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Joe Duffy thinks they're 'lunacy' - but this RTÉ boss has no problem with restrictive airtime rules

The Liveline host has slammed the referendum rules as a “dead hand”. They were killing his show in the run up to the marriage vote, he said.

LIVELINE HOST JOE Duffy had quite a bit to say about the strict rules governing referendum broadcasts in an interview with TheJournal.ie this week – but a senior manager in RTÉ has backed the contentious guidelines.

The rules have long made referendum debates and call-ins a tricky subject for broadcasters.

For instance, during the run up to the same-sex marriage vote it emerged Marian Finucane was using stopwatches to ensure her programme’s coverage was balanced precisely.

Similar systems were used on other programmes – and this threw up some obvious problems for Duffy’s show.

Despite reservations in RTÉ about doing a Liveline devoted to the gay marriage topic, Duffy went ahead with a live debate the Monday before the vote.

“We hadn’t been doing it because of this referendum lunacy,” he said, noting that the “50:50 stuff” was “just killing Liveline”.

24/12/2012. Joe Duffy Shows on Grafton Street Joe Duffy Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Another RTÉ broadcaster who spoke to us this week, Ray D’Arcy, stopped short of openly criticising the time rules, but noted:

If I was to choose a time for having a career change and joining a state broadcaster I’d advise them not to do it in the lead up to referendum.”

While Duffy has appealed for the rules to be changed to allow for more free-flowing debates, the channel controller of RTÉ One said this week that he was fully behind the system.

“I think that’s part of the democratic function,” Adrian Lynch said.

If it’s a referendum as important as that we need to inform everybody – so I think, absolutely. And the balancing there would have been done right down to the second.

boss Adrian Lynch

Why so strict?

This ‘stopwatch’ system isn’t 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.

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, RTÉ 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 the system for the Children’s referendum, saying he feared broadcasters would have 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…

Note: You can read more from our interview with the head of RTÉ One tonight on the TheJournal.ie.

Read: Joe Duffy’s taking Liveline to TV – and here’s how he’ll be doing it…

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

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