No equal airtime for referendum 'required'

Wed, Nov 12, 2008, 00:00

THERE IS no requirement for broadcasters to ensure equal airtime for both sides of a referendum debate, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland has said.

Speaking at the Joint Committee on the Constitution, Michael O'Keeffe, chief executive of the commission, said there was no requirement in its guidelines to ensure equal time for both sides in a referendum, but that there was a requirement for fair and balanced coverage.

The committee is reviewing the referendum process in light of the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty referendum earlier this year.

Mr O'Keeffe said broadcasters were not under any statutory obligations to cover referendums, though in practice they did. He said guidelines did not require them to provide equal time, but to give fair, impartial, balanced and objective coverage.

It heard from a variety of broadcast media who outlined the particular difficulties of presenting balanced debate prior to the vote on the Lisbon Treaty because opposition to the treaty was largely unelected.

They raised concerns about the impact of the Coughlan judgment, in which the Supreme Court ruled that party political broadcasts on both sides of a referendum debate should be given equal airtime. This has been interpreted to mean equal time should be given to both sides in all referendum debates.

Willie O'Reilly, chairman of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, said the Coughlan case meant broadcasters were strait-jacketed into dividing time equally, regardless of the merits of any argument.

He said broadcasters had to use a stopwatch method to ensure both sides got equal time, even though real balance might mean scrutinising some claims requires more time than others.

"The perversity of this is that weak arguments gain traction with repetition, and charismatic leaders of doubtful representation are feted by the media," he said.

"It is a cranks' charter."

TV3 director of news Andrew Hanlon said statistics showed that a lot of the No voters in the Lisbon Treaty were watching TV3, yet the station had a problem getting politicians, particularly Ministers, to appear on the station to debate the issues.

"We think politicians need to sit up and take more notice of the independent broadcasters in this country," he said.

Head of public affairs at RTÉ Peter Feeney said the station worked hard to achieve balance in its election and referendums coverage. There had been 10 complaints about its coverage of the Lisbon debate, none of which the commission upheld.

Elaine Geraghty, chief executive of Newstalk, said there was an urgent need to redefine what fairness, equity and balance are in a referendum context.

"The balancing mechanisms may inadvertently have resulted in a distortion of the balance they intended to deliver," she said.

Fine Gael TD Jim O'Keeffe said the forthcoming referendum on children's rights had cross-party support, but the policy of giving equal airtime to both sides in a referendum debate could result in a group such as "a paedophile association" being given 50 per cent coverage.

Senator Alex White asked if there was any alternative to the equal airtime model.

Mr O'Reilly suggested if there was due regard to the weight of elected representatives, there might be a more balanced debate.

But Mr Feeney asked how the public might feel if three people were presented to speak on one side of an argument and only one person represented the other side.