Ensuring justice and equality in broadcasting

Media commentator Colum Kenny hits back at junior minister Aodhán Ó Riordáin after his attack on the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland over its rulings on same-sex marriage debate

When a junior minister at the government department responsible for justice and equality attacks a statutory body for upholding the legal right of relevant interests to be heard in a current affairs debate, then there is something wrong.

Also, when that same minister appears to impugn the integrity of members of that government-appointed board, one may ask if the minister is the appropriate person to handle his brief.

Labour’s Aodhán Ó Riordáin says he is worried that his government may lose its same-sex marriage referendum.

As minister of state at the Department of Justice and Equality, he told the Irish Examiner last week that the vote would be lost if it was held next week.

Irish governments have a knack of losing referenda campaigns, and have displayed an inability to be consistently fair to all sides when spending public money on them.

With a general election looming, this government cannot afford politically to be defeated on same-sex marriage or on a couple of minor constitutional matters that it seems intent to put to the people at the same time.

An angry public might use the referenda to punish Fine Gael and Labour.

Perhaps that is part of the reason why Mr Ó Riordáin had a pop at the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Broadcasting Compliance Committee last week, joining some of those campaigning for a yes vote who have attacked two of its decisions on same-sex marriage discussions.

People are entitled to disagree with rulings of the BAI, even government ministers who might be expected to support a statutory body set up to ensure fair debates.

But I am sure that Mr Ó Riodáin would be the first to complain if the BAI tolerated current affairs debates that excluded his party, especially where the presenter expressed a preference for his opponents. In the two cases where the BAI has upheld complaints about same-sex marriage discussions, the broadcasters explicitly favoured one side. Justice and Equality?

The junior minister seems to accuse the BAI of being party to an attempt to stymie debate.

It is unusual for a government minister to make such an accusation, and it is especially odd in these cases where an absence of debate was the cause of complaint.

Has the minister any evidence of ulterior motives?

Let him produce it if he has.

He fears “ground rules that are being laid down by the BAI”.

Actually, the rules have been laid down in successive statutes for over half a century, in Britain as well as in Ireland.

His party has voted for them.

The most recent Irish version of the rules are in the Broadcasting Act 2009.

This states that “the broadcast treatment of current affairs, including matters which are either of public controversy or the subject of current public debate, is fair to all interests concerned and that the broadcast matter is presented in an objective and impartial manner and without any expression of the broadcaster’s own views”.

People such as the minister who object to such a provision being interpreted as requiring exact 50/50 representation in debates (which it does not in fact do) are usually worried about the other side getting equal airtime.

Or maybe he is happy to let presenters decide whether or not the Labour Party is worth having in the studio at all during the general election?

Broadcasters do not have to ensure that their panel is mathematically balanced, though politicians such as Mr Ó Riordáin are the first to seek this at election time.

However, broadcasters do need to be satisfied that their programme is fair to all interests, and most professional broadcasters know that, in practice, fairness frequently requires spokespeople from both or all main sides in a debate.

If anything has deterred broadcasters from debating same-sex marriage (as the minister claims), it has been responses like his to the two BAI rulings.

It can hardly have been the actual advice sent to stations by the BAI last August in the light of what was then an emerging, if small, flow of complaints.

This said that: “While noting that a referendum on the question of whether to change the Irish constitution to provide for same-sex marriage will not be held until 2015, the issue of same-sex marriage is presently a matter of current public debate.

“In this context, and having regard to the increasing number of complaints in respect of this topic, the Compliance Committee has asked that broadcasters be reminded that the obligation set out in the BAI Code of Fairness, Objectivity and Impartiality in News and Current Affairs apply to coverage of this topic in advance of the commencement of any formal referendum campaign.”

In fact, broadcasters have continued to discuss the issue, with most of the small number of complaints from the public rejected by the BAI.

The Irish Examiner’s editorial writer on Thursday, who congratulated the junior minister on his criticism of the BAI, was mistaken to claim that the rules “allow opponents of the amendment to muzzle any discussion of the issues by doing no more than refusing to participate”.

I am not sure why that writer believes that opponents of same-sex marriage wish to muzzle debate when it seems to me they are quite anxious to be allowed to join it.

In any event, had he or she contacted the BAI before writing the piece, or even perhaps read the BAI Code online, it would have been clear that the refusal of any side to take part in a debate certainly does not prevent a broadcaster from proceeding.

It seems to me a good idea, when reporting remarks that impugn people’s motivation, for political correspondents to contact those people for a response, and to display some scepticism about the political objectives of ministers.

Prof Colum Kenny of Dublin City University is a member of the BAI and of the BCC. This article expresses his personal opinions.

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