On spokespeople, attacking integrity and the eighth amendment

Sometimes 140 characters is not enough, so what follows in a bit of background to a story playing out on my Twitter feed.

I was in Dublin last week working on a number of stories, among them one for Swedish radio on the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, which effectively bans abortion in virtually all circumstances.

In my attempt to create a rounded, balanced report I contacted a number of organisations and private individuals to ask them to comment. There was a window of four and a half days in which I could schedule interviews.

Those in favour of repealing the eighth were quick to respond, and all those interviews were done on Thursday afternoon last.

From the anti-abortion side there were several people who were very generous in trying to help me set things up, but unfortunately, apart from an interview with journalists and author John Waters, I came away empty-handed.

Over the course of several e-mails, the tone of which was both respectful and nuanced, John had initially politely declined my request for him to speak on the record, instead informing me of a conference in Tralee where the delegates would include many who opposed the repealing of the eighth amendment.

I drove to Tralee on Saturday morning and asked the organisers if they could provide someone who would speak to me.

Their suggestion was John Waters.

John generously attempted to procure other interviewees for me during lunch, but was unsuccessful and ended up doing the interview himself.

Before he did so, he said to me: “You appear to have upset a lot of people in there,” meaning the dining room where the group was eating.

What followed was a very respectful and insightful 20-minute conversation where he outlined the current state of play in Ireland and his views on the situation, and though I was disappointed to have only collected one voice on such a long trip, I consoled myself on the way back to Dublin with the fact that he had been comprehensive in his remarks.

In the interests of the balance both sides seem to crave in this debate, I continued looking for further interview subjects, via Twitter, phone calls and e-mails.

I returned to Stockholm yesterday, and I would still like to talk to anti-abortion activists for the piece, which will be edited later this week.

This morning I find myself being sent two- and three-year old tweets, the implication being that people wouldn’t want to talk to me due to my personal (note: not private) opinions on the eighth amendment, and some of my comments on those involved in the debate around it.

In many of them, there are a few fundamental understandings about what journalism is, and indeed what it is not.

Firstly, reporting has nothing to do with one’s personal opinions. It is akin to a doctor treating a family member, or a lawyer defending a murderer he knows is guilty.

Perceived vested interests are put aside, and it is surprisingly easy to do so.

That some have great difficulty accepting that says more about the standard of journalism in Ireland than perhaps anything else.

I have interviewed politicians, union officials, criminals, doped sports people, neo-Nazis, Islamic extremists and everyone in between.

In all instances, my own personal opinions are left at the door. It doesn’t matter how many Facebook posts or Tweets I’ve made on any given issue, the process is always the same.

Do the research, ask the questions, publish the results.

In particular when reporting for a non-Irish audience on an Irish story, the aim is to present the information to them – this is why the story is of relevance now, this side wants the amendment repealed, this side wants it kept – in a way that they will understand, giving history and context, and let them make up their own minds.

I have never once been accused by anyone I have interviewed of misquoting them, or misrepresenting their views in any way.

In any case, this issue – that of my personal opinions contaminating my ability to report – was only been raised after I left Ireland yesterday.

It is true that I have said nasty things about public figures, and I apologise profusely to anyone that has been offended by that.

But as noted above, there is a fundamental difference between attacking a person’s public persona, the opinions they hold and the tactics they use to get their point across, and attacking them personally.

However much I disagree with them, their views are for the most part honestly held, but that doesn’t preclude anyone from questioning the veracity of public statements made or research offered in support of them, or the tactics employed in advancing their cause.

In Ireland these distinctions are seldom made – I know of one person who no longer speaks to me because I criticised a glib point about boxing made by his wife on a TV show, which he took very personally. He called me up to tell me.

In contrast, I recently engaged in a very heated debate with a friend and colleague here in Sweden about how a certain story was presented by him in his newspaper; at no time did it get personal, and both of us learned something from it.

And this is the nub of the issue.

Some have reacted to my attempts to secure spokespeople by searching for tweets and trying to undermine my credibility before I even sit down to edit the report.

Though not an attack on me personally (and believe me, when you write abbout immigration, abortion or LGBT rights, you get plenty of them, some of them threatening, most of them anonymous), it is a direct attack on my professional reputation.

Thankfully it is the first time this has happened, but I fear that it might say more about the climate around the debate on the eighth amendment than many of us would care to admit.

The point is that none of us – journalists, editors, campaigners, voters – will ever get anywhere if we only talk to people we agree with. Social media is enough of an echo chamber already.

And nor, I hasten to add, will we get very far by attacking them personally.

I don’t know if it’s even possible to have a civilised debate about abortion in Ireland any more.

Recent evidence would suggest that it isn’t.

But either way a debate will be had, and it is up to everyone participating in it to try to keep it as open and respectful as possible.

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