Is balance broken?

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, June 2015 edition

Is balance broken?

It was thanks to Daniel O’Donnell that RTÉ’s literalist interpretation of broadcasting balance was displayed in its full absurdity.

Image via Morguefile
Image via Morguefile

In an afternoon interview with Ray D’Arcy, the Donegal crooner was asked about the referendum, and spoke on the topic for three minutes. As he finished, D’Arcy asked “have we got a stopwatch on that?” and made a lame joke about the man from Del Monte, before moving on to the next topic.

Half an hour later, D’Arcy welcomed David Quinn on air, and read out to him a summary of what Wee Daniel had said, asking for his responses. A clearly unprepared Quinn (“I’m sort of reacting on the hop here,” he began) gave his initial thoughts on air, until he was interrupted by D’Arcy, saying “I have to finish up there, I know its rude David but you know the way things are done – three minutes”

And so, in the name of balance, both sides of the debate were given three minutes, but arguments were interrupted in mid sentence.

The hashtag #BAIBalance was popular on twitter during the referendum debates, to protest at the artificial balance imposed by RTÉ’s simplistic stopwatch solution. That may be unfair to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, whose referendum guidelines derive from section39 of the Broadcasting Act.

The Act requires news and current affairs are presented “in an objective and impartial manner and without any expression of the broadcaster’s own views” It does not require that balance be achieved over a single programme, recognising that the world isn’t always that symmetrical, instead allowing that “two or more related broadcasts may be considered as a whole, if the broadcasts are transmitted within a reasonable period of each other.”

And if that’s not clear enough, the BAI’s guidelines, state clearly that there is “no obligation to automatically ‘balance’ each contribution on an individual programme with an opposing view” and “no
requirement to allocate an absolute equality of airtime to referenda
interests during coverage of the referenda.”

RTÉ is a professional organisation, so doubtless they read the BAI guidelines. Yet instead of the rounded approach the BAI encourages, advocating a multiplicity of voices reflecting differing strands of opinion, much of the referendum coverage was reduced to simplistic stopwatch speeches.

Somewhere, RTÉ lost the plot. So how did we get here?

The Referendum Commission (RefCom) exists because of the 1995 McKenna judgment, where Patricia McKenna took the government to court, and established that the State could not fund one side in a referendum debate.

Five years later, in Coughlan v Broadcasting Complaints Commission, the courts found that broadcasters had to remain impartial. Anthony Coughlan had no complaint about RTÉ’s conduct in referendum debates, which he monitored, and he accepted that both sides got roughly equal access to the airwaves. However, RTÉ also transmitted party political broadcasts, and since almost all parties were advocating a Yes vote, the result was 40 minutes for Yes and only 10 minutes for No. Add to that legal history the jitters in RTÉ caused by everything from the Fr Reynolds libel case to Brendan O’Connor’s interview with Pantibliss in 2014, and you end up with risk averse production staff taking the path of least resistance.

Meanwhile, coverage of the second referendum on the age of president was close to non-existent, possibly because RTÉ was unable to find matching pairs to argue both sides of the question. And for many local stations around the country, even coverage of the contested marriage referendum was difficult, as producers struggled to find speakers for the No side.

“I’m not sure what the fix is, I think that the fix is that media organisations simply need to honour the spirit rather than the letter,” says NUJ Irish secretary Seamus Dooley. “It was never intended to be a mechanical exercise.”

“Normal rules of balance should have been enough, but I think the Panti thing had them all terrified.”

During the campaign, the filter bubble was a constant worry on Twitter. The bubble, caused by the social media effect of listening only to like-minded friends, amplifies agreement in an echo chamber and downplays dissenting voices, leading observers to overestimate support. Opinion polls were scoured for clues, and when they too agreed with the dominant Yes narrative on Twitter, they were followed by warnings about “Shy No” voters, and reminders of how the gap narrowed in the final days of the divorce referendum, which was carried by less than one vote per ballot box. The fear of an echo chamber effect may even have been a factor in the #HomeToVote phenomenon, where recent emigrants still registered flew and sailed home to cast their ballots.

In the end, the echo chamber effect didn’t really exist, and the bubbles reflected reality. Yet the iron adherence to stopwatch debates created a different kind of bubble. Iona Institute director David Quinn acknowledged in an interview with the US Family Research Council sponsored Washington Watch that Iona (“a small organisation, we had a budget of about €180,000 a year”) and the No side generally punched above its weight, with only 12 contributors between Iona and Mothers and Fathers Matter (MAFM) across many debates. The lack of new faces on the No benches became apparent as the debates went on, and may even have played a part in the No campaign’s claims that unseen supporters were being silenced.

As an aside, the accounts presented to SIPO, the Standards in Public Office Commission, should make interesting reading. Of a budget of €180K, it has been estimated, based on published Youtube rates, that Iona spent €70K on Youtube pre-roll advertisements, with MAFM spending multiples of that. Iona also sought to make an issue of foreign funding from Atlantic Philanthropies for several groups advocating a Yes vote, but only raised the talking point late in the day, perhaps reluctant to answer questions in return about its own funding.

The most obvious effect of stopwatch speechifying is that journalists are tempted to stop doing their jobs as interrogators. Interrupting a speaker, or stopping them to clarify a point, make for complicated timekeeping, so it’s simply just to let someone talk. This often led to a claim on day one, dismissed as untrue by RefCom on day two, and then repeated again unchallenged on day three. While RefCom’s opinion on an issue is not necessarily the final word, there must be some duty on broadcasters to challenge repeated claims which have been addressed by RefCom. Instead, it was left to opposing sides to go around in circles playing whack-a-mole.

Fact checking as a part of political debates is taken for granted in the US, to the extent that some checkers will even call debaters over a missing decimal point or a rounding error, but Irish broadcasters are shy of placing themselves in the role of referees. Instead, the RefCom was used as a sort of fact-checker, but one whose rulings were then ignored (or at least, not referred to) the next time the same talking points surfaced.

***

Print journalism, unlike broadcasting, is not bound by the BAI’s balance requirements. The Press Council and Ombudsman, unlike the BAI, are not regulators, and there are no special legal requirements during referendums.

A survey by NewsAccess for MKC Communications claimed “newspapers carried three times more Yes and No articles” across a total of 773 articles between May 1-20. Of the articles reviewed, 424 were graded Yes, 135 No, and 214 Neutral. However, it’s difficult to determine what exactly this says about media coverage, as it includes not just news reports of campaign launches, events and debates, but also opinion and editorial pieces, which by definition take a position on the vote. Newsaccess was unable to provide such a breakdown when asked, as the commission they received from MKC had not specified such detail, and was also unable to provide links to specific articles coded Yes, No or Neutral, citing commercial confidentiality.

“It wasn’t about Is this a positive, a negative or a neutral article, it was is it leaving you with a sense of the Yes campaign, the No campaign or something more neutral,” said Paul Moriarty, head of insight at Newsaccess.

“For it to be tagged or coded as being a Yes article it needs to be strongly in favour of Yes, and if it’s No it needs to be strongly in favour of No. Which is why again you’ll see quite a number of what would be called neutral articles within the analysis.”

But perhaps the most interesting thing the research shows, based on the published results, is the disparity in coverage between different titles. The Irish Times and Irish Independent both account for over 20% of the total number of articles, while at the other end the Herald and Star account for only 8% and 5% respectively. To put that in perspective, the Mail on Sunday, published three times during the survey period, contained more articles on the referendum that either of the Star or Herald, each of which appeared 17 times. Given the eventual turnout, tabloid editors seem to have seriously underestimated their audience’s engagement with the debate.

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