During an interview on RTE's Saturday Night Show (January 1 2014) The gay performance artist Rory O'Neill said that certain specific people in Ireland were homophobic because of their stance on the question of gay marriage and gay adoption. This prompted a deluge of writ letters from those Rory named as homophobic. Following this, RTE apologised and paid out €85,000 in damages. Of these events, Willie Kealy wrote in The Irish Independent:
"In the real world, that was the end of the "debate". Those who took offence at being called homophobic were able to continue to express their opinions – Breda O'Brien of the Irish Times and David Quinn of the Iona Institute were able to talk or write about it without fear of legal sanction. But otherwise there was nothing. This is because our libel laws are very conducive to closing down any debate that might tend towards the contentious.
If a media organisation is sued for libel, it goes through an automatic process which involves looking at the offending article or broadcast to assess its exposure. But at the end of the day, it is all about cost control. If the organisation lost in court, how much might be awarded to the litigant? This is a lottery entirely dependent on the values and opinions of a random set of 12 jury members on a given day. But even if the claimant received only a relatively small amount, the unsuccessful defendant would still be liable for the costs, and even a few days in court with solicitors and junior counsel and senior counsel on both sides could amount to a huge figure that would dwarf any potential award. RTE seems to have made a decision that, on the balance of probability, it would not have won in court."He continued:
"If a minor performance artist taking exception to the outpourings of those who he perceives as wishing to deny gay men and women the right to marry and adopt children, and expressing the opinion that he, as a gay man, feels that stance is homophobic, leads to an apology from RTE and the payment of substantial sums of money under legal threat, then the debate is inhibited. The matter has not been tested in court."One of the litigants David Quinn of the Iona institute took to the Irish Independent to bemoan and highlight examples of some of the unpleasant and malicious tweets that had been directed at him and his institute for their stance on gay marriage. Willie Kealy responded to David Quinn on the trolling issue:
"Well, David, that's Twitter for you. And if you choose to go into the virtual world of Twitter, then that is what you can expect. Because there are a lot of nasty-minded people out there and with Twitter, they can say what they like without much fear of any sanction, legal or otherwise. That's why so many celebrities who took to Twitter with great enthusiasm when it began have since decided to close their accounts. It is a medium for anyone and everyone to express any opinion they wish in any way they feel like.
If you cannot accept that, you shouldn't be on Twitter."Willie Kealy concluded:
"It seems that RTE executives took a pragmatic decision based on potential financial exposure. And who could blame them given the perilous state of the station's finances? Something they have in common with every other media organisation in the country.
The sad conclusion is that, in the mainstream media, there cannot and will not be any real debate on "the most important social issue of the day". The "debate" will continue only on the unregulated internet. And it will not be civilised.
Ultimately this is not about gay marriage, gay adoption or homophobia. It is about free speech."Willie Kealy in full in The Irish Independent here. More on the story here. Rory O'Neill recently spoke out on gay rights here.