[John Waters (top and Patsy McGarry]
Further to Pantigate, etc., etc.
Seán O’Rourke played a (pre-recorded) interview with John Waters on RTE Radio One’s Today With Seán O’Rourke this morning.
Grab a tay.
Sean O’Rourke: “Now the past three months have been a time of upheaval in the life of journalist and author, John Waters. It began in January when he was described as a homophobe on RTÉ’s television’s Saturday Night Show. The station apologised and paid him €40,000 in defamation damages, unleashing a torrent of criticism of RTE, of John Waters himself, and of the Iona Institute, whose members were also compensated. More recently, John Waters resigned as a columnist with the Irish Times, saying that the highly toxic of illiberal antagonism towards particular viewpoints exists at the heart of the paper’s editorial operation. That’s what he wrote in a long article in the current issue of Village magazine. So when he came into studio, I first asked John Waters if he’d any regrets at all about threatening to sue RTE and then taking the money?”
John Waters: “No, I don’t because all I did was I sent, I got my solicitor to send a letter requesting an apology, a clarification for what had happened. And there was a lot of prevarication which followed on that. And, because of that, we lost the first opportunity for an apology which is the most critical moment, the week afterwards. So things escalated from then and this society offers as a means of recompensing somebody who’s being defamed, just two things. One of them is an apology done in the quickest possible time and the other is damages. And therefore the process which requires, which arose, occurred because of the prevarication of RTÉ. This could have been sorted out on day one with an apology and a minimal cost, a donation to charity, to St Vincent De Paul, that’s all that was asked for. So I’ve no regrets about that. And I never will have regrets about defending my reputation because it’s vitally important for a commentator, of any kind, to preserve the one thing they have, which is their reputation, their credibility in the public sphere.”
O’Rourke: “And you’re emphatic that if RTÉ had been prepared to include the following, which you quote in your, or which you reproduced in your article in Village magazine this month. There would have been no more about it. “We accept that it is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues, without characterisations of malice, hatred or bad faith”.”
Waters: “Absolutely right. I mean, it’s vitally important that it be seen that I’d intervene, my job was to intervene in public debate and have controversial views and have robust views and if you can be portrayed and presented as being motivated by malice or hatred in what you say, then you’re entirely disabled as a commentator. And, so for that reason, it’s vitally important that I preserve my, the sense that I have, that I actually contribute intellectually debates, on the basis of my understanding of the issues, not because I hate particular individuals or because I hate any particular kind of individual, that’s indispensable to my role as a public commentator.”
O’Rourke: “But, at the same time though, as I said earlier in the introduction, a torrent of criticism, of RTÉ in the first instance, for caving in to what was seen as pressure from yourself, and the Iona Institute and others, and not standing up for robust debate.”
Waters: “Well you see I think, this word debates keeps coming up. But there’s no right to defame as part of debate. I’ve been writing columns for the Irish Times for 24 years. If I defame somebody I’ll be sued. And if we lose a case, I’ll probably have got fired. But there’s no right, there’s no free speech right to defame someone, just steal somebody’s reputation because how can you answer this kind of charge?”
O’Rourke: “Well, right of reply the following week, you were offered that…”
Waters: “A right of reply can work, if there’s an allegation put forward of a factual nature which you can respond to ad seriatum. This was not that kind of allegation, it was simply part of a smear. It wasn’t, and interestingly it wasn’t the first time it happened. This arose a couple of years ago during the Presidential election campaign when, if you recall Seán, there was a controversy about [Senator and former Presidential candidate] David Norris and an interview he had given to Magill magazine. At the time, which, back in 2002, when I was the consultant editor, and I became embroiled in that, defending Helen Lucy Burke’s position because she was attacked that time. And I was called a homophobe on a programme on TV3. Now I raised this issue with the programme in question, I asked for an apology and the apology was given immediately, so there was no money changed hands, there was no question of money. I didn’t even ask for my lawyers fees. So the same could have happened this time if RTÉ had acted with alacrity and with a degree of gravity with regard to what had actually happened.”
O’Rourke: “You wrote as well that, in the aftermath of this, or at the height of it maybe, I don’t know, maybe it’s still going on, it became unsafe for you to walk down the street. Really?”
