On 12 January, Brendan O’Connor’s ‘Saturday Night Show’ featured a performance by drag queen Panti Bliss, followed by an interview with her alter ego, Rory O’Neill. During the conversation, O’Connor reflected that things were a lot better now than they were in the bad old days. O’Neill gave a considered answer to the question, reflecting on everything from the benefits of the intimacy of Irish society (everyone knows everyone, and it’s not so easy to be bigoted about someone you know) to the sometimes subtle nature of homophobia (it’s not just people getting beaten up in the streets). In fact, O’Neill noted, the only place where it was “okay to be really mean and horrible to gays” was online, or in a newspaper column.
Then O’Connor asked unwisely, as it turns out, “Who are they?”. O’Neill answered, the audience applauded, and the interview moved on.
Within days, in response to legal letters, RTÉ removed the segment from the RTÉ Player. Broadsheet.ie, which had posted the clip online, also took it down after being contacted by RTÉ (they later reinstated it).
O’Neill revealed that he too had received legal correspondence.
Broadsheet.ie, TheJournal.ie and Krank.ie reported on the removal of the clip from the Player. The next day the Irish Independent reported that John Waters had complained to RTÉ. The Mayo News picked up the story too (O’Neill is from Ballinrobe), and that was about it.
Noel Whelan and Una Mullally wrote opinion pieces in the Irish Times from different perspectives, but there was little other reporting in the mainstream press. Meanwhile, bloggers went nuts, poring over everything from the nature of defamation and the defences available if sued, to the definition of homophobia, to previous statements from those who had complained, to the silence of mainstream media, particularly given such elements as the fact that one of those who complained to RTÉ.
John Waters, was also a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland at the time. (Waters resigned from the BAI ten days after the broadcast.)
The following weekend, Brendan O’Connor apologised for any “distress” caused by comments made by “a guest”, no doubt to the puzzlement of many viewers who were not following the story online.
But the story that hardly anyone old media was reporting refused to die. Blogs proliferated and were shared online, journalists were tackled on twitter about why they weren’t covering the story. Then the Iona Institute announced that RTÉ were paying damages. Audrey Carville raised the issue at the beginning of RTÉ’s ‘Late Debate’, leading to an exchange between Breda O’Brien and Colm O’Gorman.
The dam finally broke in the dying days of January. Questions were raised in the Dáil and Seanad by Catherine Murphy, Claire Daly, Averil Power and a vituperative David Norris. Pat Rabbitte sent out a press release saying 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”. Panti appeared on stage after ‘The Risen People’ at the Abbey. An Oireachtas backlash complained of the vilification of David Quinn.
Editors might have been wary of reporting a story about an alleged defamation, for fear of attracting litigation themselves, but they could report what a minister said, and what was said in the Oireachtas. And RTÉ provided a further platform hosting a follow-up debate on the ‘Saturday Night Show’. The debate format, and the “terms and conditions” imposed, attracted their own criticism, but at least the story was being reported now. And with all that being discussed, the newspapers also reported on the sums that RTÉ had made in payments (€85,000).
The old media were off – sort of.
RTÉ attracted a lot of heat online for their actions (over 800 complaints about the apology), but the truth is, it could have been anyone. The responses in various editorials and opinion pieces made it clear that the threat of defamation silences the commercial press too.
RTÉ estimated that over 2,000 people attended a protest over the affair on Sunday 2 February. In contrast, the reactionary Reform Alliance conference attracted 1,400, after weeks of front pages and endless hyperbole on television and radio.
We talk a lot about national debates in this country. But free speech is the essence of debate. The Panti Bliss saga shows Ireland still hasn’t worked out the appropriate paremeters for rigorous debate. It shows the tin ear of newspapers and broadcast media, which failed to register the level of support for Panti – next to no-one sided with the Ionas. It shows the power of social media to colonise stories that old media cannot (or will not) cover. And a bravery which the old media seem tellingly to have forgotten.