Claire Byrne's abortion debate proves that when "balance" wins, the rest of us lose
"That is all we have time for."
What a relief it must have been for Claire Byrne when she could finally call time on last night's televised abortion debate. Tensions frayed, blood on the walls, ratings in the bag.
On RTÉ on Monday night, Byrne had the profoundly unenviable task of managing a debate between two groups of campaigners who have, after all these years, grown sick of the sight of each other. For over an hour, chaos reigned. The social media response was emphatic: that was, at best, a deeply stressful experience for anyone who is actually emotionally invested in the issue of the Eighth Amendment.
Cheap digs, unchecked falsehoods and raucous cheering gave the debate all the dignity of a pub shouting match. And in the midst of all this, there was only one winner. The Irish state broadcaster's ever-hardening boner for "balance".
Two months ago, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland released its guidelines ahead of the referendum, advising that "the decision rests with the broadcaster having considered the issues at hand and what is required in order to achieve fairness, objectivity and impartiality in a given programme and across the totality of coverage".
Last night, the results of RTÉ's decision-making were all too visible.
The atmosphere decimated what should have been real points of contention that could have elucidated real and helpful information. One pro-life woman who miscarried told the heartbreaking story of how she held her 14-week-old foetus in her palm afterwards, and how it seemed as though her baby had been resting her chin on her hand, and smiling like a little person — "no different to me or you, only their size". It hurt to hear, and it's an argument that deserves to be thought about carefully.
It was emotional. It was personal. It was real. It was valid. It was medically wrong, according to Dr. Peter Boylan, but we were whooshed on to the next matter before we even had time to dry our eyes and gather our thoughts.
I'm sorry, did the doctor say the foetus wasn't fully developed or... ? Sorry, now this other doctor is saying that after 12 weeks the foetus is actually fully formed. He's now told Peter Boylan, chairperson of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, to go back to school. Now everyone is whooping and cheering. I think I saw someone throw a cowboy hat in the air. Aren't we supposed to be talking about abortion? Isn't that usually a serious thing?
So where did we land on how developed a foetus is at 12 weeks? Anyone? Claire? No? Great, thanks. Did we even get a definition of what it means for a foetus to be fully developed? Does anyone remember? Sorry, I can't hear you, the studio audience appears to have started a Mexican wave.
If, after reading the last four paragraphs, you still don't know whether or not a foetus is fully-formed at 12 weeks then I have one thing to say to you: welcome to last night's Claire Byrne Live.
— Upfront with Katie Hannon (@RTEUpfront) May 14, 2018
Stop for a mouthful of tea or to discuss even a fleeting point with whomever you were watching the show with and bam, you missed a sea-change. The whole thing felt like watching Titanic with all the scenes between the nude painting and the iceberg removed. When the hell did the ship start sinking?
In the absence of any clarity from the moderator, anyone watching at home was left to rely on the battle-rap reactions of the crowd, who would intermittently burst into enthusiastic "Ohhhhs" like they'd just heard a particularly devastating "Your mother" joke.
But Claire Byrne isn't the one to blame. It's this false idol of balance, once again casting its hex on Irish public discourse — with help from its slavish cult in Montrose — just as it did during the Marriage Equality referendum.
We need to re-evaluate what balance means. If we were having a referendum on a global warming issue, would the debates feature scientists and guys who just think it's good that Ireland will be warmer now?
If the referendum was on introducing a constitutional right to bear arms, would we be watching security experts versus Pistol Pete? If we had 100,000 doctors on one side of a medical issue and 100 doctors on the other, would the televised debates still be 50/50? Because that isn't balance. That's putting your thumb on the scale.
How can we force balance when issues are inherently imbalanced? Issues don't automatically become a 50/50 split just because a referendum is Yes or No. The only way is to sacrifice facts, honesty, journalistic integrity and other such nuisances in favour of the disaster we saw last night.
Take the Citizen's Assembly of 2017, whose recommendations are at the heart of this referendum. Over several weekends, an assembly of 100 citizens heard from legal and medical experts, as well as people with direct experience of the Eighth Amendment. It was designed to give that small section of the public a well-rounded, in-depth education on Ireland's current legal relationship with abortion.
When it comes to debate facilitated by RTÉ, that doesn't seem to matter. It's about achieving that perfect yin-yang, the 7-10 split, the ol' Mexican standoff — guns drawn and we're all goin' down together, hombres.
Towards the end, one No campaigner alleged that if the Eighth Amendment were repealed, it would be "impossible to put a lid on" abortion. This is a huge claim and thus deserves examination.
For example, last year, abortion rates in the United States hit a historic low. Abortion rates, however, have hit a five-year high in the United Kingdom. But in general, this 2016 article from Vox says that abortion rates in Europe are also hitting 30-year lows. That might have been useful information for last night's viewers to hear.
Peter Boylan tried to make this point, but Claire Byrne ignored it, leaving the question open-ended. One lie and one suffocated truth. Ah, can you feel the zen that comes with perfect balance?
The last word went to TD Mary Butler, who asked nobody in particular why none of the Yes posters carried the word 'abortion'?
This is, it goes without saying, a nonsense question. None of the No posters carry phrases like 'fatal foetal abnormality', 'get the ferry' or 'condemned by the United Nations human rights committee' because that's how campaigning works.
It was an opportune time for a host to distinguish herself, and say something like, "Well, would it be fair to say that the No campaign refrains from phrasing that might be detrimental to their own case?" You know, like, balance? Claire Byrne didn't do that. She said: "That is all we've got time for."
Butler sat there, unanswered and delighted. She wasn't really asking a question, after all. She was throwing a dig just as the bell stopped ringing. Balance was achieved once more.
Somehow, this is all we've got time for.