Analysis

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Jody Corcoran: Ramifications from this flawed debate have yet to manifest in full

Damaging episode in Irish broadcasting is set to run and run before a satisfactory outcome is achieved

Published 25/11/2012|05:00

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The positions of the RTE director general, Noel Curran, and the chairman of the RTE Authority, Tom Savage, and others at RTE, are untenable, notwithstanding the extraordinary intervention last week of Pat Rabbitte, the Minister for Communications.

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Indeed, the manner in which Rabbitte has effectively undermined the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), the regulatory body for broadcasting in Ireland, has also raised serious questions as to the position of the minister himself.

If anything, his rush to defend RTE in the face of available evidence only further undermines the credibility of the station after the manner in which The Frontline Presidential Debate facilitated the election of his former Labour colleague, Michael D Higgins, as President of Ireland.

The BAI Compliance Committee statement last week on the RTE "editorial review" of what was, by any standard, a travesty of a broadcast, is a devastating denunciation of the public service broadcaster.

The statement was, in fact, more significant than has so far been allowed – for what it did not say rather than for what it did.

Although what it did say was also immense: "significant editorial failings. . . related to the fundamentals of journalistic practice. . . fell significantly short of the standard expected by the public of Irish broadcasters."

How does that sit alongside the RTE editorial review, as published, which found – shiver me timbers – that "mistakes" were made?

For lamentable journalistic standards alone, Noel Curran, the editor-in-chief, along with his protector-in-chief, Tom Savage, should resign; and Pat Kenny, the presenter of the debate which was, as the BAI has said, of "utmost public importance", should hang his head in shame.

Yet Kenny still refuses to apologise for the grievous wrong visited upon the presidential candidate, Sean Gallagher, and on the other unsuccessful candidates.

More than that, last September, on return from a comfortable holiday, Kenny derided Gallagher, saying he should "get over" himself and back to what he is "supposed to be good at" – creating jobs – a narrative favoured by the supporters of Labour in particular, but also Sinn Fein, whose fingerprints are all over what must rank as one of the greatest-ever broadcasting scandals in Ireland.

By the way, this is the same Pat Kenny who said in September, when speaking of the BAI 'tweetgate' ruling: "All my staff were completely vindicated, the personnel on The Frontline. . . all vindicated. I was delighted with that process."

If The Frontline has been "vindicated" by that ruling, then it is curious that RTE has chosen to drip-feed a decision to scrap the programme just a fortnight after it had announced last month: "The Frontline moves to a more prominent time slot of 9.30pm."

The bold new plan for The Frontline was announced by Kevin Bakhurst, the managing director of RTE News & Current Affairs, on October 24, coincidentally, a year to the day after the presidential debate debacle.

The most significant aspect of the BAI statement is that, while not actually rejecting it, neither did it explicitly endorse the RTE review finding that the "mistakes" made were not the result of "bias or partiality".

That is not to impugn the reputation of the RTE review team, Steve Carson, director of programmes at RTE Television, and Rob Morrison, former head of News & Current Affairs at UTV, who, from 1987 to 1991, was a senior producer and deputy editor in RTE current affairs.

Clearly they came to a view based on an assessment of the RTE review working document; clearly the BAI has not shared that view based on a review of the same working document.

Following a convenient leak, the result of which was an uncritical account of the RTE review in the Sunday Business Post last weekend, RTE officially published the review on Sunday, nine months after it was commissioned.

In a statement accompanying the publication, Bakhurst said RTE regretted the "mistakes" made in the preparation and broadcast of the programme.

He also admitted that the programme was "less rigorous" than it should have been.

But he said the RTE review had found "that the production team had worked conscientiously to deliver a robust but fair debate", and that "the mistakes made in the programme were not the result of bias or partiality".

Then he added: "This echoes the BAI's finding 'that there was no evidence to question the bona fides of the programme presenter or the production'."

The impression, intended or not, was that the BAI had accepted the findings of the RTE editorial review – that there was no bias or partiality.

In reality, however, Bakhurst had used an earlier damning finding of the BAI, related to a specific aspect of the controversy – the broadcast of a fake tweet – in an attempt to absolve the programme as a whole from a charge of bias and partiality.

This was done, somewhat gallingly for the BAI, one suspects, just two days before the Compliance Committee met last Tuesday to actually consider the RTE review.

After that meeting, the BAI decided, effectively, to call out RTE: "It is also the Committee's view that its review of the working document indicates the editorial failings of the programme were more significant than has been identified by RTE in the published report."

Pointedly, however, while not actually rejecting it, the BAI statement did not endorse the RTE finding that the "mistakes" made were not the result of bias or partiality. Of course, it is difficult to prove bias or partiality.

