Twice in the space of two months last year, in the wake of the defeat of the Lisbon treaty, Willie O'Reilly, the chairman of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, attacked the concept of fair and balanced coverage of referendum campaigns. At a Broadcasting Commission of Ireland conference in September, he suggested that rules mandating equal coverage for both sides in a referendum campaign were a "charter for every awkward squad". Referring to Libertas leader Declan Ganley, Mr O'Reilly said: "We need to look at how a charismatic person with funding that was questionable was elevated by default by the media into a position of leading what seemed to be a nationwide campaign, yet that person had no mandate."
He defined a mandate as actually being elected to the Oireachtas. If your party had TDs in the Dáil, you had a mandate; if you didn't, you hadn't. The fact that Lisbon hadn't been an issue in the last general election, and that political parties had no mandate one way or another from the people to talk about it, was apparently neither here nor there.
In November, Mr O'Reilly was at it again. Broadcasters had to use a stopwatch method to ensure both sides got equal time in a referendum campaign, he complained. "The perversity of this is that weak arguments gain traction with repetition, and charismatic leaders of doubtful representation are feted by the media".
The idea that weak arguments gain momentum with constant repetition and leave strong arguments in intensive care is ludicrous. Weak arguments tend to be exposed by being regularly held up to scrutiny on programmes such as The Last Word, which goes out on Today FM, of which Mr O'Reilly is chief executive. Mr O'Reilly should tune in more often if he wants to witness good examples of bad ideas being taken apart. If he'd been tuning in last year, he'd have heard plenty of Declan Ganley.
I was reminded of Mr O'Reilly's remarks on Thursday when Angela Kerins, chief executive of the Rehab Group, offered her opinion about what balance in referendum campaigns should mean. "Unfortunately," she said, "by interpreting media guidelines for coverage of a referendum as requiring equal airtime for the Yes and No sides rather than a more qualitative measure, the media, while striving to, does not always achieve this equity." In other words, the media must decide beforehand whether a particular argument has merit – the "qualitative measure" – and therefore whether the great unwashed should be allowed to hear it.
It seems appropriate that Kerins made her remarks at the MacGill summer school in Glenties, which this year doubled as a kind of Star Chamber for the Irish establishment. With few exceptions, as Michael Clifford discusses elsewhere in the Sunday Tribune today, only one argument about the economic crisis was allowed to prevail. The same applies to Lisbon. A Yes vote has been deemed by the political and media establishment as the only reasonable result; anybody who holds an alternative view is deeply resented. Willie O'Reilly deems these people to be the "awkward squad" and wants to keep them off his radio station. Angela Kerins wants to subject their arguments to a kind of subjective acceptability test before she will let them be heard on the airwaves.
The newspapers are not much better, which is why it will be so difficult for the No campaign to win October's rerun, now less than 70 days away. The Irish Times, for example, has carried (by my count) 20 articles about Lisbon (and issues arising) on its opinion and editorial pages since 19 June – when Brian Cowen was given some non-legally binding guarantees on a range of issues. Seventeen of these articles have been in favour of a Yes vote, or sympathetic to the Yes campaign; three came from a No perspective. The paper's Sarah Carey can complain all she likes about how Big Bad Frank in the Sunday Times wouldn't let her write a column supporting the Yes campaign last year, but she should consider that she has arrived in her new job in a no less partisan organ, as far as Lisbon is concerned.
Declan Ganley will not be a presence in the coming campaign, he says, but there are many others – Richard Greene, Roger Cole, Patricia McKenna – who can fly the flag for the No campaign just as well. Whether they will be allowed to be heard, or whether their awkwardness will be censored, could be one of the issues of the campaign.
Let's hope RTé is doing balance this time around.
Bowled over by a divine record about cricket
Like Pugwash's Thomas Walsh, I used to play cricket on a Wexford beach (him in Courtown, me in Duncannon) when I was a child on holidays. Unlike Walsh, however, I never developed a lifelong love of the game; still less was I tempted to make an album out of it.
Which is why I'm so surprised to find myself so addicted to his new record, which he released with Neil Hannon a few weeks ago under the name The Duckworth Lewis Method. A 37-minute homage to cricket, it fulfills a key requirement of any work of art – to engender in the listener an affection for unfamiliar subject matter and make him curious to learn more. It's also funny, and catchy, and a reminder of what summers used to be like before the rains came. A Choice music prize nominee next year, I predict.