Ireland has some of the world’s toughest referendum campaign restrictions

There’s an incentive for campaigners on the side of the status quo to confuse voters

‘Referendums suffer from three serious flaws. They are, by definition, an aid to majority rule and give little succour to minority rights. They are susceptible to sound bite and adversarial politics and hence over-simplification. They risk being about something other than what is on the ballot, such as punishing incumbent political parties.’  Photograph: Getty Images

‘Referendums suffer from three serious flaws. They are, by definition, an aid to majority rule and give little succour to minority rights. They are susceptible to sound bite and adversarial politics and hence over-simplification. They risk being about something other than what is on the ballot, such as punishing incumbent political parties.’ Photograph: Getty Images

a
 

The law of unintended consequences will play an important role in the current referendum debate.

Despite our brightest minds having created a legal framework on how referendum campaigns should be conducted and covered by the media, political actions will always have unanticipated outcomes.

Increasing numbers of referendums globally have been met with legal restrictions couched in terms of the benefits of regulated equality versus maximal democratic freedoms.

In Ireland, thanks largely to Supreme Court decisions and Broadcast Authority of Ireland (BAI) regulations, we tend heavily towards regulated equality. Research on campaign regulations conducted by Theresa Reidy of UCC and myself, found that Ireland has some of the most substantial campaign participation restrictions globally.

Many of us agree with the principles. Who can argue with fairness, objectivity and impartiality? After all, with something as important as our Constitution, we need substantial safeguards.

But referendums suffer from three serious flaws. They are, by definition, an aid to majority rule and give little succour to minority rights. They are susceptible to soundbite and adversarial politics and hence oversimplification. They risk being about something other than what is on the ballot, such as punishing incumbent political parties.

Relevant legal judgments include Coughlan, which ensures both sides in a referendum debate receive 50 per cent of broadcast time overall, and McKenna, which ensures the government cannot spend public money on any one side.

These are restrictions based on sound democratic principles and are worth having even though at the upper end of the scale globally. However, they do not guard against the problems inherent in campaigns.

For that, the BAI produces guidelines relevant for our broadcasters. They emphasise equality and fairness and that debate should not be purely adversarial, although the latter is difficult to achieve in practice.

We need vigorous campaigns, based on facts that offer voters sufficient knowledge and motivation to both vote and decide how to vote. But these are not the kind of campaigns that we often get where false information, claim/counter-claim and hyperbole predominate.

Decisions

We know from academic research that Irish voters in referendums tend to make their decisions on the basis of shortcuts, by paying attention to the media and ultimately on what they think they know. All are, of course, interlinked. The big question is: who are you going to trust? In a world where we are time poor we tend to outsource our decisions to those we trust, perhaps a family member or friend, but often an expert or an institution such as the church or a trade union.

We know that few trust politicians, and only a few more the media, so the potential impact from campaigning groups here can be significant. Already, we can see opposing sides trying to tap into this, on the one hand in the information being disseminated at some church gates and, on the other, the TCD student union campaign to “phone your granny”. These campaigns are unregulated both in terms of how much material they put out and whether they have any basis in fact or, simply appeal to the emotions.

In terms of the broadcast media, the Coughlan judgment is crucial. In some referendums on areas of little dispute, this can mean that broadcasters have to rely on a very small pool of panellists arguing for one side which, in itself, may dampen the amount of time they choose to spend on an issue. However, importantly, the judgment does not specify the content of each side’s arguments.

As my DCU colleague Roderic O’Gorman argues, it does not mean that broadcasters cannot challenge blatant inaccuracies from either side.

Yet, at times, they appear overly reluctant to challenge campaigners on the substance of debate, and hence, misinformation can be propagated which is not in the democratic or public interest, and in effect undermines the normative reason behind the regulations. Given free reign, campaigners may well try to focus debate on irrelevant but emotive issues.

The widely expected Supreme Court decision on the Jordan appeal to the children’s rights referendum should help in this regard as it is expected to enshrine the necessity of putting children’s rights first in the Constitution, eliminating one canard. It and the McCrystal decision also guarantee that all Government monies will be channelled through the Referendum Commission.

Engagement

The other issue with a relative lack of engagement is that it tends to diminish turnout, which is inimical to the democratic norms that increased regulation is assumed to bring.

If people do not engage with the topic they are unlikely to vote. And if they do vote, but are confused, they are more likely to have a bias towards the status quo.

In other words, if the status quo is not too problematic, even if it is less than ideal, why risk a change to an uncertain future? This tendency incentivises campaigners on the side of the status quo to attempt to confuse matters and confound the issue. To muddy the waters, if you will.

Three useful things broadcasters and journalists could do in the coming weeks are: to face down blatant untruths or scaremongering; to highlight any attempts to make this a vote about something else; and to encourage people to get out and vote. All of which is in keeping with both the spirit and the letter of referendum regulation.

Dr Jane Suiter is a political scientist and lecturer in the school of communications at Dublin City University. She has published widely on referendum campaigns and regulations.

a
The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.