RTE Falling at The Feet of Power
RTÉ’s Coverage of the Lisbon Treaty Campaign
The primary finding of this research is that on RTÉ’s leading news programmes from January 1st 2008 to June 14th 2008, 63% of the contributors to news items which focused on the Lisbon Treaty were supporting a Yes vote.
Three television programmes (Six One News, Nine News and Questions & Answers) and three radio programmes (Morning Ireland, News At One and Drivetime News) were analysed over this timeframe via RTÉ’s website. The following is a summary of the report’s main findings:
- RTÉ’s coverage of the Lisbon Treaty campaign was unbalanced with contributors from the Yes side making up 62.75% of speakers in discussions and news items focusing on the Lisbon Treaty. This suggests that perhaps it was RTÉ policy to deliberately limit coverage of the No side’s arguments. It is to be hoped this research may elicit further explanations.
- This imbalance needs to be viewed in the light of the relevant legislation. The Lisbon Treaty was a matter of “public controversy”, it was “the subject of current public debate” and by facilitating such a skewed presentation of the debate, it is difficult to see how RTÉ’s duties were discharged “objectively and impartially” .
- RTÉ has a legal requirement that its coverage of “matters which are either of public controversy or the subject of current public debate” be presented so as to be “fair to all concerned” . This research finds that was not the case.
- RTÉ’s own Charter places a requirement on the broadcaster to “strive to reflect fairly and equally the … political diversity of Ireland and its peoples” . By not facilitating fair, and even reasonably, equal contributor participation the broadcaster has failed its own Charter.
- Questions and Answers was the most unbalanced programme with 72.34% of guest panel speakers being for the Yes side. The audience participation was also unbalanced with panellists permitted to interrupt audience No speakers, further skewing the balance in favour of the Yes side.
- The most surprising finding was that the coverage remained unbalanced from early in the new year, up to the announcement of the date of the referendum, throughout the thirty days of the referendum campaign and as the results were being discussed.
- Coverage of the results was particularly unbalanced, with panels of experts dominated by Lisbon Treaty supporters.
- The coverage of the Yes and No sides differed in one very significant way. In many reports RTÉ journalists/presenters would often frame the debate in terms of “How can the Yes side win?”, rather than the more journalistically objective, “Why should the Yes side win?”
- There was a distinct difference between the questions put to the Yes and No sides. For example, obvious conflicts over the Treaty’s interpretation by the ICTU and IBEC were not explored. IBEC’s submission to the Forum on Europe contained many claims about the Lisbon treaty which the ICTU would have been opposed to.
- There were a small number of cases in which RTÉ journalists/presenters engaged in aggressive interrogation of contributors to Treaty-focused news items. While these incidences were very few, they all happened to speakers from the No side. An example of this are comments referring to speakers on the No side as “failed Dail Candidates”
- In complaints made to RTÉ regarding the substantive issue of the numbers of speakers from the Yes and No side during the referendum, RTÉ’s explanation was that it would ensure approximately 50% coverage for both sides. 50-50 coverage cannot compensate for a 63%-37% speaker ratio.
- When complaints were made to RTÉ about a single Yes speaker being given airtime without a corresponding No speaker present, the reply from RTÉ was that a No speaker speaking on a different programme was compensation for this. The legal obligation to do this within “two or more related broadcasts” may be applicable to a different edition of the same programme, or between the two main evening television news programmes, but a mid-morning chat show is not “related” to an early morning news programme.
- The Audience Council was given inaccurate information about the coverage of the campaign. As illustrated in section 13.2.3.
- Three members of the RTÉ Audience Council were from organisations that had taken a specific Yes position. None represented organisations taking a No stance.
- The composition of the RTÉ Authority was unbalanced in that it reflected the higher socio-economic sections of Irish society who polling showed were more likely to vote Yes and did vote Yes. Citizens from the lower socio economic groups were more likely to vote No. Membership of the Authority is not reflective of the diversity of Irish society.
- There was a failure by all of the structures within RTÉ to monitor and correct the imbalance which developed during the protracted Lisbon debate. This is due to the make-up of the bodies themselves and not due to any particular individual.