From my understanding, the BAI discussed at length on Tuesday whether it should recommend a statutory inquiry into The Frontline broadcast, but eventually decided against by majority.

However, the BAI asked RTE to publish the working document which informed its review finding that there was no "bias or partiality" in the programme.

In the absence of such proof, it seems the BAI believes that, all considered, the public can decide for themselves whether the programme, in its entirely, was biased in favour of Michael D Higgins and against the other candidates, particularly the frontrunner, Sean Gallagher.

THE MISSING QUESTIONS

From the outset, RTE has adopted a defensive approach to the controversy, which still exists, since complaints were first raised, and subsequently upheld in the BAI's 'tweetgate' ruling, and in response to concerns raised "elsewhere" as RTE has put it.

For "elsewhere", read the Sunday Independent, which almost alone has sought to have this issue examined.

Today we have a further revelation in relation to that Frontline programme which, as it has turned out, relates to another controversy of the day, the abortion debate, which was fuelled by the intervention of President Higgins last week.

The revelation is offered by way of example as to possibly why the BAI wants RTE to publish the working document behind its editorial review "in the public interest".

In its published review, RTE said it was "wrong" that no direct question from an audience member had been posed to Michael D Higgins.

This significant omission arose from two factors, RTE said.

Firstly, only a small number of questions about Higgins had been received by the production team, and, secondly, an audience member, whose question on abortion was felt to be challenging for Higgins, had failed to turn up on the night due to floods.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in its review, RTE said that, with one exception, all the questions broadcast were founded on the views of the questioners gathered during the research process, a claim which itself has been disputed by at least one audience member who asked a question.

In any event, the exception, according to RTE, occurred when a questioner was unable to attend the studio due to flash floods on the night of the transmission, as a result of which, another audience member was approached to ask the same question.

The impression was created, therefore, that this "one questioner" may have been the person intended to ask the abortion question of Michael D Higgins, who, during the election campaign, had been accused by another candidate, Dana Rosemary Scallon, of being "pro-abortion".

However, RTE had previously said that a question asked of the Fine Gael candidate, Gay Mitchell, had been transferred to another audience member because the person who had intended to ask it was unable to attend due to the weather.

Now consider this: There was another member of the audience that night, Kevin Conroy, from Cooley, Co Louth, who wanted to ask a question of Michael D Higgins related to abortion.

Conroy was contacted "out of the blue", as he has told me last March, by The Frontline assistant producer, Aoife Kelleher, who inquired as to his interest in participating on the programme.

A regular communicator to RTE television and radio programmes, Conroy was pleased to submit three questions on the day before broadcast – for Michael D Higgins, Sean Gallagher and Martin McGuinness.

Conroy has forwarded to me his email to Aoife Kelleher which, therefore, presumably must be contained in the RTE working document.

In the end, Conroy was chosen to ask a question of McGuinness even though, as Conroy had said, he would have preferred to ask a question of Higgins and Gallagher.

In fact, RTE had turned down several potential questions for McGuinness, not least from Austin Stack, whose father Brian Stack, the chief prison officer of Portlaoise Prison, was murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1983.

Conroy's proposed question to Higgins was: "Michael D, you constantly state that it is a matter of great pride to you that your views and opinions are always expressed with the greatest of clarity and precision without equivocation or evasion. I ask you now, Michael, to state categorically and with the clarity which you proclaim so loudly whether your stance on the abortion issue is one of Pro- Life or Pro-Choice. The electorate needs to know where you stand on this matter and I think you will agree that there is no middle ground."

The point is, The Frontline therefore had an audience member present that night, in the studio, who was more than willing, indeed, who would have "preferred" to ask a relevant question of Michael D Higgins related to abortion.

If he had been allowed to ask that question, there seems little doubt, given the polarised nature of the current debate, that support for the now President would have been affected.

But Conroy was not chosen to ask that question even though the audience member scheduled to ask Higgins the abortion question that night had failed to turn up; and, even though RTE had already set a precedent for question-transfer in the case of Gay Mitchell.

Then consider this: Kevin Conroy was allowed to merge an editorial statement critical of Gallagher into his question to McGuinness.

He said: "I would just begin by saying I fully agree with you in relation to Sean Gallagher and the damage Fianna Fail has done to this nation."

The curious aspect of all of this does not end there:

This is, in part, what Conroy had proposed to ask of Gallagher: "I put it to you, Mr Gallagher, that your involvement with the Fianna Fail fundraiser in the Crowne Plaza in Dundalk where your business associates were asked to donate €5,000 to the party shows quite clearly that you were a major activist within the Fianna Fail party during the Brian Cowen years and right up to the beginning of this year."

