Breda O’Brien: Smaller parties up against it in the byelection

Coverage of important democratic moments must reflect diversity

Byelections are platforms that increase a candidate’s  visibility, particularly when it comes to new parties. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Byelections are platforms that increase a candidate’s visibility, particularly when it comes to new parties. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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It was almost a throwaway, the fourth of four linked tweets, but it crystallised something for me about the potential for opinion polls to have a mildly distorting effect on public opinion.

Dr Kevin Cunningham of TUD and Ireland Thinks tweeted that when Aontú is mentioned specifically in opinion polls instead of being included unnamed in the category of “other”, they regularly get 3-4 per cent of potential votes. For example, Aontú polled at 3 per cent in the recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll on the Dublin Bay South byelection, whereas in polls where it is unnamed, it has polled as low as 1 per cent .

Mentioning every single candidate is not feasible in an opinion poll so some smaller parties and individuals are going to get lumped into the “other” category. This means that naming them becomes a two-step process, which involves first selecting “other” and then naming the party.

RTÉ cannot clothe itself in the mantle of reflecting diversity unless it includes all shades of opinion, including parties who challenge establishment thinking

Ireland Thinks names Aontú in its polling because the party won 1.9 per cent of the national first preference vote at the last general election and it is a reasonable assumption that its support might have grown since then. Recent polls confirmed this hypothesis. Presumably, Ipsos MRBI uses the same reasoning.

It is hard to find research on the self-reinforcing nature of opinion polls but it is reasonable to presume that they have some impact on eventual voter behaviour if even a slight barrier such as having to go through two steps rather than one has an effect on a party’s reported level of support.

The mildly distorting effect is multiplied, however, in other significant ways, especially when it comes to media coverage.

For example, RTÉ has sought to exclude Aontú’s candidate, Mairéad Tóibín, from RTÉ’s The Week In Politics debate. RTÉ sought to draw the line at seven of the eight Dáil parties. RTÉ is not seeking to exclude any other party with Dáil representation. (There will also be a video package mentioning the other candidates who are not included in the debate.) 

It could be argued that the exclusion does not matter because Aontú has little hope of gaining a seat. Byelections, however, are about far more than who gets elected. They are platforms that increase a candidate’s or party’s visibility, particularly when it comes to newer parties. They offer valuable experience in dealing with media and honing the way policies are presented. They can help to build or stall momentum in the growth of a party. The smaller the party is, the more media coverage can make a difference.

Oddly, Virgin Media Television had no problem hosting Tóibín in a debate against the Social Democrat’s Sarah Durkan. There were no culture war “gotcha” questions, just a serious questioning of both candidates on issues like vaccination and housing. Strange how RTÉ, which has a public service mandate “to create content that reflects the diversity of an ever-evolving nation” cannot provide a similar opportunity for coverage.

RTÉ does not seem to learn from mistakes. Aontú was initially excluded from the Prime Time leaders’ debate before the last general election. The party had to fight for coverage on RTÉ by threatening to obtain a High Court injunction. Peadar Tóibín eventually received a slot in the debate for leaders of smaller parties after Sinn Féin was included in the larger parties’ debate.

Trust will be easily lost if the media do not honour real diversity in its coverage of important democratic moments

When explaining why it had changed its mind about coverage in 2020, RTÉ invoked guidance on Rule 27 of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) which states: “Elections are dynamic events and broadcasters should give active consideration to their approach to coverage over the duration of a campaign and amend this approach if they consider it necessary and appropriate so as to ensure fairness, objectivity and impartiality. Broadcasters are encouraged to seek out the widest range of opinions on the issues raised during any given election.”

The same is surely true during a byelection? 

RTÉ cannot clothe itself in the mantle of reflecting diversity unless it includes all shades of opinion, including parties who challenge establishment thinking. The Week in Politics has quite low viewing figures but it has an important audience of politically active viewers. The programme also often generates news items on RTÉ news programmes that have significantly higher viewership.

Smaller, newer parties are up against it on every level and not just media coverage. Take posters. The bigger parties can afford to flood a constituency with posters, in part because they receive significant amounts of public funding.

Posters are still an important mechanism for alerting voters firstly, to the fact of an election and secondly, to the diversity of candidates. It would, however, be better if there were more fairness in the number and placement of posters. For example, in France, temporary metal billboards are installed close to polling stations. Candidates are allocated equal amounts of space and the order of the posters on the billboards is selected by a draw. It is scrupulously fair. 

Faith in mainstream media grew during the pandemic as people sought trustworthy sources of information. That trust will be easily lost if the media do not honour real diversity in its coverage of important democratic moments like byelections. 

Dublin Bay South byelection

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