Referendum debates fill the airwaves

Referendum debates fill the airwaves Joe Duffy, presenter of RTE's Liveline

With the referendum on the Eighth Amendment fast approaching it’s hard to keep up with all the media coverage, but a few items stand out.

Instead of doing a head-to-head debate which might have allowed for claims to be interrogated, News at One (RTÉ Radio 1) had two obstetricians on different days. As journalists just don’t have the expertise (or sometimes willingness) to challenge effectively, this was an unsatisfactory approach.

On Tuesday of last week Áine Lawlor interviewed Dr Eamon McGuinness, former chair of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

He reassured listeners that there was no problem with doctors intervening to save a woman’s life when complications arose in pregnancy.

On Wednesday Claire Byrne interviewed Dr Rhona O’Mahony, Master of Holles St Maternity Hospital, and in my opinion she drifted away from medicine to ideology with her image of doctors “playing medical roulette with women’s lives”, and speaking of women having to be “dying” before intervention possible, though the 2013 Act and Medical Council Guidelines of 2016 say different.

However, what really shocked was her revelation that around half the mothers in Dublin hospitals with babies pre-diagnosed with Downs Syndrome have terminations. She outlined how the screening for such can happen from around nine week’s gestation. So, a few hostages to fortune there.

Then in a blatant example of media bias, the Yes side was allowed to have another go, when pro-choice campaigner Dr Peter Boylan appeared on Liveline shortly afterwards, an intervention which came across as a damage limitation exercise.

It wasn’t very convincing, and Joe Duffy seemed uneasy about the threat to Down Syndrome babies. Dr Boylan stated that “the proposed legislation specifically excludes disability as a grounds for termination”, when in fact it is silent on the matter – check it out online (search ‘General Scheme termination’). He wasn’t challenged on this.

Media bias can sometimes be worse in cases of omission. For example, last week four former chairs of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists took serious issue with Drs Boylan and O’Mahony, but it got little or no media coverage. Then a large group of eminent lawyers and judges issued a statement criticising the government proposals, and they were largely ignored. A statement from over 100 nurses and midwives the previous week suffered a similar fate. How can this possibly be fair?

And yet the media narrative continued with the diversionary tactic of heaping negativity onto the No side, concentrating on peripheral matters like posters and social media. Yet there was no analysis of the posters on the Yes side, e.g. why they never mention abortion, or show images of unborn babies.

In an image-obsessed society this is more than peculiar, but will anyone ask the hard questions? And why no questioning of the Amnesty poster that shamelessly tries to tie repeal to “equality”, even as they campaign to remove an equality measure from the Constitution?


Some of the best coverage features on Today With Seán O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1). Last Wednesday showed how useful it is to have a real debate. Dr Kirsten Fuller, on the pro-life side, was a model of clarity debating with Dr Marion Dyer from the pro-choice side. Dr Dyer raised the issue of women who had died, allegedly because of the Eighth – but as Dr Fuller pointed out her first example happened before the Eighth Amendment was even enacted! There was no response, apology or clarification from Dr Dyer.

Also worth listening back to was last Thursday’s Interview with John Waters on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk). Waters stressed the role of men in the debate, feeling for those sensitive men told to butt out when their unborn children were threatened with death by abortion.

Presenter Ivan Yates followed the interview with a string of mostly negative texts. When he said there had been a positive one Waters had to remind him “you didn’t read that one out”.

Waters also featured last weekend in a tetchy interview   on The Sunday Show (TV3).

He was passionate in his defence of the rights of unborn children, and excoriated the mainstream media for their bias on this issue. McInerney had grilled him on the theoretical case of a pregnant 11-year-old girl.

Next time she has a pro-choice guest I hope she’ll grill that person as thoroughly on the injustice of forcing and imposing death on a defenceless baby.


Pick of the week
RTÉ 1, Tuesday, May 22, 9.35 pm

Miriam O’Callaghan and David McCullagh host RTÉ television’s final referendum debate where both sides go head-to-head before a live studio audience.

TG4, Wednesday, May 23, 9.30 pm

In the midst of the Nigerian civil war Irish missionaries defied a cynical international cartel to save millions from starvation.

TV3, Wednesday, May 23, 10 pm

Referendum special: studio debate on the abortion referendum.



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