Abortion: Broadcasters have ‘no obligation’ to give equal air time

Regulator advises against ‘mechanistic’ coverage of referendums ahead of abortion vote

Anti-abortion protesters march through Dublin at a demonstration last Saturday. Photograph: Caroline Quinn/PA Wire

Anti-abortion protesters march through Dublin at a demonstration last Saturday. Photograph: Caroline Quinn/PA Wire


Broadcasters do not have to adhere to a strict 50:50 split in airtime between both sides in a referendum debate, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has said.

The BAI, which regulates the coverage of referendum and election campaigns across broadcast media, says radio and television stations often wrongly feel they have to evenly divide time between both sides of a debate.

While such a division may be more applicable to general elections, it should not always be the case during referendums, it said.

Ahead of the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, the BAI published guidelines for the coverage of referendums.

The guidelines will apply for a series of referendums anticipated in the years ahead and not just for the forthcoming one on abortion.

BAI chief executive Michael O’Keeffe said the guidelines should usually apply between six and eight weeks before polling day. For the abortion referendum, he said they should apply from the start of April, although this is dependent on the referendum bill passing through the Oireachtas on time.

The Government intends holding the referendum on May 25th.

Mr O’Keeffe said there has been a “misconception” that equal time must allocated to both sides.

“Some broadcasters have used it, how would I say this, ‘to be sure to be sure’,” he said.

“They would implement a 50:50 for their own security. There isn’t that requirement. If you apply that rigorously, it doesn’t do justice to the programming. It’s too narrow.”

Balanced debate

While the BAI is responsible for ensuring balanced debate on radio and television, Mr O’Keeffe said this can be achieved through numerous means.

“It doesn’t mean, which does on happen on occasion, that somebody is brought into the studio, the instinct is to say: ‘I must bring somebody with the other viewpoint in the studio as well’. That’s not the case. You could bring them in the following day. The presenter could challenge in a very strong fashion an argument that is being put forward. That gives you the fairness.”

The BAI is giving broadcasters “latitude” he said, adding a complaint about organisations not allocating equal airtime has never been upheld.

The guidelines do not apply, however, to the social media feeds operated by broadcasters such as RTÉ and TV3, unless specific posts link to radio or television shows.

Declan McLoughin, the BAI’s compliance and policy manager, said there was “no statutory or legal requirement in our codes for equal airtime”.

However, he acknowledged that equal airtime may be a way of dealing with a complex or contested issue, and Mr O’Keeffe said abortion is a more contentious issue than most.

Mr McLoughlin added: “At the same time, if there is very little opposition to a particular referenda proposal, there is no obligation to fill up airtime to meet a 50:50 obligation. It can be perfectly appropriate for the majority of airtime to be in favour of one particular proposal if the proposal is not controversial. Ultimately the editorial responsibility lies with broadcasters.”

He said broadcasters should not get caught in a “mechanistic, mathematical” approach to dividing time to achieve balance.

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