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Marian Finucane using "stopwatches" to ensure balance on marriage referendum debates

The broadcaster made the comment on her RTÉ Radio 1 show this afternoon.

Image: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland!

Updated 6.30pm

MARIAN FINUCANE’S RTÉ Radio One show is using “stopwatches” to measure how much time is being given to the Yes and No sides when discussing the same-sex marriage referendum on air.

On today’s show, veteran broadcaster Finucane told the guests at about 12.40pm during a discussion on the referendum:

We must give another one-and-a-half minutes to the Yes side, because as I explained to you, we’re on stopwatches today.

There were four guests in studio, two for the Yes side and Two for the No side.

As the show wrapped up, Finucane was keen to ensure that when she said “perfect” to two Yes supporters on her show after they spoke about why they intend on voting Yes, she wasn’t saying this to promote their point of view.

“We get fanatical about referendums in here,” she said.

A spokesperson for RTÉ said the broadcaster has already said its coverage of the upcoming referendum is going to be balanced.

She said that using stopwatches “is the choice that show has made” but did not know how other shows are going to measure balanced coverage.

The mention of a stopwatch did not go unnoticed among Marian’s listeners:

Broadcasting guidelines

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland released its latest guidelines in respect of coverage of referenda in March of this year.

The BAI urged broadcasters to focus on the facts, and in its guidelines said that presenters should not endorse a Yes or No vote.

At the launch of the guidelines, Michael O’ Keeffe, Chief Executive of the BAI, said:

The requirement to treat the views of referenda interests in a fair, objective and impartial manner remains an essential requirement.

A moratorium on referenda coverage will come into effect from 2pm on the day prior to the opening of polling stations. It will end after the polling stations close their doors.

Section five of the guidelines states that fairness, objectivity and impartiality can be achieved “by a variety of means”.

It also says that focusing on the issues “does not mean that interest groups should not be treated equitably in terms of airtime and the requirement to treat their views in a fair, objective and impartial manner remains an essential requirement”.

The section goes on to state that broadcasters are encouraged to seek out the widest range of opinions on the issues raised by the proposed constitutional amendment(s).

It goes on:

There is no obligation to automatically ‘balance’ each contribution on an individual programme with an opposing view. Further, there is no requirement to allocate an absolute equality of airtime to referenda interests during coverage of the referenda.
However, the approach taken must be equitable to all interests and undertaken in a transparent manner. This may require an inclusion of an opposing view and/or an equal allocation of airtime.

Why use a stopwatch?

This ‘stopwatch’ system is not new – back in 2012, the broadcaster also used it for aspects of coverage of the Children’s Rights referendum, and has used it in news broadcasts to ensure campaigners from Yes and No sides are given precisely equal amounts of airtime regarding previous referenda.

A Supreme Court ruling in 1995 said that State spending in favour of either side of a referendum was an illegal use of public funds.

Because of this, RTE introduced a strict rule on giving both sides of a referendum campaign equal prominence and airtime.

In September 2012, Minister Michael Noonan asked RTÉ to reconsider this protocol for the Children’s Rights referendum, saying he feared that with such an overwhelming support for a Yes vote in that particular instance, “it seems to me to almost invent opponents to the amendment”.

Though not a referendum, RTÉ Prime Time showed off the stopwatches it used during the Presidential Debate in 2011 on Twitter:

- Additional reporting Paul Hosford

Read: How the rules have changed for broadcasters when it comes to referendum coverage>

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