RTÉ’s Head of Broadcast Compliance has sent an email to its entire staff asking that they do not voice their opinions on the upcoming marriage referendum, including on social media.
It is normal for broadcasters to ask news presenters, producers and journalists not to state their personal and political opinions for the sake of objectivity. However, this email was sent to all employees associated with RTÉ, including editorial staff, support staff, contracted staff, freelance staff, as well as sub-contractors who are employed through independent production companies.
The two upcoming referenda are on marriage equality and the age of presidential candidates. There is a very strong social media presence by campaigners on the ‘yes’ side of the marriage equality referendum. Many people supporting it have been showing their views on Facebook and Twitter. However, RTÉ clearly told its staff not to partake in this activity as the memo specifically stated: “For the duration of the campaign debate, you should not state on social media your views on either of the two referendums; this includes banners, retweets, Twitter avatars, watermarks, and so on.”
RTÉ’s directions to its staff goes further than anything recommended in the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s guidelines for the coverage of referenda, which was issued last week. These guidelines urge broadcasters to ensure that programme presenters do not make off-air comments on referenda, which includes on social media. It does not recommend that any other staff refrain from doing so.
It states: “Broadcasters should note that that comments made off-air, for example in print publications or social media, by programme presenters in respect of the referenda, particularly presenters of news and current affairs, may have the potential to undermine the perceived impartiality of their coverage. It is a matter for broadcasters to deal with such issues in the context of their contractual or employment relationship with presenters.”
It should be noted that RTÉ’s position on the issue of its employee’s personal views were clear before this email was sent. The RTÉ journalism guidelines say that audiences should be confident that editorial decisions are not influenced by personal interests. While RTÉ’s social media guidelines, which were published in 2013, show that this is not a new policy as it states the broadcaster’s right to control personal social media accounts: “These accounts [personal accounts], by nature of the owner’s contractual association with RTÉ, are bound by these guidelines… RTÉ reserves the right to instruct RTÉ staff and contractors to remove content from hybrid personal and/or personal social media accounts which brings RTÉ into disrepute.”
RTÉ may be attempting to tread carefully after ‘Pantigate’, which cost the broadcaster €85,000 and led to much criticism from people on both sides of the marriage equality referendum. Stephen Fry called its handling of the situation an “absolute disgrace”, according to The Irish Independent.
However, it is unclear if this most recent memo from RTÉ instructing all of its staff to refrain from expressing any personal views on personal social media accounts infringes on its employees’ right to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed in Article 40.6.1.i in the Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann. It may be considered unconstitutional as many of its staff are not involved in referendum coverage and, by following its guidelines, they must state on their social media accounts that all views expressed are their own.
How RTÉ plans to monitor personal statements made by its staff, freelancers and independent production company workers on social media is also unclear.
So far, reaction to the news on Twitter is mostly negative:
I really feel for LGBT people working in RTE when they get emails like that. Can you imagine how that feels? Talk about oppressive.
— Una Mullally (@UnaMullally) April 1, 2015
— Colette Browne (@colettebrowne) April 1, 2015
Photo by: Bernie Goldbach (via Irish Typepad on Flickr)