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The seven candidates in last year's Presidential election, preparing for the RTÉ Prime Time debate with Miriam O'Callaghan. Photocall Ireland

RTÉ to stay 50-50 for referendum debates - but news coverage 'cannot be prejudged'

The national broadcaster is dropping a ‘stopwatch’ system for news broadcasts, but will keep it for formal debates.

RTÉ HAS INSISTED it will retain its 50-50 balance for the Yes and No sides in formal debates on the forthcoming Children’s Rights referendum – but says it cannot prejudge the content of its broader news ocverage.

In a statement this lunchtime the broadcaster said it remained the position that RTÉ would “balance the yes and no sides 50-50″ when participating in formal debates on programmes like Prime Time or The Frontline.

It added, however, that RTÉ’s broader news coverage would be “driven by the news agenda on a day to day basis”.

“Coverage will be impartial and objective,” it said. “While news coverage cannot be prejudged, as always RTÉ will monitor and review its coverage throughout the campaign.”

The statement follows a report in today’s Sunday Business Post suggesting that the national broadcaster would revise the ‘stopwatch’ system used in its other news broadcasts, under which campaigners for the Yes and No sides are given precisely equal amounts of airtime.

The revisions have come about because of the unusually one-sized nature of the current campaign, with all the major political parties seeking a Yes vote and only a handful of smaller groups advocating a No vote.

RTÉ’s current stance on 50-50 coverage stems from the Supreme Court ruling in the McKenna case in 1995, when it was found that state funds could not be spent on a campaign favouring one side of a referendum over another.

That complaint dealt with actions of the government of the day, however, and not RTÉ itself – which was not ordered by the court to impose the strict 50-50 model it has used ever since.

Other than its obligation to offer time to the Referendum Commission for the broadcast of informational videos, RTÉ has no formal obligations with respect to referendum coverage beyond its usual obligation to offer balanced and impartial coverage in all current affairs broadcasting.

Read: Noonan asks RTÉ to reconsider 50-50 rule for children’s rights referendum

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