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Saturday 23 August 2014

Pat Rabbitte rules out statutory inquiry into Frontline debacle

Grainne Cunningham and Louise Hogan

Published 23/11/2012 | 13:50

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Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte has ruled out a statutory inquiry into the Frontline Presidential debate saying he is confident RTE will learn from their mistakes.

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Mr Rabbitte said he is confident that RTE management will address the issues raised in the highly critical report of the programme which may have cost Sean Gallagher the Presidential election.

“To be honest, I’m a bit confused,” Mr Rabbitte said, referring to suggestions from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland that not all of the facts have yet come out.

“We had a report. The report was very critical of the programme,” he said. “There is a suggestion that RTE concealed something but the independent member of the panel could not have been more unequivocal this morning that that did not happen,” Mr Rabbitte said.

“RTE management and leadership has to address the issues raised in the report and I think they will do that,” the Minister said, adding that he saw no reason for a statutory inquiry.

Mr Rabbitte said he was “puzzled to get to the bottom of what this quarrel was about” in that RTE had said it will furnish the BAI with the working document, once it has removed any reference to people who were promised their anonymity.

The Minister said it was important in the first place to honour any commitments of confidentiality given and also to ensure there was no damage to any future investigations.

Mr Rabbitte said it would be wrong to renege on such promises, once the information had been elicited.

Meanwhile, a co-author of the report has denied they “watered down” information.The broadcasting watchdog asked the station to release a longer 27-page document detailing the interviews and background to the probe in the interests of “transparency”.

However, report co-author Rob Morrison, the former head of news and current affairs at UTV, said any claims there were more “significant” editorial problems detailed in the longer document was incorrect.

An internal RTE report made public this week raised concerns about how questions for the candidates were drafted and how the audience members who asked them were selected.

However, the BAI said the “editorial failings of the programme were more significant” in the other material than in the report RTE then chose to release to the public.

“I have no difficulty in saying the report that we produced was an absolute reflection of the working document that it was based on,” Mr Morrison told RTE’s Morning Ireland.

He said they had made “damning” criticisms in the published report, with regards to almost every aspect of the presidential debate programme.

“From their (the BAI) statement inevitably you are going to draw the conclusion that we had somehow watered down or censured or left something out from the report. We gave the BAI everything we had,” he said.

Mr Morrison said it was incorrect to state there were more “significant” editorial failings in the unpublished working document containing the interviews.

The show – the last TV debate between the five presidential candidates last autumn – is widely accepted as having changed the outcome of the election.

It has been dogged by controversy beyond concerns over the questions and selection of the audience.

The BAI already upheld a complaint by Sean Gallagher over a bogus tweet - read out by Pat Kenny - claiming Sinn Fein was going to produce a man who handed Mr Gallagher €5,000 for Fianna Fail.

David Nally, managing editor of RTE’s current affairs television, on Monday accepted the debate had “changed the outcome” of the Presidential election.

The broadcasting watchdog believes the public would gain “additional insights” into the editorial failings from the interviewees’ comments in the unpublished document.

The broadcaster pointed out the longer working document contained comments from those interviewed on a “confidential basis” - including both staff and audience members - to ensure a full and frank response.

RTE has apologised to Mr Gallagher and the other candidates.

The station said it has implemented all of the recommendations from its own internal report - completed by Mr Morrison and RTE’s director of programmes Steve Carson - with 500 staff undergoing training sessions and social media guidelines revised

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