Senator introduces motion on homophobia debate

Tuesday 18 February 2014 23.34
Senator Katherine Zappone introduced a motion noting the importance of having a public debate on the issues of free speech, homophobia and RTÉ
Senator Katherine Zappone introduced a motion noting the importance of having a public debate on the issues of free speech, homophobia and RTÉ

Senator Katherine Zappone has introduced a motion noting the importance of having a public debate on the issues of free speech, homophobia and the public service role of the State broadcaster in the Seanad. 

She called on RTÉ to appear before the Oireachtas Communications Committee to outline its guidelines. 

She also suggested a review of the Defamation Act.

The senator suggested that policies, laws and resources be introduced to schools, to ensure they are "homophobic free zones".

She said: "I stand here as a married woman - married to another woman..I have travelled beyond the valley of shame and fear....that's what marriage equality means and that's why we must get this right and it's in our power to do so."

Senator Ivana Bacik seconded the motion, noting the difficulties young people face in schools.

Fianna Fáil Senator Avril Power said "RTÉ's response" to Rory O'Neill's comments on the Saturday Night Show was "inappropriate". 

However, she said the debate has moved on from the meaning of the word homophobia, to the discrimination of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, who face "intimidation on a daily basis". 

Echoing the words of the Ms Bacik, Senator Power said she did not believe everyone who does not agree with gay marriage is "homophobic", pointing out that "many don't understand the issue". 

She said Ireland is currently "engaged in a journey in terms of improvement and equality".

Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone said RTÉ "reached for the panic button".

She said defamation cases are extremely expensive and "often these decisions are made on an economic basis". 

Senator Noone said it would be a worthwhile exercise for RTÉ to establish "the sequence of events that led to the payout".

Responding, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte said the controversy, which gave rise to the debate, brought the issues of gay rights, homophobia, freedom of expression and the obligations of the public service broadcaster to the fore.

Mr Rabbitte said while opinion will be divided the best that can be hoped for is that "people debate the matter calmly".

He said RTÉ is obliged to be responsive to varied concerns of the community. However, he said it will not be the lone platform of expression of debate in the upcoming referendum.

Mr Rabbitte said if media is fettered either by the interests of owners, fear of authority or group think, then democracy is worse off.

The minister said that public service broadcasting is a public good, and is not "undermined by the seeming inability of our own public service broadcaster to drag itself out of the rut of negativity that has so absorbed it since the economic crash".

The minister pointed out that the managing director of RTÉ Television had "explored all possible legal redress mechanisms, including the possibility of a Right of Reply".

He quoted Glen Killane's statement, in which Mr Killane said RTÉ had "not engaged in censorship but has fallen foul of Ireland’s defamation laws".

At this point, Independent Senator David Norris interjected saying "complete rubbish".

He said it was "no harm" that public discourse on the issue of marriage equality be "ventilated" this far out from the referendum.

Mr Rabbitte said RTÉ had a crucial role in the conduct of public debate and he said he believed it remained "fully committed to ensuring the full and free exchange of information and opinion on all matters of legitimate public interest".

Responding to Sinn Féin Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, who called for the minister to intervene in the matter regarding RTÉ, Mr Rabbitte said if he were to intervene in every litigation file in RTÉ or every editorial decision, Senator Ó Clochartaigh and "all those excellent young Social Science graduates from UCD, writing scripts for the Sinn Féin party, would be after my garters".