WHEN assessing how fairly our broadcast media report on and deal with news stories what is important is not only how they deal with those stories, but what stories get covered in the first place.
There is a truly grisly murder trial taking place in America. On trial on eight counts of murder is Dr Kermit Gosnell who ran an abortion clinic in Philadelphia.
Gosnell performed many very late term abortions, so late term in fact that some of the babies were born alive.
Those testifying against him describe how, if a baby was born alive, Gosnell would deal with this inconvenient fact by sticking a pair of medical scissors into the back of the necks of the babies, thereby cutting the spinal cord, a procedure he called 'snipping' or, to you and me, infanticide.
When police raided his clinic in 2010, they described what they found: "There was blood on the floor. A stench of urine filled the air. A flea-infested cat was wandering through the facility, and there were cat faeces on the stairs."
Over the year he performed 16,000 abortions in this horror shop.
The two surgical rooms resembled a "bad gas station restroom".
The police recovered the remains of 45 foetuses "in bags, milk jugs, orange juice cartons, and even in cat-food containers." A nurse testified to how she once heard one of those aborted babies crying before it died.
This story has not been covered by RTE that I am aware of.
However, in the last few days the station has had time to cover the killing of a six-year old boy in America by his four-year old friend; the discovery of six strangled bodies in Mexico; as well as an earth- shattering story about an airport worker who handed in a resignation letter to his employer in the form of a cake.
What news protocol did RTE use when deciding to cover these foreign stories, but not the Gosnell story? But RTE is not alone here. Even the major US networks have played down the story even though it is a major and important trial by any reckoning.
I mention this not simply because it is worth mentioning, but because the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has issued a new 'Code of Fairness, Objectivity & Impartiality in News and Current Affairs'.
What gets reported and how it is reported has a truly massive influence on public thinking and therefore on democracy. If a story isn't reported at all, then it doesn't enter public consciousness.
If it is covered in an unfair and partial way, then the public's understanding of the story becomes badly distorted.
In respect of how abortion is covered, we get to hear about women who die allegedly because of tough anti-abortion laws.
We hear about women who can't abort their fatally handicapped foetuses and have to go to England instead. We hear about rape victims who have to go to England for the same reason.
But we don't hear about the Gosnell case. We don't hear about the Irish woman who nearly died in an abortion clinic in the UK a couple of years ago. We don't hear about the Irish women who carried their fatally handicapped babies to term and are glad they did. We don't hear about the rape victims who carried their babies to term and are glad they did. We don't hear from those women who regret their abortions.
This pattern repeats itself in story after story. During the property boom, voices warning of impending doom were mostly drowned out or attacked, to our great cost.
Declan Ganley was thoroughly demonised for opposing the Lisbon Treaty.
The coverage of the same-sex marriage issue is totally disgraceful. Programme after programme, including several on 2FM this week, are delighted to act as pro-same sex marriage mouthpieces in flagrant breach of the broadcasting code.
In this regard, the commercial stations are even worse than our national broadcaster.
The coverage of American politics and the Middle East is a joke, so bad is the bias.
Another factor that led to the present economic disaster was the failure by the bank regulators to use their powers.
It is quite clear that our broadcasters regularly fail in their duty to be fair and impartial. What is the BAI doing about this?
Surely it can't be that hard to work out when a panel is biased towards one side or when a presenter is only asking one side the tough questions?
Mostly the BAI seems to wait until a member of the public submits a badly-drafted complaint about some item which is then easily dismissed.
The BAI has powers of regulation just like the bank regulators did but it seems to take an exceedingly 'light-touch' approach to them just like the banker regulators did during the boom. Therefore it rarely goes after a station of its own volition.
Why not? Is it because it is simply blind to much of the bias of our broadcasters, or is it scared of the media? After all, if it takes on the media too hard it can expect a mighty backlash.
But frankly this isn't good enough. Media fairness is as vital to democracy as well-run banks are to the economy. The BAI has to lift its game enormously no matter how big a backlash it provokes. It is its duty to do so.