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