Tuesday 20 March 2018

Exclusion of Green Party from leaders debates on RTE is 'unconstitutional', judge told

Green party leader Eamon Ryan campaigning in Dublin. Photo: Tom Burke
Green party leader Eamon Ryan campaigning in Dublin. Photo: Tom Burke

RTE’s exclusion of Green Party leader Eamon Ryan from two party leaders’ debates to be broadcast later this month as part of the national broadcaster’s general election coverage is fundamentally unfair, undemocratic and unconstitutional, the High Court has been told.

Ms Justice Marie Baker has begun hearing the Greens’ action against RTE over Mr Ryan’s exclusion from the debates, the first of which is due for broadcast next Monday, February 15th.

 Mr Ryan’s exclusion on grounds the Greens do not meet RTE’s criterion of having three TDs in the outgoing Dail is arbitrary, overly rigid and unfair and fails to recognise the Greens are an all-Ireland party running some 40 candidates in this general election and with 12 councillors here, Siobhán Phelan SC said.

That criterion only applies to party leaders’ debates and not other general election coverage, she said. RTE’s position results in unfair coverage of pre-election policies and inequality of treatment of the Green Party to its detriment, she argued.

RTE ’s decision also suggested the Green Party is not a significant player as Mr Ryan was being excluded from two debates, one involving four and the second involving seven party leaders.

Some of those leaders would get two opportunities to address the electorate while Mr Ryan would have no opportunity at all, counsel said. Two of the leaders included in the debates headed parties which did not even exist at the time of the last general election, she added.

She was opening the hearing of proceedings before Ms Justice Baker in which the Greens want orders quashing Mr Ryan’s exclusion. The action is brought by Green Party trustee Tom Kivlehan and is proceeding via an application for leave judicial review being heard in tandem with the actual judicial review. RTE, represented by Nuala Butler SC, denies the claims.

In her opening, Ms Phelan said the RTE party leaders’ debate has evolved since it was first introduced in 1982 and has taken different formats over time.

These debates are “significant events”, she said.

As the purpose of the seven leader debate was to allow a wider platform, that begged the question why the Greens were excluded. Her case was RTE’s decision to exclude the Greens interfered with the democratic process protected under the Constitution.

RTE was acting in breach of several provisions of the Constitution, including the rights to freedom of expression and of association essential to the democratic nature of the State, counsel argued.

This case raises issues of fundamental significance because RTE is a public broadcaster regulated by law, with express duties to be fair and impartial in its election coverage and not to favour one party in that coverage, she submitted.

Mr Kivlehan and Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin are in court for the hearing.

Ms Justice Baker heard the Greens had complained about the party's exclusion to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and decided to bring proceedings last Friday after the Commission told Mr Ryan in a letter last Thursday its Compliance Committee could not deal with his concerns as it was limited to considering complaints arising from programmes already broadcast.

The Greens contend the party leader's exclusion will have a material and adverse effect on their prospects in the general election. The leadership debate, they claim, will "frame" the rest of media coverage leading to further exclusion of the party from the national debate.

It is also argued the Green Party has had a specific role in matters such as management of recent economic issues and climate change. Unless its leader is entitled to counter arguments other parties may make on those issues, the debate on such matters may be "skewed", it is claimed.

The application is accompanied by an expert opinion from Dr Colum Kenny, a former professor of communications at Dublin City University, in which he is critical of the exclusion of Mr Ryan form the debates and of RTE's environmental coverage.

The hearing continues.

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