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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Feb 25, 2015 - 4:35 AM

Irish journalists get cash payouts over 'homophobic' defamation claim
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Feb 3, 2014 - 4:42 AM

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The Sunday Independent and the Irish edition of The Sunday Times reported yesterday that prominent Irish opinion journalists working for the top two Irish daily newspapers are due to receive compensation from RTÉ, Ireland's cash-strapped State broadcaster, in respect of a threatened defamation trial, arising from comments made on a television chat show, that they were homophobic.

The Sunday Independent reported yesterday that the broadcaster agreed to pay a total of €85,000 (US$115,000) to six people, including the journalists John Waters and Breda O'Brien of The Irish Times, David Quinn, who writes for The Irish Independent and is head of the Iona Institute, a Catholic lobby group that "promotes the place of marriage and religion in society," and other institute members over a claim on the Saturday Night Show that two of the journalists and the institute had homophobic views.

The Sunday Business Post reports that John Waters is set to receive €40,000 from RTÉ. In 2002, he was awarded €84,000 in a defamation case against The Sunday Times.

Use of the Irish courts system in defamation cases is effectively for the rich as legal costs in High Court cases would amount to at least a few hundred thousand euros, never mind the risk of a hefty judgment by a jury. The public broadcaster opted for lower certain costs. However, it should have made the agreement public.

The television show had featured Rory O'Neill, a drag artist who performs under the stage name of Miss Panti, and he had referred to forthcoming legislation for a referendum on same-sex marriage.

The Sunday Independent reported that all six of the individuals involved in legal communications with RTÉ, were offered the opportunity to take part in a debate on homophobia on last Saturday's Saturday Night Show, but the offer was turned down.

It's extraordinary that journalists with weekly platforms in national newspapers would make a legal issue of the televised comments and collect money from it.

Can RTÉ host a debate on for example immigration if there is a risk of someone's views being termed racist; how about right-wing? left-wing? ... and so much more.

Dissent is crucial for progress in societies.

The post-independence history of Irish censorship and the debilitating impact of British inspired-defamation laws on journalism for decades, shielded the powerful in politics, religion and business, from scrutiny and accountability.

This system eventually permanently undermined the position of the Catholic Church in Irish society.

Drowning out dissent is an enduring trait in Irish society and as recently as the property bubble, an Irish taoiseach/ prime minister told an admiring conference of trade unionists, that he wondered why critics of his policies didn't commit suicide.

People disagree on what civil or human rights should embrace.

In Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mocking Bird,' which was published in 1962, lawyer Atticus Finch says to his daughter Scout: "If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

Barack Obama, who understands what it's like to be an outsider, said at his second inaugural in the 150th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths - - that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls [the upstate New York site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848], and Selma [in Alabama where police attacked peaceful civil-rights marchers in 1965], and Stonewall [a gay pub in New York's Greenwich Village where the patrons fought back against a police raid in 1969], just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher [Martin Luther King] say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."

Pat Rabbitte , minister for communications, energy & natural resources, made the following statement last Friday:

Speaking personally, I have never used the term ‘homophobe’ to describe those who disagree with me on issues of gay equality in general or gay marriage in particular. It is too loaded a term to be used to categorise those who hold contrary views on what is a matter for legitimate public debate.

That said, I would also hope that people and institutions that hold themselves out as commentators on, or contributors to, public debate fully appreciate - - as most politicians do - - that debate can be robust, heated, personal and sometimes even hostile. If you enter the arena, you cannot expect that the Queensberry Rules will always apply.

It would be a matter of serious concern if recourse to our defamation laws was to have a chilling effect on the conduct of public debate on this issue, in the lead-in to the forthcoming referendum on gay marriage.

I have no intention of interfering in RTÉ’s management of the litigation claims against it. But I do expect that RTÉ remains fully committed to its chief obligation as a public service broadcaster - - to ensure the full and free exchange of information and opinion on all matters of legitimate public interest.”

The plain-speaking President Harry Truman in 1949 gave advice to staff that should be kept in mind by people who voluntarily choose to be in the public arena:

I'll stand by [you] but if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen."

...and finally, who amongst us who write regularly could claim that unwittingly or otherwise, no individual or organisation was ever hurt by a column?

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