Marriage Equality and balanced debate – fair or immoral?

what-is-justice-1Last week the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld a complaint from a listener who said that RTE Radio Ones’ Derek Mooney show breached the guidelines for fairness and objectivity.

During the programme which was broadcast on 20 January, two guests and the presenter made several statements supporting same-sex marriage.

This decision has upset and angered many people in the LGBT community as it comes just months after the Panti Bliss and The Saturday Show debacle. Many are understandably concerned of the implications this decision has for the upcoming referendum. I’ll be honest with you this has actually upset me both on a personal and professional level. As you know I have publicly said that I support Marriage Equality as my partner and I have decided not to enter into Civil Partnership and are waiting for full civil marriage to be available for us to tie the knot. Also at a professional level it has provoked a number of questions for me as after all I am a lesbian and a journalist that regularly reports on social justice issues such as same-sex marriage.

Since I began my career in Irish media my focus has been solely on social justice and mental health stories as these are the issues which matter the most to me. I always struggled with the notion of having to provide a “balance” to my on air discussions. Seriously, how do you provide balance to a discussion on discrimination, equality and mental health? Given the topic of marriage equality – is the civil rights issue of this generation, insisting on providing balance to it would be like providing balance to a discussion on slavery, human trafficking, racism or the inhumane Direct Provision system. Doing this in my view is both insensitive and immoral.

But apart from the moral argument there is another vital aspect that must be considered. Before I became a journalist I took part in countless TV and radio debates to offer my story and my experience on immigration, childhood sexual abuse, sexuality and yes, marriage equality. I was not regarded as the “expert” even though this was my life experience and I was often made to feel patronized and irrelevant.

In the interest of “balance” most of my media experiences were negative as it mostly involved me being in the firing line of a great deal of screaming and shouting. After these interactions I always walked away feeling frustrated, depressed and sometimes even hopeless. On numerous occasions people who saw the interview would often comment on how badly it affected them. Many would even say it was too painful to watch. I often question this style of broadcasting and wonder if this is our version of the sadistic Roman gladiatorial games which saw people being shred to pieces for the enjoyment of the public.

So when I started presenting Global Village here on Newstalk in 2008, I vowed I would never put my guests through the misery of feeling used and verbally and psychologically assaulted in an interview. My broadcasting style has been respectful, relaxed and most importantly supportive. I feel it’s my duty to showcase the person’s story, how they have been affected and what they would like to see change in order for them to live a fuller life. I know for a fact that if I had a Rottweiler guest to provide “balance” to the discussion not only would it sound artificial but the person with the personal story would clam up and the interview would rapidly descend into utter chaos. I feel a moral obligation to protect the mental health of the guest and those listening at home.

The good news is that the BAI decision has sparked many conversations. In an effort to gain some clarity on how to continue reporting on marriage equality I poured over relevant guidelines, researched past decisions and consulted our station editor here in Newstalk to figure out what is exactly meant by the term “balance”. It turns out its actually much fairer than we thought. According to the BAI, “not every examination of this area should turn into a debate of the rights and wrongs of homosexuality and gay marriage”. But the journalist has a duty to say that not all views and opinions on the topic are being represented here and to encourage listeners to inform themselves of the full spectrum of opinions before they make up their minds. I can live with that – so on Global Village we will continue to bring you the stories of people who are affected by the issues with the view to inform you whilst at the same time letting you know that this is just one side of the story.