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Don’t type controversial opinions

Read more about: Communication, Democracy, Oireachtas, Referenda, Social Policy     Print This Post

On 12 October 2012, a process by which an opinion column written by opinion columnist Kevin Myers on the opinion pages of the Irish Independent newspaper had been hauled before Ireland’s statutory Press Ombudsman came to an end. The Press Ombudsman ruled that opinion columnist Kevin Myers had used his opinion column on the opinion pages of the Irish Independent newspaper to express opinions not supported by “facts.” Specifically Myers had made various disparaging remarks about the links between the legalisation of homosexual activity and gay marriage and various societal ills to which Myers was of the opinion that these measures had contributed –

The ombudsman found the newspaper had failed to “distinguish adequately between fact and comment”, and the breaches were “capable of causing grave offence”.

On 7 November 2012, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland issued a reminder to broadcasters about the requirements of election coverage. The context was an imminent referendum on an amendment to the constitution to strengthen children’s rights — an amendment with overwhelming support in the legislature. Among the issues stressed by the Authority –

Broadcasters choosing to provide coverage of elections and/or referenda should develop mechanisms that are open, transparent and fair to all interested parties. These mechanisms should be considered and developed at an early stage and information on the approach being adopted should be available to all interested parties in advance. Decisions in respect of editorial content rest with broadcasters. Accordingly, it will be a matter for individual broadcasters to decide the most effective way to reflect all the interests involved in an election and/or referendum. In so deciding, broadcasters should be cognisant of the differences between the different types of elections and between elections and referenda. For example, in an election, the electoral interests may be reflected on a constituency, regional or national basis, however, in a referendum, all sides to the debate should be afforded a fair hearing.

In practice, this means that anyone with any opinion, regardless of its base in reality, has a right to access to the public airwaves, as long as there is an actual substantive debate with constitutional consequences taking place.

And before anyone says, ah but Myers fell foul of the rules for print media while the latter rule applies to broadcast, think about the underlying message: Someone who types up an opinion in the old fashioned way and has it printed in the famously money-losing and commercially operated press, which no one has to buy or read, has to ensure that his opinions are backed by “facts”, but as long as there’s an election on, it’s a free-for-all in terms of access to the public airwaves and the license-fee funded state broadcaster, with an always-on radio or television in every house in the country.

By the way, while the government has to allocate public assets to “all sides”, it can’t spend any money advocating for its own position already endorsed by the legislature.  In addition, the vagueness of the guidelines for referendum coverage and government advocacy are an invitation to legal action, with the salaries and fees of everyone involved ultimately backstopped by a state that is borrowing from the IMF and EU to pay its bills — with a little money left over to make sure print media opinion columnists aren’t making a nuisance of themselves. Hopefully our overseas paymasters find these antics amusing.

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  1. Nov 20th, 2012