Enjoy the silence – “balance” has failed

The broadcast moratorium on the Irish Marriage Equality referendum is now in force, meaning that legacy technology is now excluded from the debate, which will continue online in earnest until long after the polls have closed.

But as the curtains come down on the radio and TV coverage and debates, it’s time to call a spade a spade – “balance” as it is interpreted in Irish journalism (particularly in broadcast journalism) has been a spectacular and predictable failure.

The McKenna judgment may loom large but it is no excuse for not robustly challenging and investigating both sides of the campaign.

Declining to properly investigate and analyse the funding of both sides may appear at first glance to be balanced, but it’s not, as it is the voters who are left wondering how to follow the money.

Allowing campaigners to go unchallenged with statements that range from the completely spurious to the downright offensive does not provide “balance.”

Allowing campaigners to keep referring to the same unrelated subjects, over and over and over again, despite the Referendum Commission saying several times that they were of no relevance, does not provide balance.

Instead, it allows the waters to be muddied – the very antithesis of what journalism, and in particular public service broadcasting, should be.

We have had a situation where, under the watchful myopic eye of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, editors, producers and journalists were too busy watching the clock to ensure that both sides get equal time to notice that the emperors they are interviewing were in many cases not wearing any clothes.

In our newspapers, opinion pieces from both sides were published seemingly without any facts being checked. Glaring errors and misleading information went uncorrected and unacknowledged.

The result was a skewed and shallow debate about non-issues that leaves Irish media consumers with more questions than answers.

Given that Irish people have a tendency to leave the constitution untouched when they don’t have clarity on the issue at hand, it’s hardly a wonder that the gap is closing.

The issue – whether “marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex” – has barely been discussed, if at all, in the run-up to polling day.

In the vast majority of cases, media moguls have been running scared.

In some cases, “experts” put forward turned out to be nothing more than internet trolls with dubious credentials. And in the case of at least one prominent gay member of the No campaign, the most charitable thing that can be said is that if he didn’t exist, they would have had to invent him.

Forced to pick from a tiny pool of No contributors, the same faces trotted out arguments that became more and more hysterical and irrelevant.

Pointing this out to them would not have been in any way unbalanced. It would have been simple common sense.

Alas, it happened all too seldom.

There are some notable exceptions – Philip Boucher-Hayes and Miriam O’Callaghan (RTE), Chris Donoghoe (Newstalk) and Matt Cooper (Today FM) all interrupted rants at times to point out that the contents of them were not relevant.

This, unfortunately wasn’t enough to stop some of the debaters, whose ignorance of good manners was almost as broad as their ignorance of the facts.

The provision of impartial information is the job of the Referendum Commission. It is not the media to be a mouthpiece for either side.

It is the job of journalists to report what happens, to question what they are told and to try to put it in context.

For too long,the practice of journalism in Ireland has been drowned in a sea of whingeing from vested interests with an enormous sense of entitlement, and who see the media as nothing more then their own personal moral megaphone.

For much of the existence of this state, the Catholic Church has been at the top of that particular queue, and to a certain extent it still is.

But there can be no obligation for the media to be “balanced” when the arguments put forth are anything but.

Freedom of speech is about being able to say whatever you want – but it does not and should not oblige anyone else to give you a platform to spout bilious irrelevant nonsense.

Also implicit in freedom of speech is that your opinions and your motivations will be rigorously teased out and tested.

Freedom of speech means that you are free to think and to say and to write what you like – but no-one is under any obligation to publish or broadcast it, or  indeed to listen to it or read it.

The Marriage Referendum debate has been a failure of the Irish Fourth Estate, but it is not entirely the fault of journalism.

We need to understand that in some issues the public is in broad agreement, and that giving 50% of airtime in such situations is only going to cause unnecessary hurt and damage to fellow citizens.

We need to recognise that the media ultimately does not tell us what to think – only what to think about. Our families and our peers have a much greater influence on how our opinions are formed than any op-ed piece or self-aggrandising debate contribution ever could have.

In short, we need to learn that balance cannot exist, and exercise common sense instead. There are many rights that come with citizenship but one of the most important responsibilities we have is to understand the consequences of exercising our vote.

And that’s something nobody should be relying on the media for.

 

 

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