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Decisions of the

Broadcasting Complaints Commission


(Selected items)

Y/e 31 March


(Emphasis and paragraph numbering added)

(Comments of complainants for publication welcome)



Subject:        Catholic sexual morality

Date:                16 June 1999

Programme: "PRIME TIME"

Subject:        Referendum on Abortion

Date:                15 June 1999

Summary of Complaint :

1. Mrs Walsh complained about the programme Prime-Time broadcast on 15th June 1999.  Mrs Walsh complained that the panellists on the programme were not balanced for each side and that the presenter Miriam O'Callaghan appeared to be biased in dealing with the panellists. The panellists were lvana Bacik, law lecturer, TCD, Tony O'Brien Chief Executive, IFPA, and Caroline Simons Pro-life Campaign. Both panellists and the presenter expressed liberal attitudes to abortion. Miriam O'Callaghan interrupted Caroline Simons several times, Tony O'Brien only once and lvana Bacik not at all.

2. With regard to the allocation of time, Mrs Walsh stated that Caroline Simons got about half the time. She was still at a disadvantage because of the uneven panel and the frequent interruption from Miriam O'Callaghan

Stations Response :

1. RTE in its response stated that the central tenet of Mrs Walsh's complaint appears to be that RTE failed in its obligation to be fair, impartial and objective in the conduct of a studio debate concerning whether or not a fresh constitutional referendum on the issue of abortion was necessary.

2. The background to this discussion was that lobbyists from a point of view which can loosely be described as "anti-abortion", principal among them Rosemary Scallon, had been calling for such a referendum.

3. The objective of this studio discussion was not to debate the issue of abortion itself, but to debate whether or not the holding of such a further referendum was necessary. The programme makers' intention was to feature a protagonist for each side of the debate. Viz. Ms Bacik for the "pro -choice/anti-fresh referendum" lobby and Ms Simons for the "Anti-abortion/pro-fresh referendum" lobby.

4. Also in studio was Mr Tony O'Brien of the Irish Family Planning Association whose role was to give a factual and statistical backdrop to the discussion by providing information and analysis on the numbers of abortions currently being carried out for Irish Women.

5. RTE further stated that Ms Bacik spoke for a total of two and a quarter minutes. She made two substantive contributions to the discussion. Ms Simons spoke for a total of over three minutes.

6. It was necessary for the presenter to challenge her statements, in order to ensure that the topic under discussion was fully addressed. These interventions by the presenter were also motivated by a need to ensure that the other side of the debate to Ms Simons had a fair opportunity to put its point of view also.

7.  Mr O'Brien spoke for the longest time - a total of nearly four and three quarter minutes. It was not necessary for the presenter to challenge him as frequently, as it was not the programmes intention to treat him as a principal protagonist in the debate. His contribution was a necessary one in order to put the debate in factual context.

8.  The subject of abortion in Ireland is widely recognised as being a highly divisive one in which little "Middle -Ground" appears to exist. This makes RTE's role as a forum for public information and debate a very difficult one to perform, where this subject is concerned. Any assessment of a debate or relating to the abortion issue is likely to be highly subjective on the part of the viewer.

9.  The fairness in the structure of a studio debate is not susceptible to the assessment by reference only to relative numbers of persons with known views being present in the studio, the fairness is to be assessed by reference to the overall conduct and structure of a debate.

In this case RTE is satisfied that this particular debate represented a fair treatment of the topic in a way that comprehensively informed the viewing public on the issue. RTE believes that, on an objective analysis of its contents, this broadcast complied with RTE's obligation under section 18 of the Broadcasting Authority Act , 1960 (as amended), taking all of the above factors in account.

Decision of the Commission :

The Broadcasting Complaints Commission did not uphold the complaint by Mrs Walsh. It was of the view that the broadcast concerned did not infringe any of the provisions of the Broadcasting Authority Acts, 1960, as amended.

Signed :
Chairperson, Broadcasting  Complaints Commission

Date : (Undated; covering letter dated 23 March 2000)


Comment by IMR:

1. According to FMA's report on this programme, (Media Report, Winter 1999) timings were balanced, except for the addition of 2 minutes by the presenter on the so called pro-choice side.

2. The notion that a paid employee can be regarded as a neutral "expert" is absurd.  Mr O'Brien's very presence tends to give weight and authority to one side.

There being no equivalent trade on the pro-life side, this stance by RTE is inherently biased in favour of the so-called pro-choice side, and it must be challenged

It may be noted incidentally that the IFPA has a turnover of c.£1m per annum.

3. An introductory report by David Nally (200 seconds) was close to the message given by the so-called pro-abortion side.

4. RTE says that fairness is not susceptible to the assessment by reference only to relative numbers of persons, and that an objective analysis of its contents would reveal the fairness of the programme.  There is some contradiction here.  Can it be measured and analysed or can it not?  If it can, why has it not been produced?

5. This was a blatantly biased programme.

End of comment.

Programme: "THIS WEEK"

Subject:          Mr Richard Greene and others,
                            and Local Elections

Date:                23 May 1999


SUBJECT:            Ms Patricia McKENNA, MEP

DATE:                    10 June 1999