Therefore, a day before broadcast, Conroy had submitted to RTE a question which was – co-incidentally, no doubt – used by McGuinness to ambush Sean Gallagher with the help of a bogus tweet which was unverified by RTE.

THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

The apparent holes in the RTE review do not end there. According to the RTE review, a total of 11 questions were asked by the audience, three of Sean Gallagher, two of Martin McGuinness and one each of Gay Mitchell, David Norris and Mary Davis.

Dana and Michael D Higgins were spared direct questions.

In fact, audience member Glenna Lynch asked two direct questions of Sean Gallagher who, therefore, was on the receiving end of four questions.

Martin McGuinness also got to question Gallagher, at least twice, over a prolonged period and, of course, Kevin Conroy got to make an editorial judgement call on him.

Therefore, it is more accurate to say that Gallagher was in the spotlight for at least half of the entire broadcast, a fact which must give rise to issues of balance and fairness, which in turn, must raise questions in relation to bias and partiality.

By way of justification, meanwhile, the RTE review states that two of the 'general panel' questions were first put to Michael D Higgins of all the candidates, but fails to elaborate on what these questions were.

As the barrister Noel Whelan has pointed out, the toughest such question to Higgins effectively asked if he regretted his maintaining a presidential-like demeanour throughout the campaign.

Meanwhile, Gallagher was also on the receiving end of several 'general panel' questions direct from Pat Kenny, all of them sharp, some of them snide, as Noel Whelan has correctly pointed out.

THE DEFENSIVE ANSWERS

The defensive approach of RTE to this entire controversy has been evident for a year.

The fake tweet was first posted 10 minutes before broadcast, during which time RTE did not verify its content even though there were several members of Sinn Fein in the studio that night who could have done just that.

A corrective tweet was not broadcast during the remaining 28 minutes of the programme; nor was it referred to on the Pat Kenny radio show the following morning, a failure which has also been highlighted by the BAI.

These failures occurred even though, as RTE's head of compliance, Peter Feeney, has said: "During the course of the debate the production team was monitoring social media coverage of the debate."

By way of justification, Feeney has also said that the content of the fake tweet was "essentially accurate".

That is, RTE has maintained that Gallagher had, indeed, collected a cheque from a convicted fuel smuggler for Fianna Fail after the Crowne Plaza event.

In fact, it emerged before polling day that the cheque had been lodged in Fianna Fail's bank account before the event.

There is further convincing evidence, reported extensively here before, to suggest that the content claim in the fake tweet is highly questionable and probably untrue.

Then there is the issue surrounding Aoife Kelleher, on The Frontline production team that night, which I also reported on extensively here last March.

Kelleher's tweets subsequent to the debate indicate that, in a personal capacity, she strongly supported the Labour candidate, Michael D Higgins and, equally, was also strongly opposed to Gallagher.

For example, she has accused "Gallagherites" of "appalling sexism & smear"; has re-tweeted a tweet which described Higgins's election a "great result for the little people"; and re-tweeted with the addition "Heh!" – a tweet which stated that the real winners of the election were the holders of fake Twitter accounts.

Aoife Kelleher's father, Tom Kelleher, was a Labour candidate in the general election and is today a prominent Labour politician in Dublin.

Her friend, Dermot Fitzpatrick, was invited to put a question to the independent candidate, David Norris, on the night of the debate.

Three days before The Frontline debate, Tom Kelleher engaged in an online exchange with Dermot Fitzpatrick.

Tom Kelleher: 'Vote Michael D Higgins for President.'

Dermot Fitzpatrick replied at 15.06 that day: 'Oh, all right then.'

When I disclosed this exchange in March, I made an error which I should now correct.

I said that Tom Kelleher had replied to Fitzpatrick's online confirmation of his support for Michael D Higgins three days before the debate.

In fact, Tom Kelleher replied on the day of the debate.

As Fitzpatrick made himself comfortable in his seat in the RTE studio that night at 9.20pm, that is, 10 minutes before the broadcast began, Tom Kelleher made a reply: "That was easy!"

The RTE editorial review has said, implicitly, that Tom Kelleher, who is on good terms with the Labour leadership, which includes Pat Rabbitte, was interviewed as part of the review process.

So was his daughter, Aoife, as was Labour Party member Dermot Fitzpatrick, who questioned David Norris on The Frontline that night as to the soundness of his judgement.

We do not know what they told the review team; among other things, the BAI feels that this information should be in the public domain.

Until such time as the working documents are published, we are also left to wonder as to the soundness of the judgement of Pat Rabbitte for the manner in which the Minister for Communications effectively, without precedent, undermined the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland last week.

This controversy is far from over. In fact, it may only be about to begin.

Sunday Independent

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