A Government minister has launched an attack against broadcasting watchdogs over their "chilling" rulings regarding marriage equality.
Equalities Minister Aodhán Ó Riordáin branded recent decisions by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) so “harsh” they are stymieing debate and adding to an atmosphere where the bid to extend civil marriage rights to same-sex couples would be lost if held now.
Mr Ó Riordáin described as “ridiculous” BAI rulings that discussions of marriage equality on RTÉ’s Mooney show and Newstalk’s Breakfast were not balanced.
“I think there is a determined attempt to stymie debate. I think a lot of producers of programmes now will probably shy away from even having this discussion on marriage equality at this time.”
Referring to the BAI judgement against Newstalk presenter Chris Donoghue for saying he was in favour of marriage equality, he said: “I think the ruling has had a chilling effect on the media in Ireland, and I think that’s unfortunate.
“The BAI is responding to complaints, so on one level, I can understand where they are coming from. But we are not in a referendum campaign at the moment.
“They are responding to a complaint themselves and I feel that it was unduly restrictive and unduly harsh in many respects. And what’s been done is deliberate, in my view.”
The minister said he has serious concerns for the debate leading up to the referendum in early May.
“I would have fears as to how this debate is going to continue if they are the ground rules that are being laid down by the BAI.
“I would have fears for how we are going to have an open and honest discussion about marriage equality.”
He said opinion polls showing 70% support for marriage equality were misleading as he believed the referendum would be lost if it were held next week.
“I think if it was held next week it would be lost. I am terrified of the message a no vote will send out from this country to the world and from Irish society to young people.
“You have these young, vulnerable, LGBT people around the country who are terrified of coming out to their families, and then they get this loud message from Irish society that says ‘No, you’re not equal actually’, and I think that would be a pretty devastating thing to hear.”
He said sorting out equal adoption access for single people and couples regardless of sexual orientation with new laws in February was crucial to the referendum passing. “That’s key to ensuring that the referendum does not become a referendum on children.”
Mr Ó Riordáin said the yes side was in a “bubble” and “complacent” about victory. “There’s a danger that people can assume that those who have questions or fears, or reluctance, are bigoted and homophobic and they’re not. They need to be convinced, and the nature of a referendum campaign is that you are trying to convince someone 100% and somebody can be 95% and still vote no.”
He also queried whether the BAI would have to insist on equal air time for each side in the campaign.
“There’s no requirement for 50/50. The requirement for 50/50 is in funds, that’s the McKenna judgement. The 50/50 is in that regard.
“The only requirement from the BAI’s perspective in the Broadcasting Act is that debates or items in or around a vote or election or referendum will be seen to be fair and balanced. That could be interpreted in many different ways.”
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