Book on marriage equality falls foul of Irish broadcasting authority's 'Mooney ruling'
8 December 2014
The National Union of Journalists has called on the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to urgently review guidance notes issued to broadcasting organisations in light of the experiences of journalist and author, Una Mullally, in relation to discussion of her book, In The Name of Love.
The union said that the BAI's actions are already having a chilling effect on public discussions about marriage equality.
The guidance note from the BAI's CEO, Michael O'Keeffe, issued on 6 August, coincided with the BAI's Compliance Committee ruling in a case brought against RTÉ after a discussion on the Mooney Show (RTÉ Radio 1).
Una Mullally told the union several radio stations had informed her that she would not be allowed to discuss her book, an oral history on the movement for marriage equality in Ireland, without the presence of an opponent of marriage equality.
Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary, said:
"This is precisely the absurd consequence which the NUJ warned of in the wake of the original Mooney ruling. We now have a situation where station managements, programme editors, and journalists are being forced to self-censor as a result of the requirement to second-guess the BAI in relation to any issue which may, or may not, be the subject of a referendum at an unspecified date in the future.
"This seems to arise from the BAI determination on the Mooney Show and the circular issued in relation to coverage of the referendum on marriage equality.
"It is difficult to see how the public interest is best served by a mandatory adversarial-type debate. There are circumstances where a one-to-one interview may be more appropriate, with the interviewer sometimes placing the role of devil's advocate to tease out issues.
"The Bishop of Elphin is entitled to set out the Roman Catholic Church's views on same-sex marriage without automatically having to engage in direct argument with a spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. Una Mullally should be allowed to discuss her work without always having to run the gauntlet of an opponent.
"No other topic would be treated in this way – even a controversial issue such as water charges would be subject to normal rules of engagement. This is not about the basic principles of balance, impartiality or fairness. Broadcasters are capable of a nuanced discussion on the topic of marriage equality within the accepted framework of debate.
"This is about a new set of standards being applied in a manner which reduces all on-air discussion to a gladiatorial contest in the name of fairness."
Séamus Dooley pointed out that the BAI had insisted this was not the intended effect of the ruling and called on the BAI to issue a definitive policy statement clarifying how stations are to approach discussions on a wide range of issues, including the voting age, the presidential term of office, the electoral system for the Dáil, the role of women in the home and politics – and blasphemy, which may be the subject of referendums in the coming year and beyond.
"In the absence of such a clarifying statement and a change of mind and heart on the Mooney ruling, the chilling effect on public debate about these and other issues will have serious consequences for our democracy."
During the Mooney programme, broadcast on 20 January this year, two guests and the presenter, Derek Mooney, made several statements supporting same-sex marriage. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld a complaint from a listener who said that the programme breached the guidelines for fairness and objectivity.
The Republic of Ireland will hold a referendum on same-sex marriage next spring.