So Ireland’s controversial same sex marriage referendum was carried the other weekend.
Hurrah – which was a supportive comment I couldn’t have made in public for the last two months until last week.
Even before RTÉ’s head of broadcast compliance, David McKenna, issued that contentious edict on personal social media use for staff of and freelancers in RTÉ ahead of the just completed marriage and presidential vote-offs, I had pulled back from commenting in public on them.
Well on the former referendum anyway, as like for most people the latter felt like a relative nonsense.
So when David’s email arrived in my inbox on April 1st – I know – pointing out that, “In that context, for the duration of the campaign debate, you should not state on social media your views on either of the two referendums; this includes banners, retweets, twitter avatars, watermarks, and so on,” he was pushing against an open door with yours truly.
When I told a few people that I was relatively untroubled by the announcement, most were surprised.
But I could see RTÉ’s point; not only have they got to be neutral at times like this, they’ve got to be seen to be neutral. Perceptions are everything and even freelancers like me are perceived to be part of RTÉ even if we’re technically not.
Or as David’s decree more eloquently put it:
If you feel restrained by this, we would ask you to remember that it is in the name of a principle worth protecting – public trust in our delivery of fair debate and coverage of these referendums on RTÉ.
We have different roles within the organisation, and different relationships with it. Some of us are staff, some freelance…
What we all have in common is that it is reasonable for the public to view each of us as a member of the RTÉ community. You might hope that a clear distinction can be made between your personal views and your employment in or professional engagement with RTÉ. In the eyes of the public, and other media, that is not the case.
If we express on social media a position on either of the referendums – even if we say that our opinion is entirely personal – we contribute to the perception that the organisation has a point of view on the topics.
Others have had very different attitudes towards this RTÉ ruling, considering it heavy handed and unnecessarily censorious. Some said it should only apply to journalistic and editorial staff. Others argued that freelancers should be exempt.
I see their logic but it really had to be all or nothing.
Not that it wasn’t a hugely frustrating couple of months, believe you me.
There were plenty times watching or listening to debates when I had huge urges to rant angrily online at the No side’s persistent obfuscations and red herrings, and their occasional outright lies and plain homophobia.
I didn’t and just, as in the days before social media, I had to content myself with just shouting at my telly, radio and laptop.
I worked on a variety of RTÉ Radio 1 shows in the build up to the referendum where guests and listeners from both sides of the debate were over time given equal opportunity to argue their case.
You wouldn’t believe some of the hateful drivel I had to read, listen to and often type up, all the while maintaining a polite and courteous front.
I’m hoping my Oscar is in the post.
Online I witnessed a mix of similar inanities and the most wonderful and uplifting supportive posts. Each time I had to resist the urge to wade in and argue or to share and retweet.
It wasn’t easy.
A few times I broke rank just a gnats and had fun with the social media ban, careful not to technically cross the no-opinion divide.
Mois? Take sides? Jamais.
My favourite was this cheeky tweet:
— Pat O’Mahony (@patomahony1) May 4, 2015
This was a close second:
— Pat O’Mahony (@patomahony1) May 15, 2015
I was intrigued and puzzled during all this enforced silence, however, that employees at other media organisations weren’t similarly muzzled. I assume it’s because of RTÉ’s supposed role as the national public service broadcaster but at times like this it seemed a somewhat odd and arbitrary distinction.
For example, Dil Wickremasinghe, as an expectant mother in a same sex relationship very openly and honestly laid her cards on the table both on her weekly Newstalk Global Village radio show and online.
On the other hand, Scott De Buitléir quit his RTÉ Pulse LGBT show, The Cosmo, because of RTÉ’s requirement not to show bias towards either side on the issue.
Something’s not quite right there.
Then there was the question of what people could say once the voting was closed at 10.00pm on May 22nd.
I had this very conversation that afternoon with an RTÉ presenter who had earlier queried it with the organisation’s powers-that-be without receiving a definitive answer. We concluded that we’d probably just make it up as we went along.
Kinda like my career to date, to be honest.
Some chose not to wait very long before letting their feelings true known. Most dramatic of the tweets I saw was undoubtedly 2fm’s Eoghan McDermott’s “F**k you RTÉ” explosion just as polling closed. He later apologised and deleted the tweet – haven’t we all? – but I could certainly understand the frustration.
Saturday morning as the early results started to come through, I allowed myself a couple of congratulatory, non-gloating tweets.
— Pat O’Mahony (@patomahony1) May 23, 2015
— Pat O’Mahony (@patomahony1) May 23, 2015
Anyone who knows me won’t be remotely surprised by my delight at the outcome.
Anyone who doesn’t should be in no doubt that during any such future controversy, if the big wigs at whatever media organisation I might be lucky enough to be working at the time suggest I keep my opinions to myself online, I most likely will.
Just expect much shouting round mine at the poor TV, radio and laptop again.