For several years the Repeal campaign has been tediously lectured by journalists, columnists and self regarding political gurus. Pompous pages filled with advice no one asked for. Dire warnings and hollow concern. Dozens of hacks writing identical articles while accusing everyone else of being unprepared.
You need to follow the rules they say as centres of power ignore referendum results, European Courts and more cases than we should ever be familiar with. Tone it down and follow procedure insist the same people left reeling by the outcome of Citizens Assembly and Oireachtas committee.
Get off the internet they jeer as people turned a hashtag into a question on the ballot paper.
Throughout 2017 a cottage industry arose as journalists set out across America to find the ordinary people – as if residents of Nebraska or Idaho were some lost Amazonian tribe. RTÉ’s Caitríona Perry even delivered ‘Tales from Trump Land’ but no such survey of our own savage wilderness has taken place.
Instead, on the morning of the last general election one broadcaster reflected the overall mood in RTÉ studios remarking that the results “seem like they were from another planet”. This was but a rerun of 2011 when none saw the collapse of Fianna Fáil coming and in the era of Trump and Brexit need we labour the point of just how out of touch the professionals are from public opinion? Yes.
I fondly remember former Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy one morning telling us the marriage referendum was going to fail as Marian Finucane and her panel of experts nodded along. It passed by over 60% with a majority in all but one county. The veteran and highly regarded journalist had of course presided over the paper during the property bubble and bank collapse. Neither of which were foreseen across the entire media/political class, apparently, and she popped again in 2016 to insist that in the general election “stability in government will be the main issue in a majority of voters’ minds” before result delivered the lowest combined FF/FG vote in history and no government for 80 days.
Irish Water, Garda scandals, Siteserv, Tuam, Savita, James Reilly, one after another these clowns call the public mood wrong and after nearly four decades on the issue have the cheek to tell us people won’t vote for repeal.
Prochoice activists must to listen to these people pontificate about the “middle ground” but just how prepared are the Irish media for this referendum?
During the long run to Marriage Equality in 2015 both the Irish Times and RTÉ ran opinion polls including questions relating to custody, adoption and guardianship.
Why were these issues being deliberately shoehorned into the topic when trained, resourced and professional newsrooms were well aware these and other matters – for all couples and none – were dealt with separately by the Oireachtas in the Children and Family Relationships Bill.
Way back in 2013 Alan Shatter told the Dáil that
It is important we have this level of understanding and clarity. The referendum will be about one, and only one, issue and that issue is whether it is agreed by a majority of the people of the Republic of Ireland that individuals who are gay can celebrate a marriage. This is the only issue. […]
We should not be led into a debate about children.
The Children and Family Relationships Bill was an important, modernising and in an Irish context, radical piece of legislation reforming the archaic state of family law in this state. It deserved significant attention in itself.
Unfortunately following Alan Shatter’s departure from Justice, Francis Fitzgerald and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin completely dropped the ball in publicising it. Political sense alone would suggest that – with an eye on the referendum – this was an opportunity to dispel unhelpful noise and myth, and do it early on. Instead legislation was published and pushed through the Oireachtas several months late and just weeks before the referendum vote.
Was media ignorance and irresponsibility down to a tendency to take their lead from Leinster House….or was it the other way around?
January 2015 headlines in the Irish Times and Journal both tactfully announced that a “Gay adoption law” would be passed before the referendum. Both articles were spurred by government press release in response to a broadcast of Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ the previous Monday night. It was the maiden episode of what has become the most consistently barrel scrapping, sensationalist offerings on RTÉ Current Affairs.
In her TV review Laura Slattery observed that “Labour TD John Lyons looks forlorn as the debate is consistently dragged off in the obfuscating direction of children’s rights, surrogacy and adoption, and wonders if there has been some mix-up. This referendum is about marriage, right?”. This continued on RTÉ for another four months.
