Mick Clifford: The RTÉ-Dublin Pride row raises questions over freedom of speech

Dublin Pride’s action in targeting RTÉ following the airing of three editions of ‘Liveline’ featuring transgender issues is deeply worrying, writes Mick Clifford
Mick Clifford: The RTÉ-Dublin Pride row raises questions over freedom of speech

'Liveline' presenter Joe Duffy presented a series of three shows dealing with aspects of gender identity, language in this area, and related issues. Picture: Moya Nolan

I got the dreaded call just before 9am yesterday. “What do you think?” one of my editors asked. He knew damn well what I thought. Any exploration of this subject was going to be fraught with grief. On the other hand, how could you not react?

An item had just been on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland and was all over the papers. 

Dublin Pride was severing its media partnership links with RTÉ following the airing of three consecutive editions of Liveline featuring transgender issuesThe organisers said they were both “angered and disappointed” that these discussions had been “given a platform”. 

Substitute “bishops” for “organisers” and that last sentence could well have been written 50 years ago by the Catholic Press Office following an edition of The Late, Late Show discussing the lives of same-sex couples.

Then the organisers said this in a tweet: “RTÉ is our national broadcaster. LGBTQ+ people and our allies make up the majority of people in Ireland. We are the majority shareholders in RTÉ, and we have a right to hold it accountable for its actions.” 

Are the organisers of Dublin Pride suggesting that the majority of people in this country consider any discussion on transgender issues to be indecent, and those who engage in it hate-filled and transphobic? 

Anybody with any interest in this matter should listen back.

Joe Duffy on 'Liveline'.
Joe Duffy on 'Liveline'.

The three Liveline programmes referenced dealt with aspects of gender identity, language in this area, and related issues concerning women in sport and women in prison. 

Among the contributors were women from an organisation who have strong feelings about language in contexts in which “person” has been substituted for “woman” and “mother”. 

A man involved in soccer spoke of how his club does all it can to facilitate transgender people in teams.

There were also contributions from transgender people who gave a flavour of the challenges they face. One person spoke movingly about how it wasn’t until later in life that they were in a position to transition. 

And there was discussion around 'safe spaces' for women and various problems that some contributors have with aspects of what appears to be a strict orthodoxy around gender identity.

Then there was a lecturer from Waterford, Colette Colfer, who spoke cogently about gender identity theory and suggested there are parallels with a belief system as it applies to religion. She also noted that the theory was considered in some quarters to be, well, Gospel.

“The debate is shut down,” said Ms Colfer.

I know of so many people who are afraid to speak about this. They will not raise their heads above the parapet and will not question … even having the conversation can be considered to be transphobic or hate or causing harm … it is a way of silencing people who have different opinions. 

"To me, it is the equivalent of heretics or infidels of the past. In Ireland, it is almost a case of you must subscribe to this theory.”

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties apparently believes so. Joe Duffy read out a complaint from the ICCL about the programmes, but nobody from the ICCL wanted to come on and explain whose civil liberties were being infringed. 

Shutting down debate

Online, Twitter was ablaze with comments from people who claimed that Liveline was facilitating an entry into the country for right-wing elements who want to deliver us into fascism.

Now, an Oireachtas committee is getting with the programme, demanding that RTÉ comes in and explain where it all went wrong. 

The premise for shutting down debate, as best can be determined, is that any discussion in this area is concerned with negating or removing the rights of transgender people.

This would infer, for instance, that nobody in sport should discuss whether or not it is fair that a trans woman competes in exclusively female competitions. Or that medical or mental health specialists cannot give any opinion on the matter that doesn’t conform to the prevailing orthodoxy.

Dublin Pride Parade 2019. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Dublin Pride Parade 2019. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Like what I suspect is the vast majority of people, I don’t have strong opinions around gender issues, apart from wishing well anybody in how they live as long as it doesn’t impact negatively on anybody else.

Some people, however, do have opinions for various reasons. To categorise them all as being rooted in prejudice and to insist they be excluded from the public square is something that should alarm anybody interested in liberal democracy.

For instance, by the standard being propagated, all those who voted against same-sex marriage in 2015 are homophobic. Anybody who voted against repealing the Eighth amendment in 2017 is a misogynist. 

And what of the debates that preceded both referenda? Were so-called platforms hate-filled? Or was there a constructive exchange of views in which people were educated? The suspicion is that if there had been no debate, the Yes result in each case would, at the very least, not have been as emphatic as it was.

Deeply worrying

Go back further. Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act was invoked in the 70s. This was to keep the Provisional IRA and its allies from using the airwaves to justify their campaign of killing. What purpose did that ultimately serve, apart from feeding into the Provos' propaganda machine?

Ireland was a different country in those times, dominated by a patriarchal system of power, from both the State and the Church, which still held great sway. Today, allegedly, we live in a liberal democracy where free speech is tolerated by all sections of society. 

Not so, according to what has rained down on RTÉ for Livelive’s facilitation of debate.

Free speech is not without its limits. Anything that targets, denigrates or promotes prejudice against any minority should not be, and to a large extent is not, tolerated. 

However, if the Liveline programmes can be categorised as promoting hate, we’re heading back to a very dark place.

For sure, the conversation may have been uncomfortable for some, but to be fair to Duffy, he moderated it professionally and attempted to ensure that discomfort was minimised. 

In such circumstances, Dublin Pride’s action in targeting RTÉ is deeply worrying.

Any other organisation, on any other issue, would be castigated far and wide as attempting to stifle free speech. Apart maybe from the bishops of yore.

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