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16 May 2022

Anti-vax complaints about RTE and Newstalk shows rejected by BAI

Anti-vax complaints about RTE and Newstalk shows rejected by BAI

Anti-vax complaints about RTE and Newstalk shows rejected by BAI

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has rejected at least 35 complaints related to Covid-19 segments on national and local radio and television since last October, a new report has revealed.

In its decision on broadcast complaints published this week, the BAI rejected all but one complaint. That complaint related to a Red FM segment on traveller accommodation. A complainant on behalf of the Cork Traveller Women’s Network claimed that the Neil Prendivlle show piece breached the BAI Code of Practice.

The complainant said "the broadcast contained inaccurate and misleading information and was presented in a manner that was not objective or impartial."

The BAI Compliance Committee upheld the complaint saying they "found the presenter had failed to sufficiently challenge the contributor’s views and the broadcast did not provide a wide variety of views on the subject or reflect the views of those who chose not to participate in the programme."

The Compliance Committee also dealt with 22 complaints relating to Covid-19 segments dating back to October last year when it met in January. The Compliance Committee rejected all 22 complaints while the Executive Complaints Forum of the BAI rejected a further 13 Covid-19 related complaints.

The vast majority of the complaints related to vaccination segments with the same complainants often submitting complaints about more than one show. 

16 of the complaints related to one episode of the Claire Byrne Live show on RTE television which was aired on October 18, 2021.

Most of the complaints concern an interview on that show with journalist Joe O’Shea about people choosing not to have
a Covid-19 vaccination and possible public policy options in relation to this.

One complainant stated that in this discussion with presenter Claire Byrne, the interviewee made specific reference to those
who choose not to be vaccinated because of their young age or religious beliefs. The complainant believes that such a reference may be construed as indirect discrimination in the context of lower rates of Covid-19 vaccine uptake among groups protected under equality law such as ethnic minorities, certain religious affiliations, people with specific disabilities, pregnant women and younger age cohorts.

The complainant believes the interviewee’s reference to people who cannot or choose not to get vaccinated as “hardcore cranks” is highly insulting.

They claimed that the interviewee’s statement that people who are not vaccinated pose a risk to society was misleading and lacked supporting scientific evidence. The complainant believed the presenter did not correct such statements by the interviewee and ought to have done so.

The complainant believes the interview openly attacked a cohort of Irish citizens and claims that the interviewee’s reference to locking people who are not vaccinated out of society could be seen as inciting hatred towards these people.

RTE said it believes the discussion on vaccination and those not availing of vaccination was editorially legitimate, particularly given the consensus of public health advice that vaccination helps reduce the severity of illness and potential mortality from Covid-19 infection. 

They stressed that they were rightly, like other broadcasters, giving "due weight to the consensus of scientific, medical, and public knowledge on issues such as this."

In rejecting the complaint, the BAI Compliance Committee said: "The Committee was satisfied the opinions of the interviewee were clearly presented as such and the presenter appropriately challenged these views and sought the opinions of another contributor on them. The Committee did not believe the audience would have been misled on the issues under discussion and was satisfied the subject was presented in an objective and impartial manner, which was fair to all interests concerned."

The Committee considered whether references to young people or people of religious beliefs in the broadcast had infringed the above provisions of the Code of Programme Standards, as claimed in the complaint. The Committee noted the interviewee’s reference to young people was in the context of explaining why some people may be choosing not to be vaccinated.

The interviewee said, “We have to start compelling people, because a lot of them seem to think that because it’s not affecting me directly, because maybe I’m young or maybe I’m healthy or maybe I believe some post that I’ve seen on Facebook saying Bill Gates wants me to get vaccinated so he can turn me into a robot…that we have to start making their lives complicated as well”.

The Committee noted the interviewee’s reference to religious beliefs related to people refusing to believe the evidence and advice of scientific and medical experts in relation to Covid-19 vaccines.

The interviewee said, “…there are no scientific arguments to be made for not getting vaccinated. I’m not a virologist but the ‘anti-vaxxers’ aren’t virologists either. There’s no debate because you can’t debate somebody who believes in a religious belief almost, a cult-like thing of, you know, well, ‘I’m 39 just not going to get vaccinated and I’m not going to listen to my doctor, I’m not going to listen to the overwhelming evidence and opinion of the world’s leading scientists’. You can’t debate
with them. At this stage, we’re talking about almost hard-core cranks.”

The Committee said it "found no grounds to believe the above references to young people and religious beliefs amounted to stigmatising, supporting or condoning discrimination or inciting hatred against these groups in society."

The Committee considered whether the language used by the interviewee infringed the requirements of the Code of Programme Standards, in particular the reference to “hardcore cranks”. The Committee noted the interviewee did not use this term to describe all unvaccinated people, as suggested in the complaint, but just those who do not believe in the evidence and advice of scientific and medical experts in relation to the vaccines.

The Committee added that "these people do not constitute a group in society offered specific protection by equality legislation or the Code of Programme Standards.

"The Committee accepted the term may have caused offence to the complainant but did not believe it caused undue offence, considering the moderate manner in which the interview was conducted and taking into account the nature of the programme and audience expectations."

Further complaints were made on similar grounds against The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk but again these were rejected.

These complaints concerned an interview with the Tánaiste in relation to people who have not had a Covid-19 vaccination.

One complainant believed the presenter’s comments and line of questioning in relation to restrictions for people who are not vaccinated were an expression of the presenter’s own views and were discriminatory, derogatory and incited hatred. The complainant believed the presenter is either unaware of the facts in relation to vaccinated people transmitting Covid-19 or is deliberating choosing to ignore them.

Newstalk said it believes that the presenter’s line of questioning was legitimate in the context of the interview and did not amount to the presenter expressing his own views.

The broadcaster stated that "it is an important part of the presenter’s role in a current affairs programme to ask critical questions and to reflect the views of those who cannot or choose not to participate, which sometimes involves conveying critical views and asking robust questions. The broadcaster believes the presenter played this role in the interview."

The BAI largely agreed and rejected the complaints. In their decision, they said: "The Committee observed that it is entirely appropriate for a current affairs presenter to question a member of Government about Government policy and decisions and to account for those policies and decisions.

"The Committee was of the opinion the presenter was carrying out this role in this interview and noted that he allowed the interviewee ample time to respond to his questions. The Committee believed the line of questioning was appropriate to the subject matter discussed and found no evidence of discriminatory or derogatory content or incitement to hatred."

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