Waters: “Yes, I felt that, whether that was objectively true in the sense that, obviously a lot of this can occur in one’s mind but, at the same time, there were a number of incidents which were disquieting, you know people would come on..Mostly, I would have to say, they kind of, a dominant note of these was the cowardice of the individuals concerned because they almost invariably came up to me on bicycles and start roaring ‘homophobe’ at me, or ‘f-ing homophone’ or whatever and then scooting off. And this kind of thing happened several times so gradually it got to me, I didn’t really want to go into certain places. I didn’t want to go into Dublin, I don’t have a great time in Dublin anyway, to be honest but I did feel in myself that I was becoming changed and that worried me as well because the nature of my job is I have to be able to look people in the eye, to actually stand up and defend my positions and if I find myself under this kind of barrage of assault, then I have to consider my own position and my position as a public commentator.”
O’Rourke: “We’ll come back in a few minutes to what happened in the Irish Times itself but, apart from what went on there and the abuse that would have been hurled at you occasionally in the street, what else did you have to deal with? And you mentioned Twitter?”
Waters: “Well I outlined in the, I gave some flavour in the Village article about the kinds of emails I was getting and these were absolutely vile, you know, very short, always a certain pattern: short, very often in capitals, you know expletives, splenetic language, the word homophobe always there, terrible personal commentary about my family life perhaps, or about my appearance, all that kind of stuff. And there was like hundreds of these and I began to notice a pattern in this which was really astonishing. That, even though in the public domain in the Dáil, this came up in the Dáil and the Seanad, it came up in RTÉ, it came up in lots of places and it was being talked about for, particularly for about a week or two all the time and yet I noticed in that period, there was a certain pattern. That the one day – on a Wednesday, say – I would get 20 or 30 of these emails, and I would think, this would go on, then on Thursday, there would be none. And I’d think: it’s finished. But then Friday morning, I’d get another one and then on Friday, I’d get 20 or 30 more, so it seemed to me there was a certain orchestration about this whole thing that was actually, that there were people actually working hard to send these messages to me.”
O’Rourke: “Well you were criticised as well by the Minister for Communication, as well as his other responsibilities, Pat Rabbitte. Basically saying, look if you’re in the public square having a debate, you gotta be able to take it as well as give it.
Waters: “I’ve said it before, you know, Pat Rabbitte is entitled to express his opinion, just as anybody else is but I think Pat Rabbitte might be better off looking after his job as Minister for Communication. This was nothing to do with his job as Minister for Communications.”
O’Rourke: “Well, except for the national broadcaster, for which he has responsibility, shelled out over €85,000 in compensation.”
Waters: “That’s a legal matter and is entirely a matter for the people in charge of the national broadcaster and it’s contingent on the legal peculiarities. It is not a political question.”
O’Rourke: “Coming to the Irish Times, now you’ve identified, by my count, five people who were critical of you. Either openly, in print or tweeting openly, or using a nom de plume or maybe by what might be called a passing innuendo in various pieces they wrote. Now we don’t have time to go into every detail but you wrote a letter of resignation after a fellow columnist, Fintan O’Toole, had a go at you, which you say was utterly cowardly and disgraceful. Why would you use it, why would you speak in those terms? Why would it prompt you to resign?”
Waters: “Because it was part of a sustained campaign, it goes back actually to something that had happened earlier on. Because remembered the accusation was made that I was a homophobe, now on RTÉ, and it would say that I had been campaigning on the issue of gay marriage and that I had been more or less, it was insinuated that I’d been on TV and radio every day of the week. Now anybody in RTÉ can simply, by, within 30 seconds can ascertain how often I’ve been on radio and television, talking about gay marriage because the answer is I’ve never been on, I’ve never been on any programme. Many times I’ve turned down invitations to appear on Prime Time, the Frontline, all these programmes, who’ve asked me to go, because they assume they know my position on gay marriage and I can assure you, they don’t. But there was one time where I did outline my full position on gay marriage in an email to a colleague in the Irish Times, Una Mulally, who actually about five days before the Rory O’Neill interview on The Saturday Night Show, asked me, because she said she was writing a book, and I sat down and I wrote, even though this woman had attacked me numerous times, I sat down, I wrote her a 2,000-word email, outlining in full my position on gay marriage. In which I said, inter alia, that I actually don’t think I am against gay marriage per se. That I have a question because I have campaigned for many years on the question of the relationship between fathers and children and the rights and the lack of rights pertaining to those relationships and I’ve been asking why is this, this situation not being fixed when all these other issues are being dealt with and so I said my problems relate to this problem, this issue. I also said that I got no support from Catholic organisation, from Catholic bishops or priests or popes or anybody like that…” Continue reading