New rules ‘to cut ar­ti­fi­cial bal­ance’ on TV and ra­dio in ref­er­en­dums

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - NEWS - By Ken Foxe news@mailon­sun­

NEW guide­lines on what broad­cast­ers can and can’t do in a ref­er­en­dum cam­paign were brought in for the abor­tion vote, and they will gov­ern up­com­ing polls that are planned. In the week that on­line in­flu­ence on the cam­paign came to the fore, Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion doc­u­ments re­veal that the older me­dia are also up­dat­ing their rules.

In­ter­nal records from the Broad­cast­ing Author­ity of Ire­land state that, with four sep­a­rate ref­er­en­dums to come over the next two years, a clearer set of rules was needed to deal with some peo­ple’s ‘weak or in­cor­rect’ un­der­stand­ing of what is per­mis­si­ble.

They ad­dress con­fu­sion over ‘ar­ti­fi­cial bal­ance’ govern­ing how much air­time each side should get and how broad­cast­ers could be en­cour­aged to fo­cus on ‘is­sues’ rather than purely ad­ver­sar­ial de­bates.

The guide­lines also clar­ify that broad­cast­ers do not need to axe prom­i­nent cam­paign fig­ures if ap­pear­ing on pro­grammes un­re­lated to a ref­er­en­dum. Late last year, for in­stance, Chil­dren’s Min­is­ter Kather­ine Zap­pone was dropped from TV3 cook­ing show The Restau­rant be­cause the sta­tion feared com­plaints if it broad­cast the episode dur­ing a ref­er­en­dum cam­paign.

Dur­ing pre­vi­ous votes, guide­lines were dis­played on the BAI’s web­site and were then re­moved fol­low­ing the vote. How­ever, the new guide­lines will stand for all four votes due be­tween now and June of 2019, start­ing with the Re­peal of the Eighth Amend­ment ref­er­en­dum later this month.

This will be fol­lowed by ref­er­en­dums on blas­phemy as well as women’s life within the home, di­rectly elected may­ors and di­vorce, and pres­i­den­tial elec­tions and vot­ing age.

The guide­lines are de­signed with ‘fair­ness, ob­jec­tiv­ity, and im­par­tial­ity’ in mind, ac­cord­ing to min­utes of a BAI board meet­ing, obtained un­der FoI. ‘This is broader than a con­sid­er­a­tion of air­time for cam­paign groups,’ the min­utes state.

‘Au­di­ences may be bet­ter served by an ap­proach to cov­er­age that is not purely ad­ver­sar­ial and which places an em­pha­sis on the is­sues of the ref­er­en­dum.’

A spe­cific clar­i­fi­ca­tion was in­tro­duced for the Zap­pone case af­ter the Gov­ern­ment had looked for ‘clar­ity’: ‘The ap­pear­ance of an in­di­vid­ual as­so­ci­ated with a ref­er­en­dum cam­paign in a pro­gramme does not mean [it] au­to­mat­i­cally falls to be reg­u­lated un­der the guide­lines.’

The rules ap­ply only to broad­cast­ers and not to print, on­line con­tent or so­cial me­dia con­tent, ar­eas over which the BAI has no ‘statu­tory re­mit’.

The author­ity hopes the rules will clear up con­fu­sion over how broad­cast­ers can give ‘bal­ance’ in a de­bate, with some pre­vi­ously be­liev­ing that, for ev­ery minute one side got, the other side also had to get a minute. There was sim­i­lar con­fu­sion among pro­gramme mak­ers that both sides of an ar­gu­ment had to be equally rep­re­sented, even when awk­ward and out of place.

The brief­ing doc­u­ment said pre­sen­ters should not be bi­ased to­wards one side dur­ing a ref­er­en­dum and ad­vised care in choos­ing guest pre­sen­ters closely as­so­ci­ated with a vote.

It also ad­vised that jour­nal­ists un­der­stand and make ‘their own in­de­pen­dent anal­y­sis’ of opin­ion polls dur­ing a vote.

The in­for­ma­tion note also di­rected that mora­to­ri­ums on cov­er­age should be kept, al­though their im­pact has been di­luted by so­cial me­dia.

‘Weak or in­cor­rect’ un­der­stand­ing Min­is­ter dropped from TV3’s The Restau­rant

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