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Compliant made against bias of RTE show upheld

Station: Programme: Date: RT£ Radio 1 Marian Finucane Show 2 April 2011

Complaint Summary:

Mr. Coughlan's complaint is submitted under the Broadcasting Act, 2009 section 48(1)(a)(fairness, objectivity & impartiality in current affairs). The complaint refers to an interview on the Marian Finucane Show with Pat Cox, President of the European Movement International and campaigner in favour of Irish membership of the Eurozone in Ireland's Maastricht Treaty referendum. Mr. Coughlan submits that this interview, without any other discussant being present or included to give counter views on key disputed issues in the development of Ireland's banking crisis, gave Mr. Cox the opportunity to present a significantly one-sided and unbalanced account of Ireland's banking crisis which was misleading in important respects to those listening. In particular, by omitting certain facts and misstating others, Mr. Cox's unchallenged presentation sought to deny or deflect any criticism of the EU and the Eurozone authorities as being significantly responsible for Ireland's banking crisis and to state or imply that it was solely or mainly Ireland's own fault. As is well known, that causes and development of Ireland's banking crisis are important issues of current controversy and debate in Irish public affairs.

The complainant further submits that the failure to include another discussant in the programme who was not, like Mr. Cox, an avowed proponent of, and apologist for, ever-further EU integration and the related failure to indicate to listeners that any attempt would be made to remedy this omission and the lack of balance which it inevitably led to on a later programme in some way, meant that listeners to this particular broadcast were presented with an account of important current events that was significantly misleading, partisan, unbalanced, lacking in objectivity and unfair to various interests that are concerned about these matters, and was therefore in breach of RTE's statutory obligations regarding current affairs coverage under the Broadcasting Act.

The presenter, Marian Finucane, put various questions to Mr. Cox in the course of the programme, but she did not challenge his responses and she could not reasonably be expected to have the full knowledge of the errors of fact and omission which characterized Mr. Cox's 45-minute partisan and patronizing “lecture to the nation” that constituted the programme's essential content.

The politically partisan character and lack of balance of Mr. Cox's presentation may be illustrated, inter alia, by the following:

Mr. Cox was permitted to make false, misleading and unchallenged statements to the effect that the Government's blanket guarantee to the banks in September 2008 was entirely an Irish matter, given without consulting the EU authorities and that the latter were annoyed at this solo effect by Ireland at “donning the green jersey”. It was the case that some EU Governments, the UK Government in particular, expressed annoyance at the blanket character of the Irish Government's guarantee, but it was central European Central Bank policy at the time that no Irish bank should be let fail, not least Anglo-Irish Bank. The reason was that such a failure would have badly hit bondholders in German, French and British banks that had lent large sums to the Irish banks and would possibly be emulated in other peripheral Eurozone countries such as Greece.

Mr. Cox made significant play of the fact that Finland is a Eurozone country which does not have Ireland's banking problems, so suggesting that Eurozone membership has anything to do with the latter is fallacious. If there had been a well-informed and less partisan interlocutor on the programme along with Mr. Cox they might have pointed out that Finland had a severe banking crisis in the early 1990's, which made its banks follow a much more conservative lending policy than the Irish ones after both countries adopted the Eurozone's unsuitably low-interest-rate regimeJn 1999.

Mr. Cox's failure to allude to certain key facts relevant to Ireland and other Eurozone countries which would sustain the view, quite antipathetic to Mr. Cox's own, that abolishing the national currency and joining the Eurozone in 1999 was/seriously irresponsible policy error on the part of the Irish State. All the other 16 Eurozone countries do half or more of'their trade with one another, whereas Ireland does nearly two-thirds of its trade outside the Eurozone. This makes Ireland particularly vulnerable to adverse exchange rate movements by the euro-currency e^g. its current rise vis-a-vis the dollar, which hits In'sh exports to the USA. This latter fact is very relevant to any consideration of whether abolishing the national currency and joining the Eurozone was a good idea for Ireland. Mr. Coughlan is not criticising Marian Finucane for not adverting to it and one does not know whether having someone on the programme with a different view would have raised it, but it is highly probable. One can be certain that Mr. Cox, who will be well aware of this aspect of the matter, was unlikely to draw attention to it because it would not suit his propagandist purpose.

Mr. Coughlan mentions this as an illustration of key points that were omitted from the programme as a result of the decision to give it the particular and highly unusual one-sided format which it had. The resulting freedom for Mr. Cox to express his partisanship and the absence of any contrary critical voice meant that people listening to the programme were misled as to significant aspects of this important issue of current public controversy and debate. Mr. Coughlan is concerned that this particular broadcast was an egregious/of RTE's traditionally high standard of balance, in fairness, objectivity and impartiality in its treatment current affairs issues.

Station's Response:

It is RTE's contention that the presenter conducted an informed and thorough interview showing no evidence of bias or personal political views at any time during the course of the interview. Mr. Coughlan's suggestion that the interview required an alternative viewpoint is not accepted by RTE. The regular listener to the programme is fully aware that the Saturday edition is always a single interview with the presenter asking the required questions and challenging the claims made by the contributor. This is a well established current affairs format which is widely recognised as legitimate. As long as the right questions are asked and the presenter remains objective statutory requirements are fulfilled.

RTE fully accepts that Mr. Coughlan holds alternative views on European integration and Irish sovereignty to Mr. Cox and would wish to see Mr. Cox's views opposed. However, this desire on Mr. Coughlan's part is irrelevant in any assessment of the complaint.

