RTE faces criticism as #rtebias trends on Twitter


#rtebias was the top trending topic on Twitter on Saturday morning and hovered on the trend list for much of the day.

The hashtag has been used before but erupted ahead of Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly’s appearance on Saturday Night with Miriam O’Callaghan.

Irish Tweeters’ main topic of focus was the introduction of Irish water charges and the nature of coverage of the protests. There was also some occasional criticism that RTE gave precedence to the ‘Yes’ side in the Greek referendum.

Irish Tweeters, who are also among the country’s biggest news users, sent about 300 tweets and more than a thousand retweets according to social media tracking. But the reach and exposure of the campaign was much higher. #rtebias  was delivered to almost half a million unique Twitter users, and between individual tweets, @ mentions and retweets, the number of feeds it appeared on it generated 1,894,045 potential Twitter impressions.

RTE is by far the most popular news brand in Ireland, with 65% saying they use some form of their news sources. Crucially, it is the national publically funded broadcaster with special responsibility for ensuring objective and unbiased coverage.

The publically funded structure of public service broadcasting often means it becomes the focus of criticism from industry, academia and the public.

There is a systematic natural advantage for the government that the audience finds uncomfortable and always have. This is because the Government technically holds the purse-strings; there is a reliance on working relationships with the political and business elite in order to generate content; there is the obligation to give a platform to the powerful decision makers and policy drivers of the country, the Government TDs and Ministers who also form a majority in Dáil.

However, with trust in Irish media so low, with only 46% trusting the mass media, the problem extends beyond a Twitter trend.  And the solution requires more than pointing to the structures that are necessary for public service broadcasting to function.

As well as being objective, it is important for RTE to be known to be objective. In the absence of public trust and in the face of criticism, measures taken to inspire faith by shielding biases and working toward objectivity are redundant. Unless RTE also take measures to address the concerns that are apparent in the Irish audience they will continue to face public criticism.

In the Miriam O’Callaghan interview with Minister Kelly the #rtebias trend was not raised with the Minister with much of the interview focusing on the introduction of Irish Water.

Showing acute awareness of the advantage and perhaps the Twitter trend, Miriam joked that one answer was ‘a party political broadcast’ as Minster Kelly responded to a question about losing voters in the 2016 national election based on unpopular choices.

On Twitter #rtebias is dormant again for now, but the underlying problem of public concern remains.