Irish state broadcaster RTE has blamed the country’s defamation laws over its decision to pay a €85,000 libel settlement to a journalist and a right-wing Catholic think-tank, the Iona Institute.
The payout followed RTE’s Saturday Night Show presented by Sunday Independent journalist Brendan O’Connor on 11 January featuring drag artist Rory O’Neill, who is better known by his stage name Panti Bliss.
During the interview, O’Neill outlined the high levels of homophobia present in contemporary Irish society. Towards the end of the interview O’Connor asked O’Neill to name names which led to RTE issuing the payout.
RTÉ's Glen Killane confirms RTÉ paid €40,000 to John Waters and €45,000 to members of the Iona Institute following legal advice
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) February 5, 2014
It is understood Irish Times journalist John Waters received €40,000 while the remaining €45,000 was split between Irish Independent religious affairs correspondent David Quinn and fellow Iona Institute members Dr Patricia Casey, Dr John Murray and Maria Steen.
The Iona Institute was rocked recently after one of its staff members, Dublin journalist Tom O’Gorman was murdered at the home he shared with Italian lodger Saverio Bellante. Bellante was later charged with the crime.
O’Neill has received substantial support online following his interview on the Saturday Night Show with RTE being accused of censorship.
Earlier this week, he took to the stage of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin following a performance of The Risen People where he made a speech about homophobia.
During his speech (video above) as his alter ego Panti Bliss, he said: “Three weeks ago I was on the television and I said that people who actively campaign for gay people to be treated less or treated differently, are, in my gay opinion, homophobic.
“Now some people. People who actively campaign for gay people to be treated less under the law took great exception to that characterisation and they threatened legal action against me and RTE.
“Now RTE in its infinite wisdom decided incredibly quickly to handover a huge sum of money to make it all go away.”
So far, almost 140,000 people have viewed the speech online.
In the Seanad, the upper house of the Irish parliament, Senator David Norris attacked RTE over the speed of its settlement.
However, managing director of RTE television Glen Killane, said the broadcaster could not defend the case taken by the Iona Institute and the Irish Times columnist.
In a statement released today, Killane said:
Over the last week a number of people have approached me questioning RTÉ's apology to John Waters and members of the Iona Institute following the receipt of six legal complaints and you will, no doubt, have seen the ongoing debate on this subject.
I want to reassure you that RTÉ explored every option available to it, including right of reply. Legal advice was sought and all avenues were explored, including an offer to make a donation to a neutral charity.
However, based on the facts of what was broadcast, and having regard for broadcasting compliance issues, the seriousness of the legal complaints, and the decision by the complainants not to accept RTÉ’s proposed remedies, we decided that a settlement was the most prudent course of action. Senior counsel was consulted and confirmed that the legal position was far from clear.
As a dual-funded public body, RTÉ should not knowingly progress to defend an action when it is advised, internally and externally, that such a defence is unlikely to succeed before a jury.
RTÉ has not engaged in censorship, but has rather fallen foul of Ireland’s defamation laws. The topic reopened over the weekend and RTÉ will continue to cover this and related issues, as evidenced by last week’s Late Debate, coverage of the protest in Dublin city centre on Sunday, today’s item on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1 and last weekend’s debate on the subject on The Saturday Night Show.