Monday, May 28, 2018

To anyone hoping for impartial coverage of the abortion debate, these are not promising signs

This afternoon on National Radio I heard Jesse Mulligan interview a spokeswoman for a group of Irish Wellingtonians who backed the “yes” vote in Ireland’s abortion referendum.

It was a soft interview, as you might expect of a light, chatty afternoon show. The interviewee told how her group gathered at a Wellington bar on Saturday night to watch the referendum result come in.  There were heart-warming scenes of joy and happiness, she said, when the “no” campaigners – the people who opposed liberalisation of Ireland’s strict abortion laws – conceded defeat.

The tone of the conversation was celebratory. A visitor from a distant galaxy would have had no trouble concluding that the right side had won the argument.

(As an aside, I accept that the referendum result was greeted as a triumph for women’s rights. Nonetheless I find it grotesque that people should rejoice at the prospect of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of unborn babies having their lives snuffed out. It strikes me as a triumph of warped ideology over humanity - but that’s just me.)

Mulligan stopped short (just) of congratulating his guest on the outcome, but he did feed her an obliging cue by effectively inviting her to say that New Zealand now lagged behind Ireland in terms of restrictions on abortion – the implication being that we should get our skates on if we want to catch up.

This followed an interview earlier in the day on Morning Report in which Susie Ferguson questioned Abortion Law Reform New Zealand president Terry Bellamak about the implications of the Irish referendum result. That was a soft interview too, although Morning Report professes to be a hard current affairs show.

Like her afternoon colleague, Ferguson fed her guest a sympathetic question (“Is it acceptable that you have to lie to get an abortion?”) which seemed to give a pretty clear idea of her own position on the issue. And like Mulligan’s guest, Bellamak seized on the Irish result as an argument for reform of New Zealand’s own abortion laws. After all, who wants the embarrassment of having the most conservative abortion regime in the English-speaking world? We can expect this to become a recurring theme from pro-abortion activists as pressure mounts for repeal of the abortion provisions in the 40-year-old Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act. It’s a weak argument (after all, the fact that other countries have wide-open abortion laws doesn’t make them right), but that won’t stop them.

Earlier, Ferguson had tried repeatedly to corner National leader Simon Bridges with the same “Why should women have to lie to get an abortion?” question, clearly implying that the law is bad and should be overturned. I wonder, what prospect is there of the abortion debate getting fair and impartial coverage from Radio New Zealand when the presenter of its top-rating current affairs show so plainly displays her personal feelings on the issue?

This is no idle question. Abortion liberalisation is likely to be on the Labour-led government’s legislative agenda next year, and those old enough to remember the turbulent passage of the 1977 legislation will know how bitter and divisive the debate could be. In that case Radio New Zealand will be expected to report the issue fairly and impartially – an expectation made all the weightier because it’s a state-owned broadcaster with a special duty of neutrality. But I wonder what the prospects are of that happening, given what I heard today.

As far as I can tell, Morning Report carried no comment from anti-abortion groups on the Irish result and its implications, if any, for New Zealand. Why go to one side and not the other?

Granted, journalists generally take a “liberal” stance on abortion. That was clear from media coverage of the Irish referendum, which was generally framed as a clash between the “old” Ireland of fossilised reactionaries, still under the baneful influence of the discredited Catholic Church, and a heroic new, younger Ireland determined to cast off a long legacy of oppressive theology. Small wonder that most journalists thought the right side won, and reported it accordingly.

But just as prosperous white middle-class people are instructed to “check their privilege” – meaning we should be aware of our inbuilt class-based assumptions before we judge others – so journalists need to be reminded to check their prejudice.  When they have strongly personal held views on issues, they should be doubly diligent about ensuring the other side have their say too.

1 comment:

Hilary Taylor said...

Quite. It's those glib assumptions I bridle against, that we all share a view on something as complicated & upsetting as abortion. It's to my everlasting relief I never had to face a decision on it. The kerfuffle at UA over a student-led anti-abortion group's right to offer assistance on campus was another effort to stifle a view that diverged from the received wisdom of the student association. Lets hear everyone please. Kim Hill's interview with a certifying consultant last year was revealing.