Letter to newspapers:
RTE has recently published, (RTE Guide 27 August), the decision of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission on a complaint which I submitted on the handling of the "C case" by the Questions & Answers programme.
A number of issues arose from this complaint, and I think three of them deserve further airing:
This view is believed to be supported by European case law.
Youth Defence were, in this case, directly involved in an endeavour to save a life, and to safeguard the long-term health of the mother. They have also, by the sheer amount of their activity and work in the public domain over a number of years, earned for themselves a place in the public debate on abortion.
Yet, in the four weeks of the currency of the "C case", Youth Defence was permitted, and then only from the audience benches only, just 95 seconds air time.
In contrast, in three of the same four weeks, the staff of a particular newspaper, whose line in support of abortion is all too clear, had a place on the panel of Q & A.
RTE's reason for excluding Youth Defence from any more active part in the programme(s) was on the claimed grounds that Youth Defence was "a minority group", and that panel seats were given to "the more mainstream members" of the anti-abortion lobby, "who were themselves anxious that this be the case."
I can think of no other similar group to whom this kind of reasoning
would be applied in such, or in any, circumstances.
According to a report by Patsy McGarry in the "Irish Times", Friday, December 24, 1999, RTE has been accused of backing British analysis on the North.
The source is stated to be an article in the newsletter, The Irish Witness. The article is stated to have said that the station had done "a very poor job in generating debate on the North", and had been "neither impartial nor fair-minded" in its coverage.
RTE's director of public affairs, Mr Kevin Healy, is stated to have rejected the criticisms, saying they were insulting to some of the finest journalists and broadcasters in Ireland, and that RTE was proud of its coverage of the North over the years.
The Irish Times report also carries commentary on the manner of implementation of the censorship provision, ie, s.31 of the Broadcasting Act, and on the constraints that that section placed on the station.
The full text of Patsy McGarry's report may be found in the Ireland
section of "The Irish Times" on the Web.
DRY RUN FOR BIG DEBATE?
On Tuesday, 15 June 1999, in the immediate wake of Dana's election to the European Parliament, abortion was discussed on RTÉ's Prime Time programme. Many viewers were outraged by the 2:1 ratio of panel members in favour of abortion, and FMA received complaints from its members throughout the country. So FMA monitors decided to do a full analysis of the programme, and the findings are published in the current issue of Media Balance.
The panel consisted of Caroline Simons (Pro-Life Campaign), Ivana Bacik
(Law lecturer, TCD) and Tony O'Brien (Chief Executive, Irish Family Planning
Association). The presenter was Miriam O'Callaghan.
2. David Nally's introductory report
After the presenter's opening remarks (32 seconds), reporter David Nally offered an introductory report (200 seconds). Purporting to be an objective tour d'horizon and a fair lead-in to the ensuing panel discussion, the overall impression given by the report was that the issue of abortion was very divisive and, owing to its alleged complexity, impossible to solve by referendum. Thus the report was close to the message articulated by the so-called 'pro-choice' side in the subsequent panel discussion.
Nally reported that "pro-life campaigners say a directly-induced abortion
could never be necessary to save a mother's life, but their opponents flatly
disagree." However, he omitted the key statement by the Irish Medical
Council that "the deliberate and intentional killing of the unborn
child is professional misconduct."
3. The panel discussion
The charts on the page 2 below - slightly simplified versions of those appearing in Media Balance - speak for themselves, and are based on hard mathematical evidence.
L the 'pro-choice' side.
The symbol represents the Neutral centre - where, in a fair debate, one would expect the presenter to be. But all the charts show a pronounced imbalance in favour of L (the "pro-choice" side).
3.1 The panel:
The viewers' original complaints centred on the preponderance (2:1) of panel members in favour of abortion. In fact the imbalance was even worse.
3.2 The presenter addressed:
seven to Bacik and O'Brien, all perfunctory
(three of them being merely over-to-you invitations).
3.3 Times and length of innings
Chart (B) shows, in seconds, the measured times for the presenter and for each panel member. The presenter's total time (175 seconds) was divided between:
the pro-life side received 324 seconds in eleven innings.
(IMR Editor's note: Due to deficiency in the graphics, Charts A and B do not show hatched areas representing contribution of Presenter to "pro-choice" side. Figures are present and correct.)
End of report
Media Balance comments:
"Fundamental imbalance is inexcusable and totally incompatible with the concept of public-service broadcasting.
