Irish media should fight for the right to express an opinion

A statement was read out on Newstalk yesterday (18 June) accepting that broadcaster George Hook had expressed a personal opinion and was therefore in breach of Rule 22 of the Code of Fairness, Objectivity and Impartiality in News and Current Affairs.

This came about as a result of a complaint submitted by me to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) on 29 Jan last.

Rule 22 specifically forbids broadcasters from expressing a personal opinion:

A presenter and/or a reporter on a current affairs programme shall not express his or her own views on matters that are either of public controversy or the subject of current public debate such that a partisan position is advocated.

The actual opinion expressed by Mr. Hook is of little importance.

What is of huge importance is to witness the implementation of a draconian, anti-democratic law specifically designed to repress what, in functional democracies, is the norm – the free expression of opinion.

Of even greater importance is the disturbing reality that this oppressive law was introduced and is being enforced with hardly a whimper from the media.

Before commenting further on the media reaction I am going to express my opinion as why this law has been introduced.

It was not introduced to protect the sensitive ears of Irish citizens from the personal opinions of broadcasters such as George Hook. It was not introduced to protect listeners from being led astray by broadcasters and it was not introduced as a result of any public demand.

It was introduced to stop outright or at least have a severe chilling effect on the media questioning of powerful people and in particular powerful politicians.

The legislation is, I believe, principally aimed at RTE because of its powerful position in the media and because of its vulnerability to political manipulation.

Imagine the following scenario:

A major scandal has erupted involving a government minister and he is preparing to appear on Prime Time to face robust questioning on the issue.

Before the broadcast begins the minister has a quick word in the producer’s ear.

I want to advise you and would ask you to remind the presenter that she is, by law, strictly forbidden from expressing her own opinion on this matter.

The producer has no choice, it’s his job to ensure presenters are aware of all laws governing what they can and cannot say on air.

The very act of warning the presenter would inevitably create a chilling coat of ice across the entire interview.

In other words, the law would be doing what it was intended to do – protecting powerful people from overly critical journalists.

Democracies do not become corrupt overnight. The rot usually sets in over a long period of time. A media law here, a government withdrawal of funding there, a seemingly innocuous power granted to a regulatory authority.

Before long the frog is well and truly cooked.

And it seems, like the frog, the Irish media is quite happy to tolerate the increasingly oppressive heat being turned up under its rights of free expression.

The media could, at any time, force politicians to withdraw this oppressive legislation. All they need do is organise a campaign of disobedience.

Radio and TV presenters could simply announce that they were going to express a personal opinion and invite politicians and the BAI to do their worst.

I have no doubt that such a campaign would very quickly see this anti-democratic law repealed.

George Hook could then return to what he does best – freely expressing strong personal opinions on a vast range of issues and entertaining the nation as he does so.

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George Hook/Newstalk