Is fairness too much to ask for when it comes to debating what remains a contentious issue, asks Brendan O’Regan
At this time of year we’re turning our minds to that special baby in the manger, and so it seemed particularly crass that Newstalk chose to raise again the issue of abortion on Thursday December 10.
This was part of their series on the 20 most influential moments of the last 20 years in Ireland, and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment was considered one such significant moment. Each of the news and current affairs shows had a slot on the issue and you can listen back on the Newstalk podcasts. The coverage was marked by the most blatant bias I’ve come across since the referendum campaign itself, and it was pretty bad then.
First up was Newstalk Breakfast, when presenter Ciara Kelly gave a tough interview to Eilis Mulroy of the Pro-Life Campaign. Robust questioning is fine if it is courteous and if applied fairly to all sides, but usually it’s not evenly applied. Ms Mulroy acquitted herself well, but was under pressure. She agreed it was momentous occasion but thought we’d live to regret it. She said the Eighth Amendment had saved lives, including perhaps the lives of some of those listening in to the programme. She also stressed the regret of some of those who had abortions. Several times Dr Kelly was quick to jump in claiming (‘without evidence’ as they say) that this affected only 2% of those who had abortions. Dr Kelly clearly showed what her own views were, so much for being impartial. At one stage she said to “I would completely disagree with you; I actually believe that the Eighth Amendment was something that controlled and regulated women’s bodies” (actually it just acknowledged the equal right to life of mother and baby). She said she wanted this right for her daughter, and referenced compassion, but it was a limited compassion, not extended to the baby.
Ms Mulroy agreed that people were moved by the stories of difficult pregnancies but said there were painful stories on her side of the debate too. She referenced the “grim reading” in a recent study of Irish hospitals showing the horrors of late term abortions and the situation of babies who survived abortions being left to die with no palliative care – a “humanitarian travesty” that ‘yes’ voters wouldn’t have anticipated. She called for common ground on all sides to halt this cruelty and make the legislation more humane. The interview lasted about six minutes and that was the last of the pro-life view I heard that day.
Next up was the Pat Kenny Show, and this featured two interviews with prominent abortion facilitator Mara Clarke – she organises, in several countries, for women to travel for abortions. One interview with Pat Kenny was from the time of the campaign and one was current. There were no dissenting voices, no tough questions, no challenging, no devil’s advocate, just a palsy chat that was in complete contrast to the earlier interview. And this went on for around ten minutes. In his introduction I thought Mr Kenny showed where his sympathies seem to lie by referring to “safe abortions”, a typical pro-choice phrasing – how can anything that is designed to end in a fatality be described as ‘safe’?
Ms Clarke used the usual euphemism ‘healthcare’ to describe the awful procedure, but this wasn’t challenged. Mr Kenny asked her if there was still a ‘need’ for her to be in business. It’s funny how the language of ‘choice’ switches to the ‘need’ language when it suits. She thought it was ‘horrific’ when the abortion legislation didn’t work as liberally as she hoped. I would have thought that word was more suitable for the cruelties Eilis Mulroy had described earlier. She thought that when it worked as she liked, the abortion legislation was ‘terrific’ and several times she thanked the Irish for introducing it.
In one of his typical facilitatory questions Mr Kenny asked her what changes she’d like to see. With a review of the legislation coming up next year, Ms Clarke was pushing for increased liberalisation. In particular she wanted to see the three-day waiting period scrapped – she made this point several times, with no challenge from Mr Kenny – for example, he could have explored or explained the reason behind the waiting period. She also wanted an end to the 12 weeks limit for abortion with no reason given, and also wanted more provision of abortion in cases of foetal abnormality, for women and ‘pregnant people’. Not a peep from Mr Kenny.
We got more of the same on Lunchtime Live. Andrea Gilligan interviewed Deirdre, who had also campaigned on the repeal side in the referendum. It was, she said, her personal story that impelled her to do so. She described herself as ‘normal’, ‘nice’, ‘boring’ and ‘a good mother’. She became pregnant, unplanned, after she considered her family ‘complete’. She felt ‘trapped’, felt she couldn’t continue and despite the pro-choice attitude felt she had no options, just to travel for termination or order abortion pills. She took the latter route, illegally by her own admission, and what upset her most, she said, was the fact that she was breaking the law. She got in her dig at the ‘anti-choice’ campaigners and used the smokescreen of ‘safe’ abortion. Again, it was a soft unchallenging interview, even when she spoke about her campaigning work. At the end Ms Gilligan referred to text messages to the show from ‘both sides’, but no one from the pro-life side got a look in. This interview lasted about 10 minutes.
Later, on Moncrief, the host spoke to US lawyer Prof. Mary Ziegler about abortion and the law in America. At least this item was largely neutral, balanced and informative. She reckoned Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion in the US, would be overturned leaving it to individual states to decide, but didn’t think there was a likelihood of any sort of right to life amendment to the US Constitution. She said polling showed Americans wanted abortion up to 12 weeks’ gestation but not after that. Looking at the makeup of the US Supreme Court she was against court ‘packing’ – the idea that Democrats would add judges to the bench to engineer a pro-choice majority, as that would create a ‘downward spiral’.
Then it was back to bias on The Hard Shoulder, when stand-in presenter Mark Cagney interviewed yet another repeal campaigner, Jennifer Ryan of pro-choice group TMFR (Terminations for Medical Reasons). It was pretty clear where Mr Cagney stood – he complained of “moral and political cowardice” in the context of why the Eighth Amendment wasn’t tackled earlier. When Ms Ryan said people were still traveling to Britain for terminations in these medical cases as there was a ‘fear factor’ among doctors afraid of getting a diagnosis wrong, with medical professionals saying, “your baby’s condition isn’t fatal enough”. So, she was also pushing for increased liberalisation of the law. Not only did Mr Cagney not offer any challenge or robust questioning, but he also congratulated her on her work and finished with this nugget: “the job isn’t done yet folks”.
So, no matter what way you look at it, the bias was painfully obvious. Leaving out the neutral Seán Moncrief slot, the pro-life view got around six minutes, while the pro-choice side got around 28 minutes. One pro-life campaigner was interviewed as against three on the other side (or four if you count the interviews with Mara Clarke as two). The questioning of the pro-life campaigner was robust and challenging, with easy, soft interviews given to the other side. In three of the four problematic interviews the presenters’ own views, in my opinion, were very clear.
Is fairness too much to ask for?