"FMA has been monitoring the Life-related Issues (embryo-abuse, abortion and euthanasia) on RTÉ programmes for the past four years . . . the overall picture is that of a significant and continuous bias against the pro-life viewpoint.
"The Prime Time programme of 15 June '99 cannot therefore
be lightly dismissed as a once-off error of judgement . . . . It should
rather be regarded as symptomatic of a general malaise in RTÉ .
. . which seems to be strangely insensitive to the feelings of a large
proportion of its viewers and listeners, and - so far as the pro-life viewpoint
is concerned - to have scant regard for fair play, much less the
Northern imperative for parity of esteem."
The above report on "Prime Time" appears in the Winter, 1999/2000 issue of "Media Report", published by Family and Media Association, PO Box 6489, Blackrock, Co Dublin.
The Family and Media Association is a voluntary group which aims to foster respect for the Christian heritage of our people, and particularly for the Christian vision of the family, which is part of that heritage.
A complaint was made about this programme to the BCC by a member of the public.
The BCC did not uphold the complaint. It was of the view that "the broadcast did not infringe any of the provisions of the Broadcasting Authority Acts, 1960, as amended".
The full report by the BCC, issued 23 March, will be posted to this website in due course.
14 April 2000
Station: RTE 1 Date: 26/08/98
Summary of Complaint:
1. Mr O'Driscoll in his complaint stated that the 9 pm news broadcast on the 26th of August carried a report on the claimed number of Irish abortions in the UK in the first three months of the year. This was accompanied by reported comments of a Mr Tony O'Brien, CEO of the Irish Family Planning Association, an organisation committed to campaigning for the removal of obstacles to safe, legal abortion in this country with an interest in the matter. Mr O'Driscoll also stated that it appears to be a policy of RTE to bring in Mr O'Brien whenever comment on contraceptives and abortion matters is required, and to treat him as an unbiased expert. There were no comments from anyone with an opposing viewpoint. Mr O'Driscoll also complained about Morning Ireland broadcast on the 25th or the 26th of August. This programme featured the news item, with the spoken comments of the same party. Mr O'Driscoll further stated that his information on this occasion is based on a report appearing in The Irish Catholic newspaper.
2. Mr O'Driscoll further stated that in the course of the broadcasts complained of, RTE failed to be fair to all interests concerned, and did not present the broadcast matter in an impartial manner. In evidence of this, Mr O'Driscoll submitted that RTE failed to ensure that the comments, which accompanied a news item and a current affairs programme on a matter of major public importance, were balanced.
3. Mr O'Driscoll stated that RTE was in breach of s.l8.1 (a) and
(b) of the Broadcasting Act, 1960, as amended.
1. RTE stated that Mr O'Brien was quoted during the bulletin at nine o'clock on 26th August in relation to the number of Irish women going to the United Kingdom for abortions in the first quarter of 1998, stating that the figures didn't show the Irish abortion rate and didn't necessarily reflect the true level of Irish abortion. The radio coverage was on the following morning, 27 August, on Morning Ireland where Mr O'Brien was interviewed. The staff of both news programmes attempted to contact a pro-life spokesperson but were unable to do so. This was explained to Mr O'Driscoll. RTE would have carried a statement if there was one, from the pro-life groups and would give due consideration to a statement at any time. RTE is satisfied that the broadcasts were fair and impartial and that it ensured that any comments broadcast were balanced.
2. RTE also stated that Mr O'Brien was only used to comment on the figures and not to make campaigning statements. The suggestion that Mr O'Brien was allowed by RTE to campaign for abortion in Ireland is simply untrue.
3. (Paragraph being deleted by BCC. See note below.)
4. RTE also stated that it deals with matters relating to abortion
in a fair and even handed manner and it did not accept that it was
part of a media campaign advocating for the legalisation of abortion.
Decision of the Commission:
The Commission considered that this issue did concern a matter of public importance, however there was no breach of RTE's statutory duty to be objective and impartial in broadcasts of this nature. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission therefore rejected the complaint.
Chairperson, Broadcasting Complaints Commission
Date: 20 July 1999
1. The basic facts of this case are undisputed: RTE reported figures for abortions for the first quarter of 1998 on two occasions, 26 and 27 August 1998. On the first occasion this was with the reported comments of the CEO of the Irish Family Planning Association, Mr O'Brien, and on the second occasion with his spoken comments.
There were no balancing comments from any pro-life commentator on either of these two occasions.
