“Controversial” is a word too often used to hide the leer of evil things or bad people attempting to pass themselves off as one side of a reasonable debate. Milo Yiannopoulos was “controversial” until he gave the thumbs-up to paedophiles. It is the epithet chosen to introduce Breitbart into polite society and let’s not forget the ever so “controversial” child tax credit “rape clause”.
Real controversy is important and can spark the kind of debate that makes positive change and progress happen. But these people, ideas and statements are not important facets of a three-dimensional debate. They are not controversial – they are malignant and dangerous.
The latest example of the words misuse is by the hitherto spectacularly uncontroversial Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). This Thursday the PRCA will hand out prestigious Public Affairs Awards to campaigns nominated for their skill and impact in the world of public lobbying. The only nominee (and thus guaranteed winner) in the award to honour the “best campaign in Northern Ireland” is Both Lives Matter, a campaign in favour of the continued denial of women's reproductive healthcare.
On December 8, the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign and Alliance for Choice wrote to the PRCA asking them to withdraw the campaign from the shortlist, citing its support for Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws, the dissemination of misleading information and its rejection of evidence-based research on reproductive health.
The letter highlights the cynical and flawed nature of the campaign – its title a nasty twist on Black Lives Matter – and notes that this supposedly award-worthy anti-abortion lobbying group recently refused to engage with the Republic of Ireland’s Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, which has been tasked with examining Ireland’s abortion ban.
The PRCA, presumably under the banner of their remit to “ensure that every side of every argument is examined and tested”, used the c-word to defend and excuse themselves. In a public statement responding to the pro-choice campaigners’ letter, their director general Francis Ingham confirmed that the awards would remain unchanged as “controversial campaigns have the right to be judged on the same impartial basis as any others”.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), whose own campaign to end the overpricing of emergency contraception in the UK has seen the medicine’s price fall across the country, has asked to be withdrawn from the awards in which it was shortlisted in another category. BPAS’s director of external affairs, Clare Murphy, explains that they “cannot be party to an event which sees plaudits bestowed on an organisation which seeks to deny women’s access to basic healthcare services, when we know at this very moment a woman is packing her bag to travel to one of our centres for care, while another desperately searches the internet for the help she cannot access at home.”
Lobbyists that fail to engage with political processes, and organisations that seek to protect a status quo which, according to the United Nations, is in breach of women’s basic human rights and endangers their health, are not controversial. They are unethical
Murphy’s response highlights why the word “controversial” is misused here and why the PRCA could drop its support for the Both Lives Matter campaign without any risk to its mission to champion work that looks at important issues from all sides. Campaigns that don’t tell the truth, lobbyists that fail to engage with political processes, and organisations that seek to protect a status quo which, according to the United Nations, is in breach of women’s basic human rights and endangers their health, are not controversial. They are bad. They are unethical. They compromise the health and wellbeing of vulnerable individuals. And it turns out they want a bloody medal for doing it.
Along with the other interveners in a Supreme Court case (seeking to establish if Northern Irish abortion restrictions are incompatible with human rights law) BPAS, the Family Planning Association and Birthrights have added to the public criticism of the PRCA in a letter highlighting some of the consequences of refusing women from Northern Ireland access to abortion: the cost and strain of the journey to Britain. The risk of prosecution and punishment (including life in prison) under laws passed in 1861. The three women who have been through the courts this year. The mother of a teenage daughter whose case is ongoing.
By recognising this campaign with an award, the PRCA is giving a thumbs-up and gold star to the denial of healthcare and human rights and setting up cynical, devious and dangerous as best practice. It is failing to uphold its own desire to promote a lobbying industry that is a “force for good in a liberal democracy”, and is handing out a mask of respectability to something that, underneath, has the repression of anyone with a uterus as its mission.
Unless the PRCA is comfortable actively supporting the restriction of women’s freedoms and safety, applying the word “controversial” to validate their decision simply shows cowardice or ignorance. It’s time they took their fingers out of their ears