Same-sex marriage panto descends into farce

Rory O'Neill - aka Panti Bliss - on RTÉ's 'Saturday Night Show' on January 11.
Rory O'Neill - aka Panti Bliss - on RTÉ's 'Saturday Night Show' on January 11.

WHEN did Barack Obama cease to be homophobic? Is Enda Kenny redeemed from his homophobia? If some of the hoopla of recent days is to be taken seriously, then anybody who doesn’t favour same sex marriage can be described as homophobic.

That is the only conclusion to be drawn from widespread reaction to the fall-out from a controversial appearance by a drag artist on a light entertainment show.

Of all the players in the ongoing Panti Bliss/homophobia drama, RTÉ has got the worst going over. The national broadcaster has been lambasted from on high. As far as this column is concerned, very little of the criticism is justified. RTÉ handled the whole matter professionally and prudently.

The broadcast in question went out on 11 January on the Saturday Night Show. In a conversation about same sex marriage (SSM), drag artist Rory O’Neill aka Miss Panti Bliss, made comments about John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute, alleging they were all homophobic.

I saw the item and recall thinking that there could be a serious problem if any of the parties mentioned decided to kick up. Nothing I’d ever read or heard from any of them could be described as homophobic in the generally accepted meaning of the word.

As it was, they kicked up blue murder. All of them were lawyered up within 48 hours. The end result was a public apology and the payment of €85,000 in damages to the two columnists, and four leading lights in the Iona Institute, who hadn’t even been mentioned by name. These were David Quinn, Patricia Casey, Maria Steen and John Murray (the theologian, not the radio presenter). Waters is reported to have received €40,000 with the remainder shared between the others. The share-out suggests that if the litigants were a Christian rock band, they would go under the name John and the Ionians.

Once news of the settlement seeped out there was what can only be described as holy war. Complaints flooded into the station. A protest against the decision was held in Dublin city centre last Sunday. The general thrust of the righteous indignation was that the national broadcaster had a duty to defend Panti Bliss’s comments on the basis of freedom of speech.

This stance lacks any basic understanding of the laws of libel. If the case had ever gone to court, the defence would have been on extremely shaky grounds. A trial might have facilitated those who disagree, or abhor, the Ionian’s stance on matters like same sex marriage, but that’s not RTÉ’s function.

In the extremely unlikely event of winning, RTÉ would have had a job recovering its costs. It was on a financial hiding to nothing.

As for the principle of free speech? This wasn’t a case of the station standing over a programme it had made. It had more to do with the perils of live television, in which a guest made contentious comments about people who weren’t present to respond or defend themselves.

Then there is the swiftness of the resolution. Again, this was prudent. The longer it went on, the more the boys and girls of the legal business fattened their wallets.

Sean Quinn was the man who saw the huge benefit in settling claims in the insurance business swiftly in order to minimise legal costs. RTÉ beat the same path in this instance, and, by doing so, avoided further costs and a drag on management focus over months or even years.

Those who advocate for same sex marriage (SSM) didn’t see things that way. If anything, the tone employed by many in recent days strayed into arrogance. Social media in particular hopped with righteous indignation on the matter. Much of it wrongly sought to conflate homophobia with opposition to SSM on any cultural or religious grounds.

Last Saturday, at the Abbey Theatre Panti Bliss, gave powerful testimony of the prejudices suffered by gay people. It should be required viewing (on Youtube) for every citizen. Speeches in the Dáil on Thursday by John Lyons and Jerry Buttimer on being targeted for their sexuality were also moving. But conflating ignorance and violence against gay people with holding different views on same sex marriage is far from reasonable.

Tactically, it could turn out to be a major mistake. Opinion polls show a huge majority currently in favour of SSM. But the battleground of referendums is littered with the hubris of those who took the electorate for granted and lost. Even in the 2012 Children’s Rights referendum, which appeared to enjoy huge public support, victory was only secured by stumbling over the finishing line, despite a focused campaign by all the political parties.

The acceptance that SSM is a basic human right has spread like wildfire across the western world. Obama and Kenny are just two examples of leaders whose views have altered in the last three years. As recently as 2011, both were opposed.

Now, they, along with huge swathes of populations, have come around to favouring the move.

Is it a done deal? Not on your life. And projecting an image of arrogance, or intolerance to opposing views, is not the way to campaign. This, after all, is still a deeply conservative country, as evidenced by the reaction to the economic collapse of recent years.

The only solace for proponents of SSM is that the opponents have shot themselves in the foot with a pump action shotgun. Will anything said or written by John and the Ionians from here on in have the impact it might prior to the recent palaver?

The Ionians advocate a way of life based on strongly held beliefs. Using the media to further those beliefs, for, in their view, the betterment of society, is a key strategic tool. Yet when it came to a decision on whether to scale the moral high ground, or take a trip to the bank, they chose to follow the money.

According to the MD of RTÉ Television, Glen Killlane, they were offered a range of remedies, including the right of reply or a donation to a charity. They opted for the public moola, as was their legal right.

All were well capable of replying. They could have, quite reasonably, claimed that intolerance was now emanating from those who had suffered intolerance for so long.

Instead, they showed themselves to be delicate flowers, tiptoeing away from this battle with their bags of public money.

David Quinn was on Prime Time on Thursday, but I didn’t hear a word he said. When his face appeared on the screen, a huge euro sign blackened out the picture on my TV and only passed once the camera moved onto another guest.

Maybe I’m soft in the head, but I suspect Mr Quinn’s appearance had a similar effect on others.

Will anybody, apart from the die-hard constituency, take any notice of what John and the Ionians have to say on same sex marriage between now and polling day?

Who knows? Maybe their credibility on the issue hasn’t been damaged, but I doubt it.

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