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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
RTÉ Prime Time via Twitter During one of the debates in the 2011 presidential election, RTE’s PrimeTime used these timers to monitor the amount of speaking time each candidate got.

Rabbitte: No requirement of equal time for both sides in referendum debates

Also speaking this evening, Senator David Norris called on the Minister to reveal full details of how RTÉ settled a legal dispute relating to Rory O’Neill’s Saturday Night Show interview.

MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS Pat Rabbitte has this evening recommended that the ‘stopwatch’ phenomenon of broadcasters giving equal time to both sides of referendum debates needs to be re-examined.

Minister Rabbitte was speaking during a Seanad motion on homophobia and free speech, which looked at concerns relating to the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

He quoted the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Codes of Conduct that states “there is no automatic requirement to allocate an absolute equality of airtime to opposing views during coverage of a referendum”.


“However, the allocation of airtime must be equitable and fair to all interests and undertaken in a transparent manner.”

It is often considered that both sides must be given an exactly equal amount of time.

He said that as a result of the Coughlan v. Broadcasting Complaints Commission ruling, broadcasters feel ‘constrained’ to give 50 per cent airtime to both sides.

“However, when it comes to a small and unrepresentative interest group,” he said, “I am not sure that the same considerations would apply.”

The minister noted how ‘artificial’ this appeared when allocating equal airtime to those for and against referendums such as during the establishment of the court of appeal.

Also speaking this evening in the Seanad, Senator Dr Katherine Zappone called for a revision of the ‘honest opinion’ element of the Defamation Act, saying that the defence may currently require “too strong a factual threshold for opinions”.


She added that in defence of free speech, an Oireacthas committee dedicated to handling human rights could be most suitable for addressing concerns relating to it.

Senator Zappone echoed the words of Amnesty International Ireland Director Colm O’Gorman in saying that she believed the definition of homophobia should be accepted as the UN’s definition.

Some Senators criticised RTÉ’s decision to pay out an €85,000 settlement following the receipt of six legal complaints about an interview on the Saturday Night Show last month.

“Explored every option”

Glen Killane, managing director of TV, assured staff that RTÉ “explored every options available to it” before settling the matter with John Waters and members of the Iona Institute who had initiated a legal process.

He also told RTÉ employees that the broadcaster has not “engaged in censorship, but has rather fallen foul of Ireland’s defamation laws”.

Senator David Norris questioned this, and asked for the Minister for Communications to request the legal opinion received by RTÉ in relation to this. The Senator believes the broadcoast of the interview with “eminently defence-able”.

TV license

“I don’t want to pay my TV license after that,” he said, “I despise them”.

“The RTÉ explanation is that it had expert advice available to it that cautioned that it did not have a case to defend”, Minister Rabbitte said.

“As a result, it made the decision it made.

“It is true that RTÉ is the public service broadcaster, but it is also true that it is a commercial company and it made a commercial decision, as it does frequently, in the face of contemplated defamation actions.”

He added that the option of a Right of Reply was turned down as “a person may not be satisfied with the manner in which a broadcaster has relayed information about him or her, but a Right of Reply will not be granted unless the facts or information are factually incorrect”.

Senator David Norris, speaking in the Seanad during the motion, said that the Iona Institute should “give the money back”.

(Video: via

Read: RTÉ’s head of television explains Iona payout decision to staff >

More: Rabbitte won’t ‘interfere’ in RTÉ’s Panti payments >