Broadcasting watchdog: Fairness instead of 50/50 airtime during abortion referendum

The broadcasting watchdog has said presenters can provide fair and objective views during the Eighth Amendment referendum campaign as opposed to having to ensure there is even time for each side in the debate.

However, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has confirmed that rules will not be applied to social media coverage during the campaign, including on sites such as Facebook.

Launching guidelines for upcoming referenda, the BAI restated that any television or radio presenter with specific views during a campaign should be kept off-air. This is in line with previous guidelines.

Updated rules for broadcasters will come into play between six and eight weeks prior to a referendum.

BAI chief executive Michael O’Keeffe said the role of presenters is to inform the public.

The guidelines published today include a strong emphasis on how fairness, objectivity, and impartiality can be achieved, and how this is broader than a consideration of airtime for campaign groups


“The BAI is keen to emphasise that this does not include a requirement for artificial balance,” he said.

In the past when covering referenda campaigns, some shows have ensured there was 50/50 airtime given to each side or guest. 

This often reduced debates to clock-watching exercises, it has been claimed. The guidelines say this is not necessary.

However, BAI also advised that presenters should not be on air if they have a certain view during a campaign. Equally, presenters cannot endorse any one position.

Political advertisements during referenda campaigns will also be banned and a traditional moratorium will apply from 2pm the day before polling closes.

BAI Chief Executive Michael O'Keeffe
BAI Chief Executive Michael O'Keeffe

The BAI said there had been few breaches of guidelines upheld during previous campaigns and that the last was during the Lisbon Treaty vote in 2009.

However, it also confirmed there would be no supervision of online debate or of social media networks. 

While EU legislation is being debated on the matter, Mr O’Keeffe said he did not think there would be any requirements on Facebook or similar networks anytime soon. 

Such a scenario means it is possible for campaigners to broadcast online without any objectivity and even ignore the moratorium.

Separately, the BAI also confirmed that guests should not be banned from shows just because they are involved in a campaign. 

This follows a decision previously by a TV3 cooking show to pull Minister for Children Katherine Zappone because of her position on abortion.

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