The battle for balance on Ireland’s airwaves

Declan Johnston explores whether regulatory requirements for Ireland’s broadcasters worked well in its referendum on same-sex marriage.

Since Ireland adopted its 1937 constitution, it has frequently become the focus of international media attention for its referendum campaigns. The document is composed such that alterations can only be made by consulting the public. Thus the people of Ireland have been asked to determine issues such as the legalisation of divorce, the abolition of capital punishment and – as the first nation in the world to do so by referendum – same-sex marriage. RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster are constantly challenged to provide equal and balanced domestic coverage of these debates, but this has proved to be a persistent source of controversy.

Perhaps the most contentious of these votes was the 1995 divorce referendum, where the repeal of the prohibition on divorce passed by a margin of less than 1%. The political landscape at that time threw up some uneasy questions for RTÉ. Each of the five major political parties, as well as two pro-divorce and two-anti divorce groups, were allocated uncontested broadcast time. This posed an issue for balance however, as despite social opinion being so divided on the issue, all of the political parties favoured a yes vote. Thus the yes side ended up with a cumulative 40 minutes of uncontested airtime while the no side had just 10 minutes. In 2000, Chief Justice Ronan Keane of the Supreme Court declared that it was “beyond argument” that this had given a tangible advantage to the yes side.

The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, later the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), was then tasked with coming up with guidelines to ensure that all broadcast coverage in referendums was balanced. While this resulted in some so-called “stop-watch monitoring” – most famously during the presidential debate of 2011 when RTÉ’s flagship current affairs programme tweeted pictures of seven individual timers for each candidate – guidelines published in 2013 stated that equality of airtime was not necessary. The guidelines instead stated that “broadcasters should note that allocation of airtime is not the only measure of fairness.  It will be  necessary for a broadcaster to consider the range of ways in which fairness is achieved and to  ensure  that  active  consideration  is  given  to  ensuring  its  achievement  whether  through  the  selection of contributors, the scope of the debate, the structure of the programme, the make-up  of audiences,  the role of the presenter or through other suitable means.”

The 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland, however, stoked up previous controversies and led to a public debate of the broadcasting regulations. Just as with the divorce referendum, all of the major political parties backed a yes vote, creating a challenge for broadcasters seeking to meet the BAI guidelines.

The controversy began before the referendum had even been announced when the BAI upheld complaints against private radio station presenter Chris Donoghue, who said during a feature on a Dublin gay pride parade that he would vote yes if any prospective referendum was ever held. Donoghue however responded that “this decision is daft and depressing in my opinion… This was not in a debate or a comment I made in a vacuum. This was a 20 minute discussion on the eve of Dublin Pride 2014 about a range of issues affecting gay people in Ireland.” Senator Katherine Zappone added “Requiring balance on every issue on the airwaves is simply unworkable – for example must a discussion on racism now require input from racists or must a discussion on murder and violent crimes require someone speaking up for thugs?”

Tim Suter, a former Partner for Content and Standards at Ofcom, the broadcast regulator in the U.K., explains however, “the Irish code permits the broadcast of ‘personal view’ programmes on matters of political controversy, where the programme itself will not necessarily contain a balance of views, but the service itself must ensure balance overall. Presenters are typically excluded from this carve out because they may be seen by the audience as representatives of the broadcaster rather than as private individuals – and therefore it is important that they should be impartial if the audience is to keep trust in the impartiality of the broadcaster.”

This policy however became a near constant source of controversy for RTÉ. On a Saturday night chat show during the campaign, Minister of State for Equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, was in the midst of an interview about his life before entering politics when he was interrupted by the presenter and asked to remove a yes pin from his jacket. Ó Ríordáin complied with the request but not before turning to the audience and clarifying what it was he had been wearing. When told that he was making the situation worse, Ó Ríordáin simply replied “well there you go, deliberately so.” The decision was criticised by many, including former RTÉ DJ Scott de Buitléir who stepped down from his position as host of an LGBT affairs show, saying it was “close to impossible” to present the programme in light of the regulations. Comedian Oliver Callan was cautioned by the broadcaster for making his position on the referendum public and moments after the polls were closed, presenter Eoghan McDermott took to twitter to launch a colourful attack on RTÉ for their position, which he subsequently retracted.

While the guidelines provide that not every view in every programme must be challenged, over the course of a referendum campaign, every broadcast corporation, private or otherwise, must provide a nuanced, balanced overall picture of the debate. The question that this provokes though is: are these regulations necessary to protect reasoned democratic debate, or are they illegitimate restrictions on free speech?

Declan Johnston is reading for an MSc in Russian and Eastern European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

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  1. Uneven broadcasting times is also a problem in the ‘free electoral propaganda’ in Brazil. In election years, 1/3 of the TV broadcasting time for that purpose is equally divided by all parties and coalisions. 2/3 of the time is distributed proportionally to the parties and coalitions according to their number of representatives in Congress. Thus, coalitions between parties are also motivated by the time they can have on national TV to campaign. This mechanism perpetuates the same parties in power.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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