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Minister asks RTÉ to reconsider 50-50 rule for children's rights referendum

Michael Noonan says rules on balanced coverage should not require RTÉ to “invent” opponents to the children’s rights vote.

A CABINET MINISTER has called on RTÉ to reconsider its usual protocol of ensuring that both the Yes and No side in the forthcoming Children’s Rights referendum will be given equal prominence and airtime.

Michael Noonan made the comments in the Dáil this morning during a debate on the referendum, which is due for six weeks’ time.

Following a Supreme Court ruling in 1995 – where it was ruled that state spending in favour of either side of a referendum was an illegal use of public funds – RTÉ introduced a strict rule where each side of a referendum campaign is equal prominence and air time.

This is particularly enforced through the abandonment of party political broadcasts for referendum campaigns, with the impartial Referendum Commission instead being responsible for broadcasting informational slots.

“As long as the coverage is fair and balanced, it seems to me that the broadcasters are in their rights of coverage,” Noonan said this morning – fearing that RTÉ may have to “invent” opponents to offer balance.

In a referendum such as this where [...] practically all members of the Dáil and Seanad, and the NGOs who are most interested in the care of children, are all advocating a Yes vote – it seems to me to almost invent opponents to the amendment, on the basis of giving 50 per cent of the time to a non-existent set of opponents, is a very perculiar way to approach this.

The minister said he could not foresee how the Supreme Court ruling could apply to RTÉ’s news coverage, and shared his belief that any balanced debate – including that being held in the Dáil this week – would fulfil its news pligations.

Presenting the facts and the issues

“I don’t think the Supreme Court judgment is intended to apply to news and I think they have a whole area in news where they can help the public debate by presenting the facts and the issues,” Noonan said.

The minister offered an implicit criticism of RTÉ for not including segments of the Dáil debate in last night’s news bulletins. Portions of the debate were included in last night’s edition of Oireachtas Report, however.

The Irish Times today reported that RTÉ senior executives will meet tomorrow to discuss how the broadcaster will cover the referendum, given the widespread support for the referendum with only a small number of groups – including Kathy Sinnott’s Alliance of Parents against the State – opposing it.

It is possible that the national broadcaster could decide to provide only limited coverage of the referendum – a move which would ensure that both sides were given an equal say, while also ensuring neither side was given time disproportionate to its popularity.

Formal rules on offering balanced coverage cannot be applied until a polling order for the referendum has been issued; this in turn cannot be signed until the Oireachtas has completed its consideration of the legislation triggering the referendum.

The Dáíl is due to complete its consideration of that legislation this week, with the bill then going to the Seanad next week.

Read: Near consensus – but here’s why both sides will get 50/50 coverage in the Referendum

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Gavan Reilly

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