If you haven’t hard by now of RTÉ’s payout to the self-named Iona Institute, you probably won’t find much to interest you in this and that’s fair enough. Life is too short for most people to be following the exploits of a small, self-appointed pressure group with a fancy title.
But if you have been following this farce, you’ll know that our national broadcaster has paid out an undisclosed sum of money to certain individuals associated with a private company called Lolek Ltd, trading as The Iona Institute, following an interview with a well-known gay man, Rory O’Neill, aka Miss Panti. You will also know that this ex-gratia payment was not ordered by a court of law but offered as a means of avoiding defamation proceedings by one or more individuals, following legal threats from legal firms acting on behalf of certain individuals.
In addition, RTÉ issued a grovelling apology, read out by the presenter of Saturday Night Live, a fearless writer who also works for the Sunday Independent. Fearlessly.
That’s why Brendan O’Connor had no fear about reading out a grovelling apology on Saturday Night Live. He’s fearless.
Anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile to analyse the words that were used in the course of the interview, in order to identify what precisely was defamatory about the things Rory O’Neill said and how exactly the show defamed the individuals who complained, but first, I should explain the basis of the complaints.
The people who claimed to have been defamed asserted that they were characterised as homophobic and this in itself creates a difficulty, since homophobia is a concept unknown to the law. We know that a phobia is a morbid fear of something. Is it defamatory to say that somebody is afraid? I can’t see how it might be. The common understanding of defamation is a false statement that harms their reputation, so let’s work with that and let’s get into the meat of the thing.
Here’s the transcript of the interview which is already in the public domain (with thanks to Broadsheet). I’ve deliberately omitted the introductory conversation leading up to the contested discussion but I have interjected my own commentary.
Rory O’Neill: The only place that you see it’s okay to be really horrible and mean about gays is you know on the internet in the comments and you know people who make a living writing opinion pieces for newspapers. You know there’s a couple of them that really cheese . . .
Brendan O’Connor: Who are they?
Rory O’Neill: Oh well the obvious ones. You know Breda O’Brien today, oh my God you know banging on about gay priests and all. The usual suspects, John Waters and all of those people, the Iona Institute crowd. I mean I just … you know just … Feck Off! Get the hell out of my life. Get out of my life. I mean ..why … it astounds me … astounds me that there are people out there in the world who devote quite a large amount of their time and energies to trying to stop people you know, achieving happiness because that is what the people like the Iona Institute are at.
INSERT At this point, Rory O’Neill has accused nobody of being homophobic though he has accused Breda O’Brien of being really horrible and mean.
Brendan O Connor: I don’t know. I don’t know. I know one of the people that you mentioned there which is John Waters. I wouldn’t have thought that John Waters is homophobic?
INSERT Rory O’Neill then states that the word homophobic is inappropriate. Everyone has a prejudice against gay people.
Rory O’Neill : Oh listen, the problem is with the word ‘homophobic’, people imagine that if you say “Oh he’s a homophobe” that he’s a horrible monster who goes around beating up gays you know that’s not the way it is. Homophobia can be very subtle. I mean it’s like the way you know racism is very subtle. I would say that every single person in the world is racist to some extent because that’s how we order the world in our minds. We group people. You know it’s just how our minds work so that’s okay but you need to be aware of your tendency towards racism and work against it. And I don’t mind, I don’t care how you dress it up if you are arguing for whatever good reasons or you know whatever your impulses …
Brendan O Connor: Because it is what you believe, it’s your faith or that, yeah?
INSERT Rory O’Neill then states that people in general, whom he would characterise as homophobes are acting in good faith.
Rory O’Neill : … it could be good impulses … and you might believe that these impulses are good because you’re worried about society as a whole and all this rubbish. What it boils down to is if you’re going to argue that gay people need to be treated in any way differently than everybody else or should be in anyway less, or their relationships should be in anyway less then I’m sorry, yes you are a homophobe and the good thing to do is to sit, step back, recognise that you have some homophobic tendencies and work on that. You know stop spending so much of your life you know devoting energies to writing things, arguing things, coming on TV to do anything to try and stop people achieving what they think they need for happiness.
In my personal opinion, there isn’t a shred of evidence in this exchange that anyone has been defamed, but I’m not a lawyer. However, I’d be quite comfortable in defending my view in any arena, and besides that, there are many lawyers currently outraged that RTÉ capitulated in a craven manner given that the legal threats are so flimsy. This was public money, handed over without due process and it should be referred to the Public Accounts Committee. If anybody suggests that the matter is sub judice, it is not, since no defamation proceedings were issued and in all likelihood never will be. That’s how legal bullying works.
More to the point, it tends to silence those who disagree with the self-styled Iona Institute, a private company with access to massive foreign funding. After all, how many of us will stand up to a company with billionaire backers if they threaten to sue us?
There was a time when RTÉ had a proud tradition of journalistic integrity. Kevin O’Kelly was willing to go to jail rather than reveal his informants.
But of course, Brendan O’Connor isn’t really a journalist, is he? And RTÉ isn’t a proper grown-up news station either, with principles. Is it?