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RTÉ now lists all candidates in a constituency whenever one is mentioned on air

How does RTÉ achieve balance with its election coverage? The ‘stopwatch’ approach and listing all its candidates.

Image: Eamonn Farrell

RTÉ IS ENSURING it adheres to the broadcasting authority’s election rules by listing all candidates in a particular constituency whenever one is mentioned.

This means that if RTÉ report on comments made by Peter Casey, then all other candidates in the constituency he’s running in – the Midlands North-West – must also be listed.

Since official election campaigning began on 24 April, RTÉ is must adhere to airtime coverage guidelines, set out by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). Among those rules are:

“In terms of airtime allocated, broadcasters must do so in a manner that is equitable and fair to all interests.”

RTÉ said that listing candidates is just one way it achieves balanced coverage:

“In our coverage on all platforms, we list all candidates if covering a given constituency.

For example, last Sunday The Week in Politics had a live studio panel discussion with five candidates in one constituency, broadcast pre-recorded contributions from other candidates and listed the remaining candidates and their main issues within the programme for the audience.

When the BAI was asked if it had instructed RTÉ to list each candidate so that it adheres to its guidelines, a spokesperson said it “had not issued instructions to RTÉ regarding the listing of candidates in its election coverage”. 

Section 5 of the BAI Election and Referenda Guidelines requires broadcasters to develop mechanisms in respect of their approach to election and/or referenda coverage that are open, transparent and fair to all interested parties, but the BAI does not set detailed requirements for those mechanisms. 

Stopwatch

RTÉ also uses a “stopwatch” or 50:50 time limit is where programme makers measure the airtime received during broadcasts by representatives of opposing sides of a debate.

This was used during the Eighth Amendment referendum campaign where a debate featuring a pro-life and pro-choice candidate would aim to allocate both candidates with an equal amount of airtime.

But the BAI has said previously that there’s been a misconception that this type of approach is necessary to adhere to its guidelines, and said that if it’s applied “rigorously that it doesn’t do justice to the programming, it’s too narrow”. 

RTÉ has said that it does use a “stopwatch” approach, but it’s “an editorial tool to guide our coverage, and is not the only factor we use”. Balanced coverage is determined by a number of factors, outlined in Section 5 of the Rule 27 BAI guidelines.

The BAI said that its guidelines state that decisions in respect of editorial coverage of an election or referenda rests solely with broadcasters.

However, broadcasters must be in a position to demonstrate how any mechanisms have ensured fairness, objectivity and impartiality in instances where complaints are received directly by the broadcaster or referred to the BAI.

“Other than in the context of a complaint or other compliance investigation, the BAI does not comment on the specific mechanisms that a broadcaster chooses to uses to ensure fairness, objectivity and impartiality in relation to election or referenda interests.”

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