independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Jody Corcoran: SF's abusive tactics not revealed in RTE release

The Frontline' presidential debate was among the most unfair broadcasts ever aired by RTE

We now know all we are ever likely to know about what happened in RTE on the night of The Frontline Presidential Debate, although we still do not know the full story.

There is a further disturbing revelation contained in this article.

However, there is enough information available to come to a conclusion – for there to be no doubt, really – that the broadcast was among the most unfair ever put to air by RTE, a damning outcome for a station that has performed admirably in other respects.

That good was evident in coverage of the Budget on Wednesday, a fair and balanced presentation – and revealing too – which left viewers in little doubt as to the truth behind the Budget.

When RTE is good, it can be very good; but when it is bad it can be horrid: The Frontline Presidential Debate was horrid.

Elsewhere in RTE, the documentary department has consistently reached for the heights, which was evident again last week; as has the drama department: Love/ Hate alone makes the licence fee worthwhile.

It is not good enough, then, that it has taken more than a year to draw, like pulled teeth, a fuller version of the truth from RTE in relation to the The Frontline – thanks largely to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) which, to its credit, called the station to account.

Although heavily redacted, the publication last week of the "working document" of the RTE editorial review was a reasonably satisfactory outcome for those few of us who heavily criticised the programme.

In the Dail, the Communications Committee will on Wednesday have before them the RTE Director General, Noel Curran and the Chairman of the RTE Authority, Tom Savage. In an era of accountability, both of these men should have already resigned as a result of The Frontline debacle, and, if not in relation to that alone, then certainly in the aftermath of both the debate and the Mission to Prey catastrophe. In fact, as far as can be established, nobody has paid the ultimate price arising out of The Frontline Presidential Debate.

It is possible, of course, that members of the Dail Committee will elicit further insight which may re-energise a controversy that has left a bad taste for all concerned – not least President Higgins, whose election has been somewhat undermined.

An audience contributor to the programme, Glenna Lynch, who emerged in the aftermath as a heroine of the liberal elite, was among those who "on principle" withheld consent for the publication of a synopsis of her interview with the review team.

A version of her account is already on record: she dispatched a 2,000 word "rant" to The Frontline which culminated in her being allowed to suggest on air that Sean Gallagher "may not have the integrity" for the Presidency and that he "might bring the office of the Presidency into disrepute".

We still do not know the process by which a 2,000-word email was whittled down to a 100-word question – and a follow-up question – that was allowed to contain such a damning commentary on an essentially decent man.

Nor do we know the process by which another questioner came to be allowed to make a judgement that, effectively, Gallagher had done as much "damage" to the country as had the Provisional IRA.

If the "integrity" of the Presidency was at issue – that events from the past might bring the office into disrepute – then, surely, such a question was more appropriate for the Sinn Fein candidate, Martin McGuinness, in the first instance, after which it could have been broadened.

We also learn from the review that another potential questioner that night was concerned at the softening of his proposed question intended for McGuinness, who was the subject of two relatively mild questions on the night.

Today I can also disclose that another prominent member of the audience – I will put it no further than that – was also deeply unhappy at her "unpleasant" experience at The Frontline.

She, too, was concerned at the manner in which a question to McGuinness was summarised, but that is not what concerned her most – far from it, indeed.

After the show she was subjected to abuse from Sinn Fein supporters to the point that she claims she was "accosted" by them.

It is little wonder that this person did not want to be identified in the "working document" as released, a request the Sunday Independent intends to honour.

The revelation is, therefore, not contained in the material as released, but it is undoubtedly an extremely sinister development and must surely be of concern to RTE – as it should be to all media who report criticism of Sinn Fein.

Leaving aside issues of openness and transparency, so favoured by the liberal elite, it is not immediately apparent upon which principle Glenna Lynch is standing: that she was assured confidentiality or that she has "fiercely strong views about the independence of the media".

If it is the latter, then Ms Lynch, like others, continues to miss the point: this was never about media "independence" but about the accountability of RTE as a public service broadcaster.

From the outset, RTE has sought to deny it had a case to answer even as the evidence mounted, primarily on these pages, and has only grudgingly surrendered to the truth as was apparent to many viewers for more than a year.

It would be fitting, therefore, for an experienced broadcaster like Pat Kenny to now offer a heartfelt apology to the unsuccessful candidates, not least Sean Gallagher, who was so badly treated by The Frontline.

Kenny was the pre-eminent journalist associated with the broadcast, which, as we now know, was flawed by the apparent absence of a senior editorial figure to assess the programme live.

The BAI Compliance Committee put it well: "This programme fell significantly short of the standards expected by the public of Irish broadcasters... serious and significant editorial failings... took place during a television debate of utmost public importance and interest... these failings related to the fundamentals of journalistic practice and could... have been avoided had (RTE) applied established good practice in the conduct of a news and current affairs debate to the standard required for a presidential election."

We still do not know who was responsible for the monitoring of various Twitter feeds as the programme ran, although we do know that tweets were being monitored.

A broadcast 'bogus' tweet caused profound damage to Sean Gallagher, an inexperienced candidate unfamiliar with such a high-pressure situation – a damage compounded by the failure of RTE to correct the record even though it had almost a half an hour to do so.

For that failure, the BAI has upheld several complaints, but absolved RTE of the charge of bias.

In relation to the programme generally the BAI Compliance Committee remained silent on the RTE finding that there was no bias or partiality involved.

RTE did, however, examine revelations first reported in the Sunday Independent which concerned the relationship between a member of the production team, her Labour politician father, and their "friend" – a questioner in the audience who believed himself to be a member of Labour.

In this regard, the RTE review team members chose carefully their words: the Labour politician and, as it turned out, the "friend", a former – well, not 'paid up' – Labour member in the audience, continued to change their accounts up to last month, after all.

Both men adamantly denied that the questioner concerned, Dermot Fitzpatrick, was an audience "plant" on behalf of Labour; therefore, the review team "did not conclude" that his appearance was the result of bias.

It remains extraordinary, however, that Michael D Higgins was not asked a direct question; nor was a challenging 'general panel' question to be first asked of him actually put to him in that order; nor was he asked an 'abortion' question also intended to be asked directly of him.

When the 'abortion' questioner did not turn up due to adverse weather, The Frontline, apparently, asked somebody else to ask his question. This person initially agreed, but then, apparently, changed his mind, a revelation also redacted from the material released.

However, the man from the Cooley mountains, who was allowed to effectively suggest that Sean Gallagher had done as much "damage" to the country as had the Provos, would have preferred to question the Labour candidate on abortion, but did not get to do so.

The failure to ask Michael D Higgins a direct question was a "serious omission", according to the RTE.

The review also concluded that the blurring of lines between 'friends of the programme' and personal friends of the production team, "left the production vulnerable to the perception that opinions and questions were being sought out".

Indeed.

Sunday Independent

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