A few weeks ago, 12,000 protestors shut down Dublin city centre demanding a referendum on the 8th amendment, striking in an effort to make their voices heard, and for those voices to be taken seriously. Strikers gathered outside the Department of Justice, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Health, finally bringing O’Connell bridge to a complete standstill. The recognition of the Strike on RTÉ, compared with numerous other national and international media coverage on the event, was markedly vague and short: “thousands march for International women’s day”, they blurted at the beginning of the 6-1 news, later using footage of the protest to segue into a excerpt on the gender pay gap. Yes – the fact that there is a 16% pay gap between men and women holding managerial positions in Ireland is outrageous. But to show clips of a strike which had the expressed purpose of urging a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment without mentioning that is to obscure and invisibilise the intent behind the march. In this way, RTÉ consciously undermined the strike.
Understandably, this frustrated many of those involved in the strike who trusted that the state-funded broadcaster would give the march fair and ample air-time and would not misrepresent the aims behind this collective action. Activists organised again and picketed outside RTÉ following this. Their response to that? A few lines on the “News in Brief” section of their website including, “a number of people gathered outside RTÉ studios in Donnybrook this afternoon to demand more coverage of the Repeal the 8th campaign”. Again, this would lead you to believe that this picket had been just a handful of stragglers – it was in fact 100-strong. Silence can of course express more bias than anything. The conservative, religious, Anti-Choice lobby in Ireland have historically bullied programmers into avoiding the topics like the 8th amendment completely, as was the case with letters sent during the eighties to that effect. Instances such as this are a chilling and necessary reminder that this coercion lives on. After all, “PantiGate” was only a few years ago.
Opening a Pathway into Ireland for the Alt Right
This is more insidious, however. In the days after the march, a video doing the rounds on social media caught my attention and, if I’m honest, deeply troubled me. Uploaded onto a Facebook community called “Flipside” under a comment “Oops!! The views of pro-choice activitsts without the media airbrushing”, the video sees an English man lambasting the protesters, asking them questions that neither doctors nor philosophers have a consensus on and expecting an instantaneous and definitive answer. He tells them their uteruses are vessels and accuses those who see his dubious intent and avoid him of not wanting to “engage in a sensible debate”. What concerned me the most about all of this was the reception that this video was getting. Despite the fact that the questions are wildly unfair and out of left field, the video is clearly edited to create awkward shuffles and pauses, and there is a noted lack of courtesy on the end of the interviewer, it seemed like no-one sharing it was casting a critical eye on the clips. People were accepting the content presented as fact. Those shoving the microphone and camera in strangers’ faces were trusted, and the unconsenting interviewees were condemned.
A friend put me in touch with one of the women featured in this video, who told me of having a camera shoved in her face by a young man whose tone was both invasive, condescending and antagonising. Naturally seeing this video strewn about the internet as fodder for hatred from strangers was humiliating to her and her friends, especially because she knew why she was there and why she was pro-choice. Faced with a young man who she thought was playing devil’s advocate and proding debate, she felt backed into a corner. In the atmosphere of solidarity at the strike she didn’t expect the malintent that became evident to her later:
“When the video was published online it was clear that this man was not out to stir a debate. He and his team didn’t have any objective other than to pick out 12 people from 12,000, cut and edit these interviews and shape them into a uninformed, unaware and selfish depiction of “the real pro-choicers”. A video that would easily capture the attention of the public.”
The page offers to “give another perspective on things”. That perspective is promulgated in this particular video by one Caolan Robertson, a London-based contributor to vitriolic alt-right platforms such as The New Brit and The Rebel. Here’s some examples of that perspective: “I’d like to tell you ten things I hate about the Jews”, “Why More Muslims Mean More Terrorist Attacks”, and “Transgender insanity: If Trudeau’s new “hate speech” bill passes, I’ll see you in jail”. These websites endorse the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos (Milo is famous for statements like, “If white privilege is a thing, why are people working so hard to be black? All of the award shows and cultural events favor black culture”) and Tommy Robinson, former head of English Defense League, an anti-Islam group. They are an active instrument of the brand of hyper-nationalism, xenophobia, islamophobia, misogyny and general hateful regression that drove Brexit and Trump’s election. And now they are sticking their nose into Irish politics, facilitated by the misstep of our state broadcaster, RTÉ, in deciding not to cover the Strike 4 Repeal.
This is a very grave time for Irish media. We have to decide now whether to resign ourselves to this state of affairs and descend into a similar situation of fake news coverage and selective cultural memory and the devastation that we have seen ensue from this elsewhere, or to stand up and hold our journalists and broadcasters accountable for what they chose to write and what they do not. We live in an era when it is very, very important to check not only the facts, but also the political agenda that we are furthering by simply sharing a video. It is very easy to become an instrument of fake news and of populism, and we have to investigate our sources to avoid this. This video is not the views of the Repeal movement “behind the media airbrushing”. This is in fact media airbrushing par excellence, straightforward propaganda, and just the beginning of a smear campaign, yet another instance in Ireland where women’s voices are squashed.
By Cara Spelman