Monday 26 September 2016

Media bias is distorting public debate and eroding our democracy

Published 03/04/2015 | 02:30

"Frances Fitzgerald, was asked no tough questions about the Children and Family Relationships Bill whatsoever. That is a failure of journalism."

Enda Kenny was on 'Today with Sean O'Rourke' on Wednesday. One of the topics that came up was the forthcoming marriage referendum. O'Rourke did what few other presenters on any station has done to date; he asked a campaigner for the 'Yes' side a question that showed a proper understanding of the 'No' side's point of view.

  • Go To

O'Rourke said to him: "There's that famous quote about cherishing all the children of the nation equally . . . But your critics would say . . . if you want to cherish all the children of the nation equally, a good place to start might be to provide for them to be reared in a family where they can have the benefit of being reared by a father and a mother and that definition, which is the traditional one, is being thrown out the window as a result of this referendum if carried."

That is exactly the right question, because the section of the Constitution we're being asked to change isn't called 'Marriage' at all, it's called 'The Family'. We're being asked to change not only how we define marriage, but the family also.

Enda didn't answer the question he was asked. He responded: "Well, the definition of marriage in the Constitution is not being changed, it is merely being added to by the question that's being asked of the people here."

He said nothing at all about mothers and fathers and the children.

The reason O'Rourke's question is worth highlighting is because it is so rarely asked. Most presenters are well aware of how to cross-examine the 'No' side, but not the 'Yes' side. This, on its own, creates an unbalanced debate.

The question of media bias, and even media blindness, has been to the fore in the last few days because various former newspaper editors appeared before the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry last week and because Pat Rabbitte accused RTÉ of acting as a "recruiting sergeant" for the hard-left and anti-water charges protestors.

RTÉ obviously had to give huge coverage to the protests against the water charges because it was a huge story.

However, if Rabbitte is right, and RTÉ does act as a "recruiting sergeant" for the movement, that means it has got bigger than it otherwise would have thanks to RTÉ's efforts.

At a minimum, it's a charge that has to be examined.

The first step should be to see how much coverage is given to other protest movements and what the tone of that coverage was. For example, if RTÉ was so minded it could have given more coverage to the various pro-life protests that have taken place ever since the Government's abortion law was first debated.

These were a lot smaller than the biggest of the water charge protests, but they were still big and would have been bigger still if RTÉ had given those protests and the reasons for them even a tenth of the coverage it gave to the water protests.

A few years ago, RTÉ gave lots of coverage to a call to boycott Masses on a particular Sunday over the issue of women priests, even though that call emanated from one woman.

If RTÉ has indeed been acting as a recruiting sergeant for water charge protesters then it, and every other broadcaster, has been acting as a Field Marshall for the same-sex marriage lobby.

Programme after programme has featured extremely soft and one-sided interviews with advocates of same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting.

For example, the 'John Murray Show' interviewed a woman who is expecting a baby with her lesbian partner.

This could easily have been balanced by an equally soft interview with someone who was raised by two mothers but missed having a father. But it wasn't and it never will be.

When Gerry O'Regan, the former editor of the Irish Independent, appeared before the Banking Inquiry to discuss the newspapers' coverage of the property boom, he said that journalists had missed their 'Watergate moment'.

They could have exposed the shaky foundations of the property boom in the same way journalists in America exposed Nixon, but they didn't. He spoke about the overwhelming consensus in favour of the property boom and told the inquiry: "Editors, writers, contributors and analysts cannot but be influenced by the prevailing climate at a given point in time."

That's correct, but it's why media outlets need to go out of their way to question whether the prevailing climate is, in fact, correct - that will almost certainly mean listening to contrarian voices they may even despise.

The Oireachtas has just passed the most radical piece of family law reform in generations, namely the Children and Family Relationships Bill. There was almost no public debate about this. The media almost entirely ignored it, or reported it in a way that would have done a Government spokesperson proud.

The responsible Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, was asked no tough questions about it whatsoever that I am aware of. That is a failure of journalism.

Media bias and media blindspots distort public debate on issue after issue.

The continual distortion of one public debate after another is distorting democracy itself.

Irish Independent

Read More