

Our libel laws mean that in the mainstream media, there cannot be any real debate on contentious matters, writes Willie Kealy

Published 02/02/2014 | 02:30

CATALYST: Rory O'Neill, aka Panti, appeared on ‘The Saturday Night Show’.
CATALYST: Rory O'Neill, aka Panti, appeared on ‘The Saturday Night Show’.

I SUSPECT not that many members of the general populace are lying awake in their beds at night worrying about the current "homophobia" debate. Partly that's because most people are not really engaged. They don't share the Tanaiste's view that same sex marriage is the big social issue of the day. But mostly it's because there hasn't really been what could actually be called a debate at all.

It started with a performance artist who is gay saying on the Saturday Night Show on RTE that he felt a number of people, whom he identified, were homophobic because of their stance on the question of gay marriage – and by extension – on gay adoption.

This was quickly followed by solicitors' letters from all of those whom he identified, and eventually an apology from RTE.

In the real world, that was the end of the "debate". Those who took offence at being called homophobic were able to continue to express their opinions – Breda O'Brien of the Irish Times and David Quinn of the Iona Institute were able to talk or write about it without fear of legal sanction. But otherwise there was nothing. This is because our libel laws are very conducive to closing down any debate that might tend towards the contentious.

If a media organisation is sued for libel, it goes through an automatic process which involves looking at the offending article or broadcast to assess its exposure. But at the end of the day, it is all about cost control. If the organisation lost in court, how much might be awarded to the litigant? This is a lottery entirely dependent on the values and opinions of a random set of 12 jury members on a given day. But even if the claimant received only a relatively small amount, the unsuccessful defendant would still be liable for the costs, and even a few days in court with solicitors and junior counsel and senior counsel on both sides could amount to a huge figure that would dwarf any potential award. RTE seems to have made a decision that, on the balance of probability, it would not have won in court.

None of this is to suggest that those who received the apologies or the compensation were anything less than deserving. An apology is an apology and is entitled to be taken at face value. I am just explaining the real-life mechanics of how these things happen.

But in the virtual world, the world of the internet, there has been debate. Well, debate of sorts. David Quinn – one of those who succeeded in getting RTE to apologise and pay money – was able to write about the experience in the Irish Independent. Of course, his Iona Institute had been quick out of the traps once RTE settled. Iona put that result up on its website under a very prominent RTE logo and detailed the fact that RTE had made monetary recompense.

The same website gave examples of some of the awful, obnoxious tweets that had been directed at David Quinn and his institute for their stance on gay marriage. And his article in the Irish Independent consisted largely of a moan about these beastly tweeters.

Well, David, that's Twitter for you. And if you choose to go into the virtual world of Twitter, then that is what you can expect. Because there are a lot of nasty-minded people out there and with Twitter, they can say what they like without much fear of any sanction, legal or otherwise. That's why so many celebrities who took to Twitter with great enthusiasm when it began have since decided to close their accounts. It is a medium for anyone and everyone to express any opinion they wish in any way they feel like.

If you cannot accept that, you shouldn't be on Twitter.

David Quinn appeals for a proper, civilised debate with none of the name-calling and threats. He recalls that in the various abortion debates (where he is on the "pro-life" side) he sought the same. Well, of course he did. In that debate, most of the abuse came from the "pro-life" side. People who advocated lifting any restrictions on abortion were frequently called "baby killers". David, and his more civilised "pro-life" colleagues, rightly, didn't want to be associated with this kind of abuse.

So, how can there be a civilised debate on same sex marriage and same sex adoption?

It would seem the answer is – only with so much care being taken that you end up in a muddle of self-censorship. If a minor performance artist taking exception to the outpourings of those who he perceives as wishing to deny gay men and women the right to marry and adopt children, and expressing the opinion that he, as a gay man, feels that stance is homophobic, leads to an apology from RTE and the payment of substantial sums of money under legal threat, then the debate is inhibited. The matter has not been tested in court.

It seems that RTE executives took a pragmatic decision based on potential financial exposure. And who could blame them given the perilous state of the station's finances? Something they have in common with every other media organisation in the country.

The sad conclusion is that, in the mainstream media, there cannot and will not be any real debate on "the most important social issue of the day". The "debate" will continue only on the unregulated internet. And it will not be civilised.

Ultimately this is not about gay marriage, gay adoption or homophobia. It is about free speech.

Irish Independent

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