It was OK for Irish public broadcaster RTE to allow audience members to cheer during a political debate, the Irish broadcasting regulator ruled. The RTE program, Claire Byrne Live, aired May 14, 2018 and featured a debate on a then-upcoming referendum to repeal Ireland’s 8th amendment, which banned abortion. (Later that month, the amendment was repealed.)
A viewer complained to the broadcast regulator, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, arguing the program was biased and offensive because the audience members were allowed to cheer over speakers and thus ended up with some speakers getting more time to speak to compensate. As the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland explained:
“The complainant claims that the presenter failed to sufficiently moderate the debate which, in the view of the complainant, allowed audience members who supported the ‘No’ side to whoop and holler over speakers for the ‘Yes’ side. This made the programme very difficult to watch and also resulted in the ‘No’ side being afforded more airtime, with ‘Yes’ campaigners being interrupted by the presenter or heckled by the audience.”
RTE defended its program, saying it was a “heated” debate but its host was unbiased. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland rejected the complaint, finding that it was handled similarly to previous political debates and a “wide range of views were explored.” The authority explained:
“The Committee noted that the audience participation was volatile at times, however, it was a live debate about an emotive issue and the robust nature of the debate would be expected and is consistent with past coverage of referenda debates. The Committee noted that a wide range of views were explored throughout the programme and both sides of the debate were afforded the opportunity to present various viewpoint”
In its own news story about the ruling, RTE reported, “RTÉ has welcomed the decision, saying the programme gave an equitable and fair opportunity to both sides to express their views and the presenter consistently requested that speakers and audience show respect for each others point of view. ”
iMediaEthics contacted RTE for further comment about the ruling and debate. An RTE spokesperson declined to comment.