All points of view must be treated as equal before people decide in a referendum

Opinion: It is not for anyone to decide in advance that such and such a position is a minority one

Fri, Jan 10, 2014, 12:01

Everyone, it seems, wants the game rigged their way. Before Christmas, I attended a broadcasting-related conference at which, after a couple of presentations, contributions were invited from the floor. Immediately, a marriage-equality campaigner demanded that “extremists” be debarred from panels debating gay marriage – it being (apparently) obvious that public opinion overwhelmingly favours changing the law. A climate change campaigner called for sceptics to be excluded from debates on his topic. A spokesman for Fine Gael chipped in to say that the Coughlan judgment was hampering the work of the Government and should be reversed.

I modestly proposed that, since the Irish Constitution at any particular moment represents the will of the people, there might be some responsibility of journalists to go beyond providing uncontested platforms for those agitating for constitutional change. Although several of those present subsequently sought to interpret me as suggesting that individual journalists have a responsibility actively to defend the Constitution – a position with which they disagreed – I hadn’t made any such demand, at least not in respect of individual journalists. What I’d proposed was that journalism, somewhere about its precincts, carries a responsibility to enable the constitutional status quo to be defended. A subtle distinction? Not really: this idea is implicit in, for example, the statutory requirement for fairness, balance and objectivity in broadcast media.

In an article in this newspaper last Saturday, co-authors David Farrell, Theresa Reidy and Jane Suiter suggested that the Government could simply legislate its way around the Coughlan judgment, which requires that the sides in a referendum debate be accorded equal broadcasting opportunities.

This, they contended, “has been interpreted as meaning equal coverage must be provided on the airwaves to both sides of the argument. The obvious problem with this principle is that on those occasions in which the vast bulk of opinion – at least on the part of the campaigning groups – favours one side, the broadcasters are seriously constrained in their ability to broadcast on the issue. This was evident in the referendums on children’s rights and the Court of Appeal. There are grounds for arguing – as [Minister for Justice Alan] Shatter did in the Dáil on December 17th – that the broadcasters are interpreting Coughlan too rigidly, and that what is required is that both sides of the debate are presented in a proportionate rather than an equal fashion. But if the Government really believes the broadcasters are being too cautious in their interpretation of Coughlan, it should legislate to fix this.”

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