Pat Cox was an appropriate person to invite onto the programme as an interviewee. His career in public life and in European institutions gives him a unique perspective on Ireland and the EU. The reason Mr. Cox was invited onto this particular programme was that there was a widespread perception that Ireland had been badly treated by the EU during the new Government's negotiations over the bailout of the national finances. As somebody who had spent a number of decades at the heart of Ireland's relationship with the ED, Pat Cox seemed like the ideal person to address concerns over that relationship. During the interview, Marian Finucane asked numerous questions relating to the role of the ECB in the overheating of the Irish property market and the intransigent stance being taken in relation to Ireland having to carry the full cost of the banking debt. She also read out a series of listener comments at around the halfway point of the interview, all of which were in opposition to the points raised by Pat Cox.

It is also worth noting that most of the points raised by Anthony Coughlan in relation to Europe's role in the banking crisis have been raised repeatedly by other contributors to the programme over the last couple of years. Two examples are: an interview earlier this year with Brian Patterson (former Chairman of the Financial Regulator), in which low ECB interest rates were clearly identified as a cause of the property bubble and an interview with David McWilliams on a Saturday morning during initial negotiations with the ECB/IMF, in which he was strongly critical of the ECB's role in the negotiations.

Marian Finucane conducted a thorough interview showing herself to be knowledgeable of contemporary issues around the role of EU membership in Ireland's economic collapse. Her contribution to the programme was that of a professional neutral interviewer. Her style of interviewing is not that of the aggressive combative style. Her style is to ask the right questions and then allow her guests to answer those questions without interruption. This style of interviewing often delivers a more insightful understanding than the more aggressive interviewing styles preferred by some presenters.

Decision of the Compliance Committee:

The Committee considered the broadcast, the written submissions of the complainant and the broadcaster. The Committee noted that the complaint concerned an interview on the Marian Finucane Show with Mr. Pat Cox in a feature on Europe, specifically Europe's role and current stance in relation to Ireland's banking crisis. In assessing the complaint, the Committee had to have regard to the fairness, objectivity and impartiality in current affairs requirements of the Broadcasting Act, 2009.

The Committee must respect the broadcaster's right to freedom of expression. The Committee would also acknowledge that the programme-maker has editorial independence in deciding the perspective on which a report/feature in a programme will be based and who will be invited to participate in the programme. In this regard, the Committee noted the introduction to the programme by the presenter:

“Our first guest drove up from Cork which was very good of him but really what we are doing is not so much on Pat Cox himself as on Europe.”

The presenter then introduced her guest as a President of the European Parliament, an MEP and “really a Mr. Europe for a very long time”.

The discussion which ensued concerned, in the main, the State's banking crisis, its present financial position and Europe's role fn the ED and IMF bailout, topics which are matters of current and ongoing public concern, debate and controversy. The Committee considered the audience expectation and both the programme and presenter's style and noted thaHhis segment of the Saturday programme normally takes the format of a profile interview with a well-known person in which the presenter asks questions about their careers/lives and views on certain topics. While the interviewees may express their views on current affairs, in the main, their story is told from a human interest perspective and/or the interview has a personal context/nature to it.

Accordingly, this particular programme differed from the normal expectation in the sense that the entire interview, of approximately three quarters of an hour, was dedicated to issues of current public controversy and debate. This was reflected in the presenter's introduction to the interview. The five texts read out by the presenter in the middle of the programme also demonstrated that the topics under discussion were such. What is important to the Committee is that the programme dealing with such matters makes every reasonable effort to present a range of significant viewpoints and be fair to all interests concerned.

The guest was introduced, and is well known, as a person who is pro-Europe and an avid supporter of Ireland's membership of the EU. He adopted a partial pro-EU stance throughout the interview. He was permitted to express his views over the course of the broadcast. The Committee would note the submission of the broadcaster that the presenter's contribution to the programme was that of a professional neutral interviewer. However, the Committee noted that the format differed somewhat from the regular slot of the profile interview, the importance and consequence of the subject matter for the Irish citizen, and the absence of another interviewee. In these circumstances the Committee took the view there was a greater onus on the presenter to challenge the interviewee's views and ensure that alternative views on Europe and the topics under discussion were adequately presented. In the opinion of the Committee, this onus was not discharged. The Committee would acknowledge that the presenter read out five texts expressing listeners' comments at around the halfway point of the interview, all of which were in opposition to the points raised by Pat Cox but he was not asked to respond to each of the texts, rather, he chose to address only one.

The broadcasting legislation obliges a broadcaster to ensure that current affairs subject matter is treated fairly and in particular, matters which are the subject of current public debate and controversy. Therefore, it was incumbent on the broadcaster to ensure, in a matter of enormous current public concern, that all sides of the issue were addressed fairly. The broadcasting legislation also allows for fairness, objectivity and impartiality to be achieved in more than one broadcast. However, this provision is qualified by the legislation and is permitted in the case it proves impracticable in relation to a single broadcast to apply the fairness, objectivity and impartiality rule. The Committee noted that the broadcaster submits that contributors to the programme over the past two years have voiced the opinions raised by the complainant. The Committee also noted the introduction to the interview. It was evident on hearing the broadcast, that the approach to the interview had been planned and pre-arranged for this particular broadcast of the Marian Finucane Show. No wider context was referred to by the presenter in the course of the programme and further, no wider context was sufficiently argued in the broadcaster's response. Therefore, the only broadcast relevant to the assessment of this complaint is the Marian Finucane Show broadcast on 2 April 2011. The Committee was of the view that the content of the discussion amounted to a one-sided viewpoint on issues concerning the current economic crisis. While recognising the importance of the freedom of expression, the Committee is also obliged to recognise the public interest of a subject matter. In this instance, the broadcast treatment of a major issue of public concern and consequence resulted in one view being given prominence without ensuring that alternative viewpoints were fairly represented. The programme was not fair to all interests concerned and accordingly the complaint was upheld with regard to the fairness, objectivity and impartiality requirements of the Broadcasting Act, 2009.

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2011-06-28 14:38:47.
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