Noel Whelan: Time to ditch ‘Punch and Judy’ approach to referendums

Media has important role to play in providing access to evidence in abortion debate

Members of the Pro-Life Campaign during a silent gathering outside Leinster House where the Oireachtas committee on abortion was sitting. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Members of the Pro-Life Campaign during a silent gathering outside Leinster House where the Oireachtas committee on abortion was sitting. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Now the abortion issue moves to the crucial pre-referendum stage. If the Government is to meet its commitment to hold a referendum next summer, then the precise terms of the proposition which the people will vote on and the detail of the legislation to be enacted post referendum will have to be framed, drafted and agreed by Cabinet and then debated and passed in both House of the Oireachtas before early spring.

We have been told that officials in the Department of Health and lawyers in the Attorney General’s office have been working for months on preparatory work for a referendum. We will soon see how advanced that work is.

While all this intricate Cabinet and parliamentary work is going on the broader political and media environment in which the abortion referendum is to be debated will also take shape.

I have previously used the analogy of the seating area in a large conference hall to convey how the public engagement with the debate develops during a referendum.

For a long time before polling day, only the first couple of rows are full and then only with political hacks, activists and journalists. It isn’t until the campaign proper begins that other rows are filled as people begin to engage though even then the seating is half empty. It is only in the last week or 10 days that the room fills as people begin to tune into the debate and make up their minds.

The debate about repeal of the Eighth Amendment to date has been taking place in a space which is occupied only by protagonists on both sides. Even assuming the Government’s preferred timetable of a referendum in late May proves possible then most of the electorate will only truly engage with the issue in late April or early May at the earliest.

A large volume of substantial and considered evidence on the issues surrounding abortion was presented and debated first at the Citizens’ Assembly and then at the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

There is no doubt that the extent and nature of that expert evidence, particularly the medical evidence, shaped the surprisingly liberal recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and contributed to the dramatic shift in opinion among some of the politicians on the Oireachtas committee.

It needs to be recognised however that while there may have been a steady stream of twitter comment and diligent reporting by some journalists on both the assembly and the Oireachtas committee, there was very little public engagement with the deliberations at either.

Deliberate strategy

In fact the occasions, before this week, when the Oireachtas committee got most headlines was on those occasions when Deputy Mattie McGrath and Senator Rónán Mullen, in a deliberate strategy to run interference, alleged bias in evidence called by the committee.

This was just one instance of where the coverage on the abortion issue has been focused on process rather than substance. Time and space given over to rows about whether the line-up of witnesses before the committee was too one-sided, or to rows about foreign funding of the campaigns is time and space which would, or at least should, otherwise be available for examination of the substance of the issue.

The task now for all who believe in quality referendum debate is to give the electorate the space and the means to access and assess expert evidence of the type which both the Citizens’ Assembly and the Oireachtas committee had the benefit of. The deliberations of both are available on YouTube or on the Oireachtas player and should be drawn on as a useful resource by campaigners and voters between now and polling day.

The establishment of a referendum commission will also be important but this cannot be established until the referendum Bill is passed. It will then have to formulate arguments on both sides which can be deployed in effective and balanced information activity. The efforts of the referendum commission are unlikely to even begin to get any real traction until Easter at the earliest.

Information levels In the meantime, the media has an important

role to play in raising information levels and contextualising the issues between now and the referendum campaign proper. TV news and current affairs and talk radio are the avenues through which most voters say they access information they trust.

In recent referendums the broadcasters have tended to opt out of their responsibilities in this regard.

They have been spooked by the fairness obligations imposed on them by the Anthony Coughlan case (in which the Supreme Court found that RTÉ acted unlawfully by not giving both sides equal time in the divorce referendum) and have too often opted for a lazy approach of merely running a stop watch on “one side says this and the other side says that” type of “reporting”. What is needed from broadcasters both before and during this referendum campaign is less Punch and Judy format debates and more interviews or exposition pieces with each side.

What is also needed is independent expert assessment of the factual conflicts which arise.

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