There’s nothing that goes down a storm in Northern Ireland quite like an all-out political ding-dong on the airwaves. Day and daily we can rely on our local broadcast media to provide a platform for people of all stripes to have their say – be they politicians, pundits or the public. Divisive issues are a favourite with producers and presenters of course, as they’re sure to guarantee a reaction and be a ratings hit – but at what cost?
Such was my line of thinking recently when yet another segment on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback show was dedicated to discussing marriage equality. I turned my car radio off when a caller began “This is a sad day for Scotland…”, a reference to Holyrood’s decision to make marriage available to same sex couples. I’m all for healthy debate, particularly so when members of the public are given the opportunity to have their say, however, I’m fearful now that Northern Ireland’s broadcast media fraternity isn’t fully aware of the wider implications of so frequently relying on such discussions, often to fill up airtime.
Let’s be very frank about this: Northern Ireland is no place to be gay. Insular thinking, religious fundamentalism and regressive attitudes towards sex and sexuality combine to make this a hostile place for anyone who identifies as anything other than heterosexual. Prejudice is in our lexicon, in our government and in our laws. In the past year I witnessed blatant homophobic prejudices being aired in my (now former) workplace by colleagues whom, when challenged, cranked up the rhetoric by shouting “THEY’RE DISGUSTING!” in reference to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. In another case I chose to take my custom elsewhere when the manageress of an establishment I shopped in frequently, wistfully bemoaned the state of the country at the hands of the Westminster government because “They’ve even legalised HO-MO-SEX-U-AL-I-TY!” When I go to work, when I shop and when I turn on my radio I don’t want to have to listen to that sort of thing. How many people turn on their radio or TV to find, yet again, that their lives – their reality – is being thrashed out on a public platform yet again by the empathic, the intolerant and the ignorant? How many people who have heard such broadcasts have struggled for decades to come to terms with their sexuality and continue to live in suicidal shame for fear of coming out? How many young people listening to discussions on radio phone-in shows, or the words of some of Northern Ireland’s politicians, feel that they have no future because of their sexuality? I often wonder how many vulnerable people have been pushed over the edge by things they’ve heard in the course of “healthy debate” facilitated by the broadcast media. We’ll never know.
As a society, we must be mindful that when we are discussing issues such a marriage equality and conscience clauses in a public forum, we are not discussing abstract legal scenarios, paper exercises nor inanimate matter. We are discussing issues of human dignity. Often the manner in which these discussions are conducted, and the language that is used within them, does not reflect what is actually at the heart of the discussion: that is, real people, with real feelings and real emotions – people who are systematically treated less favourably by society and whose life opportunities are restricted simply because of irrational prejudices that belong to others. Yes, we need to challenge those prejudices – and they way to do that is via dialogue. To that end I have always appreciated the virtues of public discussion facilitated by the broadcast media, but now I’m looking at it through a different lens and considering the wider implications of its ethical shortcomings – most notably in the form of responsibilities that are sometimes compromised in the interests of popularity and programme ratings. It gives us all something to think about – and is surely a topic that’s ripe for public discussion in itself.