Rush to courts risks chilling debate: Rabbitte
The Communications Minister has chided RTE for only focusing on commercial factors in its response to Pantigate, says John Drennan
Published 09/02/2014 | 02:30
COMMUNICATIONS Minister Pat Rabbitte says RTE must find the correct balance between commercial and editorial factors in settling defamation cases. In the wake if the Pantigate affair, Mr Rabbitte also slammed those with "zealous views" who call for robust debate on moral issues and then "run down to the Four Goldmines" at the first sign of offence.
Mr Rabbitte warned RTE its status as a national broadcaster means it cannot just be guided by commercial considerations when responding to defamation issues. In an apparent rebuke to the speed with which the station settled the homophobe row, he said the broadcaster has to take other factors into account in issues that are "sensitive, that go to the heart of human rights".
"I think it is a reasonable request that there should be both commercial and editorial judgement involved in decision-making," he told the Sunday Independent.
Significantly, Mr Rabbitte claimed that prior to the controversy he had been planning to change the threshold for causing offence to the proposed new criteria where the national broadcaster must avoid "causing undue offence".
"Others have drawn the conclusion this was driven by recent events," he said.
Mr Rabbitte's views were expressed in the wake of an emotive Dail debate where TDs across all parties were scathing about the speed with which RTE settled the Panti Bliss case.
Fine Gael's Jerry Buttimer said it was "erroneous and wrong", while Labour's John Lyons said the country needed "a national broadcaster which allows robust debate".
RTE claimed in the wake of the furore that the decision to settle had been taken on commercial principles. Mr Rabbitte said the views expressed in the Dail would "suggest it is the view of the House that editorial judgement has to be brought to bear as well as commercial judgement".
"The House is saying because they are a public service broadcaster, there is a duty in there to bring editorial considerations to that as well as commercial ones," he said.
Though Mr Rabbitte made it clear he had no intention of being "dragged into every defamation debate", he also warned: "I think there are issues that are fundamentally important, or issues that are sensitive, that go to the heart of human rights."
And when it comes to how RTE deals with litigation over this, he said: "I think it is a reasonable request that there should be both commercial and editorial judgement involved in decision making."
Mr Rabbitte also contrasted the current litigious culture with the "Late Late Show in its heyday".
"Many robust things were said and there was often hell to pay, but I don't think people resorted to the Four Goldmines after such affairs," he said.
In a warning there are likely to be further Pantigate-style scenarios, Mr Rabbitte also predicted the debate on gay marriage and adoption will "be in flood" over the next year. Mr Rabbitte, however, said he had already been planning to take advantage of the legislation dealing with the transition from the TV licence to "tidy up a number of matters".
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"One of those being that the imposition on broadcasters that we cannot broadcast something that is offensive, it is a high barrier," he said.
Mr Rabbitte said his "modest reform" would have the benefit of setting a new level of public discourse that is "less likely to inhibit free-thinking debate on serious matters".
Mr Rabbitte noted it was "not for me to deny the right to the resort to court", but the issue he had to deal with was: "How should the public service broadcaster handle it, how does the public service broadcaster react in such circumstances."
He also warned: "The danger of easy and early access to the defamation laws runs the risk of chilling debate on serious social issues. As regards broadcasting, it is the nature of the issues we are talking about that gives rise to their ultra sensitivity."
Speaking on the referendum on gay marriage and gay adoption he warned: "These issues are going to be in flood between now and then, it can be difficult for broadcasters when people, on the one hand call for robust debate and then resort to the courts, the Four Goldmines when their views are challenged."
In an indication of further troubles, Mr Rabbitte also warned the current requirement for balance in referendum debates has created a situation that leads to "logical absurdities".