Government urged to scrap referendum broadcasting rules


The Government was today urged to scrap the rule demanding equal broadcasting coverage be given to the Yes and No camps in referendum campaigns.

The joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution claimed broadcasters felt they were being straitjacketed into giving the same air time to both sides, even if the opposition was tiny.

Eugene Regan, Fine Gael Senator, said last year’s Lisbon Treaty campaign showed the 50/50 requirement had destroyed informed debate.

All members of the committee supported the failed document, which is expected to be put to the people again in the autumn.

Mr Regan said: “It is the view of the committee, and it would be my view, that the 50/50 rule as it is presently applied, and was applied in the Lisbon Treaty referendum, actually distorts the debate.

“I think the view is it would be very difficult to get any referendum through on any subject under the rules where you have to find in all occasions a 50/50 split between the yes and no arguments.

“It invites the most absurd arguments and those to come forward to present an argument, if only to get on the telly.” The Coughlan Supreme Court judgement 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.

TDs and Senators at the Oireachtas Committee, which was set up to review the referendum process, heard submissions from a range of parties, including the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, broadcasters, legal experts and academics.

Anti-Lisbon campaigners also provided their written views, including Sinn Fein, Libertas and the People’s Movement. Chairman Sean Ardagh of Fianna Fáil said broadcasters should be allowed to determine for themselves what constitutes a fair debate.

“Fairness in a democracy naturally requires that both sides in a referendum campaign get an adequate opportunity to ensure that their side of the argument is properly put before the electorate.

“However, this does not mean that there has to be an absolute equality between both sides or an argument in respect of every broadcast throughout referenda.”

The report recommends:

- Broadcasters are obliged to treat all sides of the argument fairly and ensure diverse views obtain a fair hearing

- Broadcasters would be entitled to have regard to a range of factors to inform their own judgement about what constitutes fairness, including considering the standing of political parties, and the expertise and views of representatives of interest groups and individual contributors.

- The committee said it had received advice that the recommendations would likely be constitutionally sound despite the Coughlan judgement.

Mr Ardagh added the move was not an attempt to stifle debate or the arguments of the No side, and that the committee was not focusing on any one particular referendum.

“We were looking at the whole referendum process, and the question of the Coughlan judgement in relation to all referenda.

“There are referenda that had practically universal support, and then there were referenda that didn’t.”