A plea to Irish media: stop giving airtime to devil's advocates and trolls

A plea for fewer shouty debates in 2018.
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Source: TV 3

PICTURE THE SCENE. A current affairs panel show has decided to have a conversation about sexual assault and misogyny. On one end of the table is a woman speaking calmly and reasonably about the experiences of women.

On the other end of the table is a provocative commentator who dismisses her outright and begins shouting about snowflakes in a decidedly belligerent tone.

The woman can’t lose her cool. If she does, she’ll be accused of being hysterical. Nor can she get too emotional even if what she’s discussing and hearing from the other end of the table is dredging up painful memories. If her voice so much as cracks, she’ll be accused of being unable to acquit herself in a debate or think impartially.

The man at the other end of the table, meanwhile, is given free rein to say whatever he likes, no matter how untrue and wildly offensive it may be. If people on Twitter criticise him, all the better. Sure, won’t he get a column out of it?

In the era of Trump, many commentators have sought to carve out a niche for themselves as provocateurs telling it like it is. They’ll happily rail against asylum seekers, Muslims, women, the LGBTQ community, young people, working class people or whatever else you’re having.

They’ll say things like, “I actually don’t think the Irish Defence Forces should rescue any migrants at all,” or “Women have to accept some responsibility if they are sexually assaulted while drinking.”

They offer little in the way of substantive argument but succeed in muddying the waters and emboldening those predisposed to their way of thinking. And for some reason, Irish media can’t get enough of them.

Over the past twelve months, Irish viewers have been treated to countless shouty debates about everything from sexism to racism to homophobia. Most often, it plays out as a battle between so-called liberal snowflakes and straight-talking mavericks bemoaning political correctness. Think Kate O’Connell vs. John McGurk and Colette Browne vs. Katie Hopkins.

Source: RTÉ

Such debates seem to be striving for balance and attempting to stir controversy. But in pitting sensible people against those playing devil’s advocate, we’re losing the ability to have nuanced discussions on topics that deserve to be examined with care and thought.

Earlier this year, The Late Late Show tried to do a segment about political correctness and attempted to enlist Una Mullally to go up against Ian O’Doherty, a columnist with a history of referring to feminists as ‘feminazis’ and decrying ‘Generation Snowflake’. When Mullally found out she would be debating O’Doherty, she declined to participate.

As she wrote in a blog for Grace Dyas’ website:

I told the Late Late Show privately that I had no interest in “debating” Ian, as he had a record of slagging me off, and that any interaction with him would end up in personal insults and confrontation.

Upon learning that Mullally had withdrawn from the segment, O’Doherty took to Twitter to hurl abuse at her, labelling her a “demented bint” and a “f**king weak pissy little shrew”.

“Yeah she bitched out,” he wrote. “I was looking forward to it. She likes throwing her bombs from behind a byline but can never, ever back it up. Coward.”

Not only was this attack wholly unprofessional, it was highly misogynistic and aggressive. And yet it didn’t dissuade The Late Late Show from inviting O’Doherty to appear on the show later that month to discuss the state of the country alongside Brendan Ogle and Lise Hand.

And why not? Figures like O’Doherty and his ilk get people’s blood boiling and get them tweeting. It’s entertainment after all.

But is this how we should be treating our debates? For instance, should a conversation about #MeToo devolve into a shouting match about witch hunts and whether this is the end of having a harmless flirt in work?

Why should the onus be on women, migrants or members of the LGBTQ community to fight their corner against those who wish to deny their experiences or challenge their right to merely exist and go about their business? Who does this serve?

This year, we saw two renowned provocateurs fall from their perch. Kevin Myers was sacked from The Sunday Times for making anti-Semitic comments while George Hook was suspended from Newstalk for suggesting that a woman had to bear some of the blame for her own sexual assault. Both had a history of making offensive comments, but it was public outcry and threats from advertisers that led to their ultimate downfall.

It suggests that the appetite for this sort of discourse is waning, no matter how much Irish media insists on facilitating it. If newspapers, radio shows and television shows focused less on trolling their audience and more on amplifying marginalised voices, we would all be infinitely better off.

How about that for a New Year’s resolution, eh?

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