There is a report by Fiona Gartland in the Irish Times of Oct. 24th that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Constitution intend to reconsider the question of balance in broadcast coverage of referendum debates. It is long past time that the privileged status of this communication value was questioned.
It is certainly not the case that balance is without merit but its limitations and the risk of exalting it above other values has become apparent.
When there is a clear choice between two courses of action and where there are sensible arguments on both sides, balance is a treasure. Unfortunately this is seldom the case and balance – crudely understood – becomes a problem.
Very often there are many points of view. Balance implies just two.
Crude attempts to quantify balance by – for example – linking it to the number of TDs supporting an argument makes sense only if one believes that broadcast debate should reflect the existing consensus in society or the most widely held views. Balance can be evaluated quite differently if one believes that broadcast debate should serve the engaged citizen, someone who wants a lively challenge. In this view balance might be between the majority view and a minority view, between opposites, between antagonistic views or between consensus and innovation.
Coverage of the Lisbon Treaty debate showed how balance could be the enemy of truth. Nonsense was repeated day after day to create balance and newsworthy conflict.
Balance is important and worth defending as part of a parcel of communication values which should include at least truth and the promotion of challenging viewpoints.