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Anti-eviction activist Ben Gilroy sues RTÉ over exclusion from televised MEP debates

The businessman claims RTÉ is in breach of broadcasting rules by excluding him from its upcoming debates.

Anti-eviction campaigner, Ben Gilroy, with Yellow Vest Ireland in 2018.
Anti-eviction campaigner, Ben Gilroy, with Yellow Vest Ireland in 2018.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

A CASE INVOLVING the right of a European Parliament candidate to participate in a debate on RTÉ ahead of this month’s election will be heard in the High Court today.

Anti-eviction activist Ben Gilroy, who is standing as an independent candidate in the Dublin constituency, issued proceedings against RTÉ on 10 May over what his campaign claims is “gross interference” in the democratic process.

According to court summons seen by TheJournal.ie, Gilroy is seeking a declaration from the High Court that RTÉ does not have the authority to deprive him of his right to appear as a panelist on one of three televised debates ahead of the elections on 24 May.

He claims that he was informed by RTÉ in writing on 7 May that he had not been invited to appear on any of its debates, which will take place from Sunday, as he had not met the criteria to take part.

A total of 59 candidates are standing for European election across the country.

However, the broadcaster confirmed earlier this month that not all would be invited to take part in its debates, which it wanted to ensure were “as informative and coherent as possible” for television viewers.

A spokeswoman for RTÉ told TheJournal.ie that the criteria for inclusion were based on the principles of being as inclusive as possible, while considering the candidates’ and parties’ track records of attracting public support.

Candidates who do not feature in the debate will be included in the programmes by means of broadcasting, with their permission, a one-minute video which they have recorded for RTÉ’s website.

However, Gilroy launched legal proceedings after claiming that these criteria violated the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s guidelines for covering elections.

‘Unique individual’

Court summons show that the businessman, who was jailed for contempt of court earlier this year, alleges the broadcaster is in breach of Rule 27, which requires fairness, objectivity and impartiality in its coverage of elections.

Gilroy claims that RTÉ’s selection criteria will not allow for an appropriate range of views to be adequately represented in the upcoming debates.

The summons state that Gilroy believes RTÉ should be “including a more diverse range” of candidates in the debate, rather than “well-known politicians and their well-known political views”.

The summons also state that Gilroy is “a unique individual in the election campaign” who has different views to the rest of the candidates he expects will take part.

The businessman also alleges that RTÉ, as a semi-state company, has the potential to be “wrongly influenced by government or government politicians to favour their own parties and candidates”.

He will also claim that RTÉ is in breach of his constitutional and democratic rights, as well as the European Charter of Human Rights (ECHR), although the summons do not refer to a specific section of the charter.

Democratic rights

As part of his claim, Gilroy is seeking a declaration from the High Court that the broadcaster’s decision not to invite him to participate in the debates will prejudice the election campaign.

He claims that RTÉ cannot deprive him of an opportunity to debate issues that are central to the European elections on its flagship programmes.

He says this is because he has paid the same election fees as other candidates, and therefore has the same right to be heard on the broadcaster to debate issues that are central to the upcoming election.

The businessman is also seeking a declaration that the broadcaster’s actions are in breach of its duty, against the law, and in breach of the ECHR, and that they deprive him of his constitutional and democratic rights.

It is understood that RTÉ will be defending its position.

‘Fully informed’

Responding to a request from TheJournal.ie, a spokeswoman for RTÉ outlined the criteria by which the broadcaster had invited candidates to take part in the upcoming debates.

She explained that candidates were invited if they were already elected as an MEP, TD, councillor or Senator.

However, she said that parties could not have two representatives in the same debate, and that where a party had more than one candidate standing in a single constituency, representatives who had already been elected would be given priority.

Candidates were also invited to appear if they did not get elected in the most recent European, General, Local or Presidential election, but still achieved 5% or more of the vote in their constituency.

Other candidates were invited if the party for which they are standing won at least one seat in the last European election, two seats in the last General election, or at least five seats in the last local elections, or achieved 5% of the national vote in any of those elections.

In a statement yesterday, Gilroy’s campaign manager Vincent Byrne argued that RTÉ’s selection process was “undemocratic” and would give an unfair electoral advantage to those who will appear in the debates.

He said:

Mr Gilroy maintains he is doing this not just for himself or the other candidates, but for the Irish people, as they are being denied the right to get fully informed of the other candidates and how well they may perform under pressure when challenged about their policies, by presenters or other candidates.
This is how many, many people choose whom to vote for.

A spokeswoman for RTÉ added that the broadcaster was still finalising which candidates would take part in the three debates, which will take place from Sunday 19 May to Tuesday 21 May.

The case is listed for hearing in the High Court at 10.30am.

Comments have been closed as legal proceedings are active in the case.

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