Eight weeks later in March, the Irish Times were still polling “on whether same-sex couples should be able to adopt?”. These polls are then picked up from newspapers for morning radio and around it goes again. Far from providing clarity and aiding an informed public ahead of the vote, splashing unrelated guff on front pages and airwaves had the effect of injecting doubt and misinformation into the news cycle. Breeding contention and unfounded fear.
A study on ‘negative social and psychological impacts’ during the 2015 campaign found television and radio debates were even more distressing than the ubiquitous campaign posters and that “under the guise of “respectful debate” and “balance” a “megaphone” and “platform” for homophobia and prejudice was provided”.
Journalists and producers will argue the need to hear both sides however unsavoury ‘debate’ turns but this neat excuse sidesteps that it was not just the broadcast of malicious content and disinformation at fault. The biggest criticism during and since the campaign was that presenters were unwilling or simply unequipped to challenge assertions or steer proceedings toward something constructive for audiences at home.
However aside from unprepared broadcasters, Prochoice and other activists are by now well aware that programme makers in fact rarely set out achieve anything approaching informative, choosing instead the well worn comfort zone of simplistic binary and conflict.
Take January’s Dáil statements on the Joint Committee Report. In a debate mature as we could hope in Leinster House, TDs from all sides entered the chamber said their piece and left. Sin é.
Over on RTÉ however a video segment on Prime Time used footage of Mattie McGrath and Richard Boyd Barrett on their feet arguing while a voiceover spoke of “testy exchanges” and a “divisive issue”. The truth was nothing of the sort.
McGrath and Boyd Barrett were separately raising a procedural issue with the Ceann Comhairle, it was an argument about speaking time. That was the extent of trouble throughout the debate but in using this footage RTÉ Primetime quite deliberately mislead viewers into seeing conflict where none had existed.
This was culmination of a trend. The Committee on the Eighth Amendment was an imperfect, frustrating but none the less landmark process in Irish politics. There was no consensus on the desired outcome but most members were moving in the same direction at different speeds. Most were open to listen and engage. This was no small event for Irish politicians and abortion.
However each Wednesday radio bulletins invariably rang out with the antics of a minority who heckled, obstructed and listened to no else. Headlines were no better and with a few exceptions there was scant indication of what actually occurred over three months down in Committee Room 2. Members of the Oireachtas don’t easily emerge with ground shifting recommendations ranging from repeal, sex education and provision of universal free contraception. A lot just happened here but when the final report was published, short as it was, most went unreported on the main evening news as equal time is given to bare opposition of “no change”.
In January this year, RTÉ Drivetime ran a segment putting the Irish reproductive health regime in global context. Phillip Boucher Hayes remarked that he spend all day crunching the numbers. He could have just asked any number of activists who have been putting the word out on this for years. In so many cases, journalists are only behind politicians in catching with public opinion.
Activists are chastised, their work overlooked and dismissed while in January, Stephen Collins, Fiach Kelly and Pat Leahy at the Irish Times each wrote identical articles praising the Taoiseach’s supposedly genius strategy in softly softly bringing people along? Each tellingly over estimating the influence of Leo Varadkar in this campaign.
The effect of this mediated politics, so constrained and narrowed is proving to have effects beyond the humble electorate. It is not a leap to suggest these failures account in part for why much of the media and political class itself has been blindsided by Citizens Assembly recommendations, public opinion and just about everything else abortion related as the ground moved beneath their feet since 2012.
For years we were subject to speculation and debate about the emergence of new party in Irish politics. Endless coverage for Lucinda Creighton, Michael McDowell and whoever else. All the while, the most incredibly vibrant social movement touching every county in Ireland has emerged and the majority of journalists are unable to write about it.
Media comment has concerned itself not so much with the issues but with grave concern that this is happening outside perceived boundaries of respectable politics. This is ordinary people getting together and putting a most unspeakable issue on the agenda and soon to vote – in spite of the Normal Rules.
It is not just that regime journalists live in a bubble or don’t care to inform themselves. They genuinely do not understand how this campaign has played out. It is beyond their entire conception. This is what happens when your idea of politics only extends to the ritual of posters on lamp posts.
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