The broadcasters say that having to ensure equal coverage for both sides in the run-up to the Lisbon treaty vote meant a small number of minority groups and largely unelected individuals on the No side enjoyed the same air time as the numerous popular groups and elected individuals on the Yes side.
Willie O’Reilly, chairman of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland and head of Today FM, told the Oireachtas committee on the constitution that the system created a “cranks charter”.
“It inadvertently manipulates broadcast media into becoming a megaphone for any argument regardless of its merit or of the credibility of its proponents,” he said.
Fine Gael TD Jim O’Keeffe said the arrangement would cause problems in the expected referendum on the rights and protection of children. “Ninety-nine percent will be in favour of the proposed changes but if the Paedophile Association appears, is it going to get 50% of the broadcast time?”
The practice of giving equal airtime is not specified in law but is based on guidelines from the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) which states that equal treatment must be given to both sides. The main legal authority on the subject is the Supreme Court ruling, the so-called Coughlan Decision, which stated that equal airtime must apply in party political broadcasts.
But Andrew Hanlon, TV3’s head of news, said the only practical way of measuring equal treatment was to apportion equal time, giving rise to stopwatch monitoring — in TV3’s case, using an electronic log. Any independent broadcaster that couldn’t show equal treatment left itself open to complaints.
“There is an urgent need to define — or perhaps redefine — what fairness, equity and balance are in a referendum context and in a political context,” agreed Newstalk chief executive Elaine Geraghty.
RTÉ did not take a stand on the issue but Peter Feeney, of the station’s referendum steering group, presented data which showed that the unelected No group, Libertas, got more airtime than the main opposition party, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin on the No side got more time than their opponents, Labour, the Greens, PDs and present and former elected representatives such as Marian Harkin, Alan Dukes and Peter Sutherland combined.
The independent broadcasters also criticised the BCI’s requirement for a moratorium on debate the day before a referendum.
“It’s completely outdated and outmoded. It’s a ridiculous blunt instrument to have in place,” said Mr Hanlon.