(The Commission's report, as published in the RTE Guide for 18 February 2000, included the following paragraph:
3. RTE further stated that for the two main news broadcast at 6 pm and 9 pm on RTE, Joe Little, Religious & Social Affairs Correspondence did a comprehensive report which included an interview with Dr Berry Kiely. News 2 included an interview with Niamh Nic Mhathuna, chairperson of Youth Defence, and on the News at One on Radio 1 Joe Little included comment from CURA.
This was included in error (not by RTE) in the report. The broadcasts referred to took place in May, 1998, and not August, the date complained of. )
2. RTE contends that:
2. RTE was unable to contact a pro-life spokesperson, and/or the pro-life organisations were unwilling to provide one. (Note 2)
RTE does not mention that the figures might have been of particular significance to arguments that have been current prior to, and since, the passing of the Abortion Information Act.
3. It is my contention that:
2. RTE does not offer any detail to support its claim that it was unable to "find" a pro-life spokesperson. Nor does it offer any information at all to support its suggestion that pro-life organisations were unwilling to provide a spokesperson. (Note 3)
3. The figures were of significance, confirming a substantial upward trend. They brought into question, with renewed force, that the policies pursued by the previous government, and supported by the IFPA, were counterproductive in their stated aims of reducing abortions. (Note 4)
4. It is, I think, realistic to suggest that RTE would not permit a pro-life organisation a similar unchallenged platform. (Note 5)
4. .The IFPA is not the only party who ought to be questioned.
One would have thought that, with the mounting evidence, the information would have led to a current affairs programme, to bring before the public, the political figures actually responsible for the legislative changes which appear to have brought about the rapidly increasing levels of abortions. I refer to the former Taoiseach, Mr John Bruton, TD, and former Minister for Health, Mr Ml Noonan, TD, who were, in particular, responsible for the Abortion Information Act. To the best of my knowledge, no such event has taken place.
5. I find it difficult to escape the conclusion, then, that RTE, in permitting a principal lobbyist, the Irish Family Planning Association, a sole platform, is shielding that organisation, as well as political figures who have questions to answer, from facing the public.
6. In the circumstances, one might have thought that my complaint might have led to an internal inquiry in RTE. But this does not seem to have happened. Instead, RTE recites the IFPA arguments, and supports their sole appearance without, in my view, adequate explanation.
7. In my view, an on-site investigation by the Broadcasting Complaints
Commission should have been carried out.
1. Surely "comment" means the expression of a view? If so, should it not have a balancing comment?
2. RTE has cited both reasons, which are in contradiction to one another.
3. I contacted by phone the Pro-Life Campaign office and Youth Defence office. I asked if it was their policy to provide a spokesperson, if asked by RTE. Both were quite definite that they would provide a spokesperson, if asked. In connection with the particular news item, one had no recollection of a request, and the other was quite definite that no request had been made. In one case at least, RTE were stated to be in possession of mobile telephone numbers. I did not contact any of the other pro-life organisations who might have a contribution to offer.
As the Freedom of Information Act does not yet apply to RTE, I was not in a position to verify the extent of the efforts made by RTE to contact a pro-life source.
Pro-Life Campaign had indeed comments to make, as had Youth Defence, and there may have been others. Their comments were published in the Irish Family of 4 September, and the Irish Catholic on 3 September.
4. The March 1998 figure show an increase of 10% over the previous comparable quarter, 25% over the pre-Act figure, and 46% over the maximum suggested by the Minister, ie he predicted a reduction of 14%. (Figures subsequently made available for the year 1998 showed a 33% increase over the pre-Act figures.)
If these were figures for losses in a commercial organisation, there would be little hesitation in finding out what went wrong, who was responsible, and what needed to be done to put matters back on course towards targets. Sadly, these are indeed figures for losses - losses of human life, hurt to women, and consequences for society. For instance, the 296 increase quoted over pre-Act figures, represents 148 baby girls and 148 baby boys lost more than might have been, and who no longer exist in this world.
Mr O'Brien stated that the increase may not have represented a real increase but merely an increase in the number of women willing to give Irish addresses. This is pure speculation for which no evidence has been advanced. Easier access usually means more business, and easier access was the real purpose of the Abortion Information Act.
Since the passing of the aforementioned Act, the IFPA has given somewhat muted support to the idea of reducing the number of abortions, an objective that, not only has not been amongst its declared goals, but on any reasonable logic, must be a casualty of those goals, which include the removal of restrictions against "safe", abortions.
5. This view is shared by David Quinn in an editorial in the Irish
Catholic of 3 September 1998. He also took the view that there should have
been a balanced presentation.
End of comments.