The BAI, Media and Fairness
Over the last few days there has been a lot of reaction to a recent BAI decision. The BAI upheld a complaint against ‘The Mooney show’ as it found that it had not provided balance in relation to an item on Same Sex Marriage considering that we are due to have a referendum on the issue.
Let me start out by making a couple of points. Personally, I support the idea of Same Sex marriage. I also support the finding of the BAI in relation to this matter. When we are supportive of a measure or point of view we can become blind to the fact that there is an opposing argument. We have a tendency to become dismissive of it. However if the shoe was on the other foot we would be scandalised. Some of the people criticising the BAI decision would be apoplectic if a show on RTE had three people saying the opposite with no balance and a referendum coming down the road.
Any person in the media must be conscious of balance. As a broadcaster or a reporter that is where you earn your money, or at least it should be. An ability to observe and appreciate arguments, even if we do not personally agree, is an essential ingredient. I am often asked to take part in panel discussions. When it comes to politics I see it as part of my role to criticise where its deserved and then to also give credit when it is deserved. To put aside my own personal view and try to give a fair and balanced opinion taking into account the arguments in front of me. My own background in Fianna Fail is widely known and written about. There are often occasions where shows struggle to get guests at short notice and I have found myself on a panel with just an FF TD. Immediately this sets off alarm bells for me. I know that the TD is duty bound to be scathing about the government. In that situation even if I am critical of a government policy I will try to allude to their case or to point out difficulties they face. I do this because I immediately feel my role on the panel has shifted from a personal view to a more balanced observer.
In broadcasting it is not difficult, when holding a discussion, to point out that there are opposing viewpoints. It should always be mentioned that another side is not there to defend themselves. When interviewing or asking questions I believe it is my role to always take an opposing view to the person I am talking to. This is simple and doesn’t need to be aggressive, you just simply make the point and ask the person about it. Every so often when I interview a politician for a piece they question me afterwards ‘Surely, you of all people know that argument is rubbish?’ Sometimes I do know I am pushing a line I don’t believe myself but that’s my job when asking questions. It is up to them to point out that the argument is weak or to dismiss it. It’s my job to ensure the point is made and put to them.
Anyone involved in journalism or broadcasting at any level should be careful about leading opinion. We all have opinions of our own and things we like to see happen. There is a time and place to make that argument. If we are not mindful of that then we abuse our position. There is a responsibility. There are many Lawyers and solicitors who have taken cases they might not necessarily agree with but a part of their training is that everyone is entitled to fair representation. The media world is no different. You don’t have to agree with a point in order to make it. You simply need to believe in fairness and ask yourself if the tables were turned what you would like to see. You need to trust the public to be able to decipher arguments without your help and you need to trust an interviewee to be able to make their case without any aid from you. Seeing both sides of an argument is an essential skill for any writer or broadcaster and they should be well able to make arguments on both sides on any given subject. It is a skill that should be practised. If you are paid for your views it’s one thing, if you are paid to extract the views of others it’s another matter entirely.