What it Means to be Free

This isn’t the post I’d intended to write today but this story has consumed Ireland over the past few weeks and it just keeps growing.

3 weeks ago, Irish performer and LGBTQ activist, Rory O’Neill, best known for his drag character, ‘Miss Panti Bliss‘, appeared on a national chat show and talked about Ireland’s changing attitude to homosexuality.

In the course of the interview, he called out a group, and prominent individuals, who encourage discrimination by openly opposing gay marriage and same-sex parenting. Those named were journalists, writers and broadcasters, people with the opportunity and power to influence the public by sharing their opinions in the Irish media.

The programme was shown on RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster – you can read a transcript of the Rory O’Neill interview on Broadsheet.ie.

It was the interviewer, Brendan O’Connor, who invited Rory O’Neill, to name names. It was also Brendan O’Connor, who used the word ‘homophobic’ to describe such people.

This is what happened next.

  • The individuals and group named in the interview complained to RTE, threatening both the station and Rory O’Neill with a defamation suit.
  • RTE removed the interview entirely from its on-line media player
  • RTE then replaced the interview but edited the content of the interview on its on-line media player (it has now expired).
  • RTE issued an apology, which was read out by Brendan O’Connor on the following week’s show:

“On the Saturday Night Show on the 11th of January last, comments were made by a guest suggesting that the journalist and broadcaster John Waters, Breda O’Brien and some members of the Iona Institute are homophobic. These are not the views of RTÉ, and we would like to apologise for any upset or distress caused to the individuals named or identified. It is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues.”

  • 847 people complained to RTE, mostly about the apology, which suggested the named individuals should be able to oppose equality with impunity, and O’Neill, by speaking his mind, was somehow impeding their right to do so. The complaint has been brought to the attention of the Broadcasting Authority in Ireland and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • Debate raged across newspapers and social media about the ‘Pantigate’ interview, the apology and what constitutes open discussion on controversial topics.
  • RTE paid out €85,000 of tax-payers money in damages, within a matter of days.
  • Questions were asked in the Dail (Irish Parliament) about the level of damages paid by RTE and the nature of public debate; the Communications Minister, Pat Rabbitte, made this response:

“Speaking personally, I have never used the term ‘homophobe’ to describe those who disagree with me on issues of gay equality in general or gay marriage in particular. It is too loaded a term to be used to categorise those who hold contrary views on what is a matter for legitimate public debate.

That said, I would also hope that people and institutions that hold themselves out as commentators on, or contributors to, public debate fully appreciate – as most politicians do – that debate can be robust, heated, personal and sometimes even hostile. If you enter the arena, you cannot expect that the Queensbury Rules will always apply.

It would be a matter of serious concern if recourse to our defamation laws was to have a chilling effect on the conduct of public debate on this issue, in the lead-in to the forthcoming referendum on gay marriage.

I have no intention of interfering in RTÉ’s management of the litigation claims against it. But I do expect that RTÉ remains fully committed to its chief obligation as a public service broadcaster – to ensure the full and free exchange of information and opinion on all matters of legitimate public interest.”

The controversy is all the more potent as Ireland prepares to hold a referendum on gay marriage in 2015. As a national broadcaster, RTE is not allowed to show bias to any one individual or group, and some are already arguing this debacle has muddied the waters for open, honest debate leading up to the Referendum.

To me, the real question here is this:

“What does it mean to be equal and free?”

Freedom of speech allows each of us to express ourselves, without censorship. But my right to speak openly and freely about what I like equally gives someone else the right to speak openly and freely about something I don’t like. And there’s the rub. The true cost of freedom is tested in our ability to tolerate the opinions of others where they do not reflect our own.

The tolerance line is crossed, in my opinion, where we try to prevent others from speaking their truth or where the response to other people’s truth shifts from tolerance to dismissal, control or hate.

For example, I am not a fan of football. Generally, I can manage quite happily by not watching football when it’s on television, not hanging about in pubs or sports venues on Saturday afternoons or leaving the room if a long and tedious debate about the off-side rule erupts among friends. In this manner, myself and football rub along quite peaceably in this big ole knock-about world.

If, however, I chose to speak publicly in a hateful manner about football, about the people who play football, about the people who watch football, bringing it up in every context, attributing all kinds of negative behaviour, consequences and moral hazards to it, because of my personal dislike, then I’d have wandered into dangerous territory.

If I gathered together like-minded people with the purpose of propagating negative information and hatred, then I’d probably deserve the attribution, ‘Footballophobic’.

Freedom is a terribly difficult promise to live up to and it is not made any easier by the fact that many of the actions I’ve described above – speaking out, drawing attention to negative types of behaviour, gathering like-minded people – can equally be applied to positive activism in pursuit of equality and other causes, eg. the Occupy moment, Civil Rights, Make Poverty History.

I think the real distinction is HATE.

It seems to me that those named in the interview wish to discriminate against others for something that is an intrinsic part of who they are, but don’t want to get tagged for it. Although they have openly opposed gay rights, they clearly didn’t like how it sounded when attributed to them on national television.

The correct response from RTE would have been to offer the individuals the right of reply – that is what freedom of speech is all about; everyone gets to express their point of view and listeners make up their own minds. It is interesting that the group sought legal cover, rather than an open discussion of their beliefs and actions.

Gay rights might have been a home win for conservative Ireland and the family values lobby 50 years ago, but that’s no longer the case, as Rory O’Neill pointed out in the interview:

” I think a small country like Ireland changes much faster than a big country because absolutely…I’m..think about it every single person in this audience has a cousin or a neighbour or the guy that you work with who is a flaming queen. I mean you all know one. And it’s very hard to hold prejudices against people when you actually know those people.”

What does any of this have to do with poetry and writing, you may be asking yourself?

RTE is a state body, a representative of its people and a platform for the Arts – writing, acting, documentary and film making, entertainment, culture discussion and debate. I feel let down by RTE’s handling of this episode, the lack of impartiality, the censorship and the allocation of public monies as a pay-off.

The Arts are the reflection of a society, at any given time, and freedom of speech is the cornerstone. If I want to protect freedom of speech for myself, to give voice to my own truths, to be able write what I want to write, then I have to be interested in protecting it for everyone else.

In this spirit, last night, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin – our National Theatre – Miss Panti Bliss was granted the honour of a Noble Call, after a performance of ‘The Risen People’, a play commemorating the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout. The Noble Call is traditionally an Irish ‘party piece’, where individuals are called upon to respond to the mood and atmosphere of the day.

This won’t be the last word on this issue but it is an excellent insight into the human experience of hatred and discrimination, here in Ireland.

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4 thoughts on “What it Means to be Free

    1. It’s had an amazing response – over 300,000 views worldwide, support from the likes of Graham Norton, Stephen Fry & Madonna and coverage in the international press. A brave and honest response to an unacceptable situation.

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