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David Quinn: Broadcaster's bias illustrated by its need for guidelines

If RTE was really as impartial as it claimed, then why the need for new interim Journalism Guidelines issued by the station this week?

After all, if it was the very model of fairness that it claims to be, and the Fr Kevin Reynolds defamation was simply an unfortunate lapse, then these new guidelines should hardly be needed at all.

All the station would need is a new rule that says if you make a scientifically falsifiable claim against someone -- like you fathered a child -- get it scientifically tested first. But the problem at RTE goes very much deeper than this and involves a generalised and systemic bias.

However, in the new guidelines there is a hint or two that a tiny bit of a realisation might finally be dawning on some people at the station that it really does have a problem.

For example, on page 13, section 8.4, we find the following statement: "News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of opinion." So far, so very platitudinous.

But that sentence is followed by: "This may require packages to be balanced internally and not rely on a subsequent interview." Now we're getting somewhere.

'Packages' means the report that usually precedes a debate on a show like 'Prime Time'. Time and again, these packages are heavily skewed.

The result is that the person in the subsequent panel debate who is taking a position different from that presented in the package is three-nil down before kick off.

But the viewer at home is often none the wiser.

On Tuesday's 'Prime Time', we had a classic example of this.

The issue was surrogate motherhood and the practice of infertile Irish couples going out to India and renting the wombs of impoverished Indian women.

The package before the studio discussion interviewed several couples who have gone down this route. When these couples were being interviewed, in the background was played the sort of music typically used in tear-jerker movies.

Two ethicists were interviewed, one in favour of surrogacy and the other who almost sounded neutral even though he's against surrogacy.

So the audience was being shamelessly conditioned. Following the package, Miriam O'Callaghan interviewed Breda O'Brien, patron of The Iona Institute (which I head), to outline in a little over four minutes the objections to surrogacy.

Miriam then turned to Justice Minister Alan Shatter and as much as admitted that the film package at the start of the item was biased.

She said: "The film itself was obviously very positive in relation to surrogacy so it was important to get another view" -- namely Breda's.

My question is, why was the film pro-surrogacy? Why wasn't it neutral?

Ms O'Brien might have had some hope of balancing the package if she was on her own.

The 'Prime Time' team probably thinks a little gratitude is in order because Ms O'Brien was given four minutes on her own. Mr Shatter was given about five. But balance is balance. This is just one small but telling example of the problem at RTE.

The new guidelines aren't bad at all. But they will have to be enforced.

During the boom, we actually had pretty good bank regulations but generally useless bank watchdogs. Is it forever to be the same with regard to our national broadcaster?

Irish Independent