Much of the commentary on recent complaint decisions of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has incorrectly stated the decisions require that discussions of news and current affairs topics of current public debate need an automatic balance of views.
Comment has also implied decisions reached have been on the basis of an ideological slant favouring the status quo, and the complaints handling process has been used to “chill” public debate. In the BAI’s view, this is a demonstrably false representation of its regulations and requirements.
Una Mullally's article "Who does the BAI ruling on marriage equality serve?" makes a number of assertions, which, if correct, would be a cause of serious concern to the BAI in the context of the regulation of broadcasters. Ms Mullally stated that, in seeking to promote her new book, "I have been told by national radio stations that in order to discuss this history book, there must be someone present who opposes rights for gay people."
The BAI has, at no time issued any direction requiring that broadcasters must automatically “balance” a discussion with an opposing view. Neither has the authority, at any stage, made a “ruling on marriage equality”. It would be a matter of grave disquiet, therefore, if “national radio stations” or any other broadcasters, incorrectly used the outcomes of recent complaint decisions as a basis for their editorial decision-making.
News and current affairs content broadcast on Irish radio and TV is required to comply with the Broadcasting Act 2009 and with the BAl’s Code of Fairness, Objectivity and Impartiality in News and Current Affairs.
In setting out its guidance on the principle of fairness, the BAI has indicated it will be necessary for a broadcaster to consider the range of ways in which fairness is achieved and to ensure active consideration is given to the achievement of fairness whether through the selection of contributors, the time allocated to a news and current affairs issue, the scope of the debate, the structure of the programme or the role of the presenter.
Furthermore, the approach to covering issues, including those of public controversy or current public debate, should be guided by ensuring equitable, proportionate coverage. While there may be some instances where balance may be required, an automatic requirement for balance is considered unnecessary and inappropriate by the authority. Indeed the authority has consistently expressed the view that the application of such an artificial balance can, in and of itself, amount to a lack of fairness in certain circumstances.
The authority’s code also recognises the vital role played by programme presenters. This role is conditional on a presenter acting fairly, objectively and impartially. The rule also precludes presenters articulating a partisan position on a matter of current affairs. The rationale for this approach is to guard against a presenter using their programme to pursue an agenda, regardless of the subject matter.
The BAI does not make a decision as to whether the arguments set out by the complainant or those included in the defence by the broadcaster are to be endorsed. Rather, it considers whether the content did or did not comply with the relevant requirements.
This year, the overwhelming majority of complaints relating to matters of fairness, objectivity and impartiality have been rejected. This is a clear indication of the degree to which broadcasters, more often than not, get it right when it comes to the practical implementation of broadcasting legislation and codes. In the most recent decisions issued, which included the decision to uphold, in part, a complaint against Newstalk, another complaint against TV3’s
The People Debate
was rejected. Both complaints related to matters of same-sex marriage. An examination of the decisions, available on the BAI
, demonstrates the authority deals with each complaint on its own merits. The decisions also articulate the authority’s view that the programme contributors have a legitimate right and expectation to fully engage on an issue of current public debate and that the responsibility for ensuring compliance rests with broadcasters.
The authority’s regulations acknowledge the dynamic nature of broadcasting and the need for broadcasters to take a responsive and proactive approach in relation to programme content. Critically, the codes produced by the authority recognise broadcasters are editorially independent and are appropriately responsible for decisions made about what content gets aired and the approach taken to its treatment. The requirement for fairness, objectivity and impartiality in news and current affairs has been in place for many decades. The challenge for Irish broadcasters is to continue to show they can cover news and current affairs in line with existing regulations without compromising their duty to inform the public in a fair, objective and impartial manner. Michael O’Keeffe is the chief executive of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland