Platform: Daragh Reddin assesses the fallout of RTÉ’s payout over comments about homophobia by Rory O’Neill (aka drag artist Panti) on The Saturday Night Show for debate in Ireland on gay rights
In recent years, the popularity of drag artist Panti (aka Rory O’Neill) has begun to extend beyond the gay community, and her autobiographical solo show played to a sell-out crowd at The National Theatre last summer.
As such the appearance of the owner of Capel Street haunt Panti Bar on The Saturday Night Show had all the makings of a refreshing, if scarcely contentious, affair. When the interview turned to the Mayo man’s belief there was homophobia within Irish media, host Brendan O’Connor pressed his interviewee to name names – it’s important to remember O’Connor asked the unambiguous question ‘who are they?’
O’Neill (pictured) gave an unequivocal answer, namechecking Irish Times columnists John Waters and Breda O’Brien, as well as Catholic think-tank The Iona Institute, as those he believed worthy of that description.
Many audience members may have been heard cheering and clapping their approval, but those mentioned were significantly less enthused and began legal action against RTÉ and O’Neill on the grounds of defamation as they weren’t homophobic. The offending segment was later removed from the RTE website. Two weeks later, Waters resigned from his post with the Broadcasting Authority Of Ireland.
Why Waters was so incensed by O’Neill’s comments is not entirely clear. After all, Waters had the following to say of gay marriage in an interview with UCD’s College Tribune in August 2012: ‘This is really a kind of satire on marriage which is being conducted by the gay lobby. It’s not that they want to get married; they want to destroy the institution of marriage because they’re envious of it…’
Were a commentator to opine that women had sought suffrage merely to despoil the institution of democracy from within, wouldn’t it be fair to accuse them of being just the teeny-weeniest bit misogynistic?
Of course, the question of exactly what constitutes homophobia is a complex one. It’s a point taken up by Noel Whelan in The Irish Times recently. Whelan, who admitted not having seen The Saturday Night show on the evening in question, bewailed those in the gay community for their casual deployment of the term ‘homophobic’.
With recourse to a definition that deems the phenomenon ‘an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people’, Whelan reasoned that O’Neill had little reason to pin such a ‘horrible’ label on those named above and suggested liberal advocates adopt more moderate language.
Taking the definition Whelan deploys above, journalist Breda O’Brien’s oft-quoted 2008 statement that ‘equality [for gay people] must take second place to the common good’ may or may not be deemed homophobic.
However, those for whom the definition of homophobia extends to the treatment of gay people as – quite literally in this example – second class citizens would disagree.
To confound the situation, O’Connor later offered a contradictory and dispiritingly obsequious apology on behalf of RTÉ on The Saturday Night Show, closing with the laughable statement that: ‘It is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues.’
A debate on homophobia did take place on the show this weekend but it was deemed by many to be little more than a sop to appease those angered by its handling of the affair, over which to date RTÉ has received more than 1,000 complaints. Waters, O’Brien and other members of Iona declined to take part.
The fact that RTÉ had agreed to pay damages (€80,000 in total, according to reports yesterday) to the ‘injured parties’, only came to light in an email from the institute to its members last Tuesday.
Given the ramifications of the decision to make any kind of payment – regardless of the amount – both for the TV licence payer and those who voice contrarian opinions, the lack of coverage in print media as soon as the Iona email came to light marked a low point for print journalism in Ireland.
Aside from a lead story on the damages printed in this paper last Wednesday and ongoing debate online, the media has been glacially slow with commentary and even reportage of the affair.
The debacle has untold ramifications for public life in this country. That many liberal commentators may now baulk at the opportunity to speak and write openly and honestly about homophobia is the most obvious issue here.
Most worrying of all, however, is the question that with a referendum on the introduction of gay marriage on the horizon, how can we expect the national broadcaster to facilitate even-handed debate on the subject when they’ve already found themselves cowed before reaching the first hurdle?
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Watch Panti give ‘The Noble Call’ at the end of the run of The Risen People in The Abbey Theatre on Saturday night, which has already been watched more than 20,000 times on YouTube: