Fairness on the airwaves vital to electorate
OPINIONS:Politicians and others have suggested in recent weeks that if we are serious about democracy we should revisit the constitutional requirement for fairness in referendum campaigns. They are mistaken.
Parties that lose general elections frequently blame their defeat on a failure to communicate their policies rather than on those policies themselves.
Similarly, some politicians who promote constitutional change speak with apparent contempt about rules requiring fairness in broadcasting and the balanced expenditure of public money on information campaigns. They claim these provide opponents with a platform for lies. Of course they always tell the truth.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter told RTÉ, in the wake of the debate on the children’s amendment, that “there is a very interesting public issue to be debated as to the extent to which public money should be spent on arguments during the course of a referendum that have no validity or that are not based on fact”.
So when was the last political contest in which each side believed that the other was entirely telling the truth?
The referendum on Oireachtas inquiries was not lost last year because a few crackpots got air time, unless one regards the eight former attorneys general who opposed it as crackpots. It was lost because it was badly designed and public confidence in the Oireachtas has been undermined by its failure to reform itself adequately .
The same electorate that political parties trust to vote them into power is capable of making up its mind about referendums. Voters have shown a sophisticated capacity to distinguish between referendums held on the same day, and between their support for certain parties and proposals that those parties support.
There is a caricature of the constitutional requirement for fairness that may be summed up as the “equal time for Judas Iscariot” argument.
There are occasions when most politicians support a proposed amendment to the Constitution and only a smattering of small groups oppose it. So what? Is the long Irish tradition of a sharp and censorious intake of breath when those beyond the circles of power speak out of turn to mean that citizens should not be trusted to hear a robust debate about the issues?
The Constitution was adopted by the people and is not for politicians to dispose of in a partisan fashion. There is a symbolic significance in having a fair debate that respects the intelligence and discretion of voters. That’s democracy.
Broadcasters may find it hard to construct debates about referendums when most political parties are on one side, but if they look hard enough they will find plenty of interesting and fair people to fill panels. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland indicates that exact stopwatch equality on air is not required, so long as fairness is achieved.
Motivation is crucial . Is the broadcaster trying to be fair, or taking sides? Is the Government simply providing information or evidently circumventing the standards of the Referendum Commission?
Various Ministers have been hinting about changing the rules on referendum information. But such efforts are likely to result in further humiliating court defeats, such as those in the McKenna and Coughlan cases, unless the Government first steers through a successful constitutional amendment to abolish the requirement for fairness. Good luck with that.
What should be done is to restore the power of the Referendum Commission to give it more freedom to provide a broad range of opinion. It must also be allowed time to do its job and not be rushed at the last minute by politicians.
Dr COLUM KENNYis professor of communications at Dublin City University, and a member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland