At the calling of General Election 2020, RTÉ approved the hosting of two separate party leaders' debates.
The first of these, involving the leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour Party, Solidarity-People Before Profit, Green Party and the Social Democrats, will be hosted by Claire Byrne Live on Monday, 27 January at NUIG.
The second debate, between the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, will be hosted by Prime Time and will take place on Tuesday, 4 February.
In planning its election coverage, and particularly debates among party leaders (which are but one feature of its comprehensive coverage) RTÉ is cognisant of its obligations under the Broadcasting Act 2009, the relevant BAI Codes and of decisions of the courts in respect of similar matters.
RTÉ's approach to election coverage is primarily guided by past electoral performance. Election results are empirical and objective and relying on them to guide coverage has been found by the courts to constitute a fair and impartial approach.
In rejecting a challenge by a member of the Green Party to the criteria applied by RTÉ to select participants for a leaders' debate in the 2016 General Election, Ms Justice Baker acknowledged that:
"While current Dáil representation has been de facto a requirement for participation in the leaders' debates since 1982, the process by which the steering group decides the criteria emerges from a consideration of the current political landscape."
That ruling also acknowledged that the level of representation in an outgoing Dáil provides an objective basis for assessing current support for a political party and "such a criterion is capable of being objectively ascertained, and is intrinsically fair".
This is central to RTÉ's approach: in formulating criteria for inclusion in a leaders' debate RTÉ has regard to "the current political landscape". This is why its formats for debates have varied over recent elections, reflecting the political landscape at any given time.
It is also important to note that RTÉ's coverage of party leaders is not limited to the two debates. Substantive one-to-one interviews with leaders are also taking place on:
RTÉ One Television – Election 2020: Bryan Dobson Interviews….
RTÉ Radio 1 Morning Ireland
RTÉ Radio 1 Today With Séan O'Rourke
RTÉ Radio 1 This Week
The Claire Byrne Live Leaders' Debate
The seven parties invited to this debate between them attained just over 80% of the first preference votes in the General Election in 2016. Independent candidates collectively obtained over 16% of the first preference vote in that election. On that basis the seven parties represent the overwhelming majority of people who voted for a political party in that election.
The Prime Time Debate
The two parties invited to this debate, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil each had more than 40 TDs at the dissolution of Dáil Éireann on 14 January last and more than twice the number of seats of the nearest party, Sinn Féin.
In the context of the next Dáil, 40 seats represents half of the number of seats that are needed to form a majority and is therefore highly relevant to the question of whether a party has the capacity to become the lead party in a government and whether the leader of that party has the potential to fill the office of Taoiseach.
This significant gap in size between these two parties and others was again reflected in the 2019 Local Elections when each of the two biggest parties received more than two and a half times the vote of Sinn Féin and won more than three times as many seats. Indeed, the combined vote of Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the Green Party (20.7%) in the Local Elections was well short of the vote received by Fine Gael, as the second largest party (25.3%) and Fianna Fáil as the largest party (26.9%).
It was therefore the view of RTÉ that it would offer voters the opportunity to see a debate between the leaders of the two biggest parties at the dissolution of Dáil Éireann.
It has been suggested that RTÉ should take account of current opinion polls to determine participation in a leaders' debate.
Compared to actual election results, opinion polls cannot be accorded very significant standing in making these decisions. While a factor to be considered in terms of overall coverage, RTÉ has never given precedence to opinion polls in determining the line-up of a leaders' debate.
Such polls are based on a very small sample of voter opinion and the outcome of any election often differs markedly from the opinion polls which were published during the campaign. When RTÉ takes cognisance of opinion polls in making decisions about its overall allocation of coverage among electoral interests, it looks at polls conducted over a much longer period and even then applies only a small weighting to such polls.