A critical examination of broadcasting in Ireland
and the new Broadcasting Bill
Section Eighteen of the Broadcasting Act obliges broadcasters to treat news and current affairs broadcast matter in an objective, impartial and fair manner.
In view of:(a) the impact that broadcasting has on the public consciousness,it is now appropriate to ask to what extent has the law been observed? Or is it, in practice, a dead letter which can safely be ignored by the broadcaster? If it is the latter, can normal management practices be applied without imperilling the broadcaster's freedom to inquire into, and challenge, public issues?
(b) the considerable lapse of time since the introduction of the legislation, and
(c) the far-reaching changes that have taken place in Irish society in that time,
This article examines the extent to which the Bill now before the Dáil addresses these issues.
A LAW UNTO ITSELF?
1. Were you astonished to see RTE's sudden embracing of family values following the Budget? You were not alone.
The response it generated from the public in support of the child and the family was indeed welcome: it was a disgraceful budget that short-changed the child. But it does not take from the fact that, in the view of many, RTE set out to mobilise public opinion against the budget. It is not entitled to do this, whatever the good cause. All broadcasters are under a legal obligation to present news and current affairs in an objective and impartial manner. The trouble is, there are no penalties for breaches of the law.
2. RTE-watchers have become so accustomed over the years to bias by presenters and to unbalanced panels, that it has ceased to be a matter of remark. There is little confidence in RTE's willingness to do anything about this discrimination, and little confidence in the Broadcasting Complaints Commission's (BCC's) ability to bring about change.
This was clearly demonstrated in the case of the coverage of the divorce referendum. One well-documented analysis showed that there were biases favouring divorce of 60/40% in the case of TV, and 55/45% in the case of radio, a complaint that the BCC has refused to investigate. In the case of 10 other complaints, RTE has ignored a formal request from the BCC to properly publish the BCC's report.
Evidence of bias is not confined to the divorce referendum. Other family/life issues receive similar unbalanced treatment1.
It may also be noted that the (previous) Government's own Green Paper expressed concerns about the position of "considerable power" of broadcasters, who "may occasionally use that position to set personal agendas thereby promoting their own opinions and views"2.
3. Broadcasting is essentially a form of one-way communication. It is under the control of a minute number of people who are unelected, and who are unaccountable in any practical sense. The main trade union involved operates a "closed shop" policy across most broadcasting and print media in Ireland and the UK. This union also officially supports abortion.
4. It is necessary for society to maintain a proper balance between freedom and accountability in the media. Liberty of expression by the media, including criticism of Government policy, is vital to democracy and is guaranteed by the Constitution. Some good work is, indeed, produced by RTE from time to time, but the treatment of social issues is, on the whole, agenda-driven, and should not be tolerated.
The public has not only a right to know, but a right to expect that the information and views they are supplied with in matters of public controversy, particularly by the pervasive medium of broadcasting, have integrity.
5. It is now 23 years since the issues of fairness and balance have been addressed by legislation. Since then, there have been considerable changes in Irish society. In my view, these changes have not come about by forces outside our control, like the weather, but by particular individuals and groups promoting their views through the media, particularly broadcasting.
6. In most walks of corporate life, one finds that structures and systems are necessary to ensure that corporate objectives or obligations are met. This will involve such elements as responsibility, standards, measurement, reporting, independent verification and penalties for non-compliance.
In the case of RTE, the Broadcasting Acts impose three basic obligations on the Authority (Board) of RTE, viz, (a) to provide a broadcasting service, (b) to maintain financial rectitude, and (c), to ensure that news and current affairs is presented in an objective and impartial manner.
In view of the importance of integrity of information, (as defined above), one is entitled to ask what system does the Board of RTE have, to satisfy itself that its obligations under s.18(1) of the Broadcasting Act are being complied with?
My own answer to that, is that, from information gleaned in the course of correspondence relating to complaints, RTE has, in my opinion, little in the way of a system that is of any value. This view seems to me to be confirmed by actual results as found by independent studies3.
7. It is dismaying to find, then, that virtually no attempt is made in the new Broadcasting Bill, (currently before the Dáil), to address the defects that are now plain for all to see.
8. The balance between freedom in broadcasting and accountability must be re-examined.
Any new Bill should ensure that:
1. The Board takes responsibility.Accountability, in short.
2. Management systems are established,
3. The position of the BCC is strengthened,
4. There are penalties for non-compliance.
9. With all the intense debates that the Irish nation has been through in the last 10-15 years, is seems extraordinary that no debate at all has been conducted on the subject of the very vehicle on which these other debates have been largely conducted.
In order to facilitate a debate on this most important issue, I would suggest that the "public sphere" element of the current bill be disconnected from the main bill, and, with amendments, made the subject of separate legislation and a White Paper.
1. Eg, abortion, on Prime Time, 15 June, 1999.
2. See also Professor Joe Lee: "Democracy and public service broadcasting in Ireland". (Media in Ireland - The search for diversity", Ed. D Kiberd, Open Air, 1997)
3. By The Family and Media Association, 38, Upper Gardiner St Dublin 1.
The foregoing is a condensed version of a longer article. For full version, see January 2000 issue of "The Brandsma Review", www.bradyco.ie/brandsma.htm.
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