Broadcasting regulator to revamp audience complaints system

New website will be more ‘user-friendly’, says BAI chief executive Michael O’Keeffe

Broadcasting Authority of Ireland chief executive Michael O’Keeffe: ‘You can be edgy without crossing the line of what’s permissible and what’s not.’

Broadcasting Authority of Ireland chief executive Michael O’Keeffe: ‘You can be edgy without crossing the line of what’s permissible and what’s not.’


The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) will update its complaints system in the first half of this year, making it “more user-friendly”, says the regulator’s chief executive Michael O’Keeffe.

On the basis of survey and focus group research by Ipsos MRBI, the BAI has decided that the process by which members of the public can make complaints about broadcasters to the regulator is too complex.

O’Keeffe says one of the findings was that complainants often bypassed the website complaints form and contacted BAI staff directly for assistance. “People in here would talk them through the process, and the complainants were very positive about that. But they said that if the website was better, that would also help.”

A new BAI website will be developed in the first half of this year.

The regulator rejects more complaints than it upholds. Of the 144 complaints made in 2014, just three were upheld, with a further eight upheld in part.

Some 44 complaints were resolved during the process, 36 are ongoing, four were deemed invalid and two were withdrawn. A total of 47 complaints were rejected.

The upholding of complaints by the BAI’s compliance committee is “serious”, according to O’Keeffe, with the television or radio station obliged to broadcast the ruling.

Nevertheless, some broadcasters appear to flirt with the BAI’s rules. Newstalk, for example, has attributed recent ratings growth for its Newstalk Breakfast show to a sense that listeners like its “provocative”, opinionated tone.

It is “absolutely legitimate” for Newstalk to use this as their “point of difference”, says O’Keeffe. “But you can be edgy without crossing the line of what’s permissible and what’s not, that would be my response. We don’t say they shouldn’t be edgy. We welcome the edginess. They can be edgy, but within the requirements of the codes.”

In 2014, some 87 of the complaints received by the BAI were related to perceived breaches of its code of fairness, objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs.

The upholding of two complaints under this code, relating to coverage of same-sex marriage on both RTÉ Radio 1 and Newstalk, attracted criticism and prompted the National Union of Journalists to warn of a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech.

O’Keeffe is keen to stress that a guidance memo sent to broadcasters was issued because the BAI had already received a number of complaints on the topic, and not because it was singling out the matter from the full range of future referendum topics.

Nevertheless, it was suggested that some production teams came to understand that, to be on the safe side, same-sex marriage could not be discussed on air “without a bigot”, as satire site Waterford Whispers News put it in a headline.

“And that’s completely wrong. That’s the key message we were trying to get across – that just isn’t the case,” says O’Keeffe. “We’ve been at pains to say that there isn’t an automatic need for an opposing- view person. If production teams are interpreting it that way, they are wrong.”

In the complaint against comments made by Newstalk presenter Chris Donoghue, there was “a clear line” in the ruling that there was no requirement for the views of the programme guests to be balanced with an opposing view, O’Keeffe argues.

However, the presenter himself had “additional responsibilities” as the topic is “a matter of current political debate”, O’Keeffe says.

The BAI’s research suggests the code is popularly supported by the public. But doesn’t it put any presenter who isn’t a heterosexual white male at a disadvantage, as their human rights are deemed by a conservative establishment to be “matters of public debate”?

O’Keeffe concedes that journalists may find the code “frustrating”, but he disagrees that it is a significant restriction on freedom of expression and says any broadcaster “can write an opinion piece tomorrow” if they want to make their views known.

“You often see that with broadcasters: they will write an opinion piece in a newspaper, and write it very forcefully, and yet are aware that when they are broadcasting, there is an obligation there. . . It requires at least that the presenter, if there is only one side represented in the studio, there is a responsibility to draw out the other side.”

So if the referendum on same-sex marriage is passed, will it still be regarded as a matter of public debate?

“On the assumption that it’s passed, then it’s a legal right. For me that should probably be the end of the matter, as a matter of public debate.”