No campaigners accuse RTÉ of attempting to 'rig' Prime Time debate
Figures show 738,000 viewers tuned into Prime Time at some stage last night
NO campaigners have accused RTÉ of interfering in the referendum debate by attempting to “rig” last night’s Prime Time debate in favour of the Yes side.
Savethe8th spokesman John McGuirk today launched a blistering attack on the national broadcaster, questioning why people are required to pay a TV licence.
He alleged they were willing to “have any women in the country who is not Maria Steen” take part in the debate with Sinn Féin Peadar Toibin against Health Minister Simon Harris and consultant obstetrician Mary Higgins.
Ms Higgins was ultimately demoted to the audience after the No side refused to put up an alternative candidate, leaving the two male politicians to debate head to head.
Independent.ie first revealed how a massive row erupted behind the scene when the No campaign said it wanted to replace Love Both’s Cora Sherlock with Ms Steen.
RTÉ refused the substitution on the grounds that the Iona Institute representative took part in the Claire Byrne Live debate last week.
A Mexican stand-off ensued as both sides refused to back down.
Mr McGuirk now says the dispute actually began last week when the No group complained that it was unfair for only the Yes side to have a doctor on the stage.
“The fact they tried to put an obstetrician on one side and somebody who is not an obstetrician on the other side was in our view a material interference in the debate,” he said.
At a sometimes testy press conference in Dublin city centre, he claimed RTÉ was trying “to do to us in this referendum what they did to Sean Gallagher”.
Mr Gallagher was leading the polls in the 2011 Presidential Election until after the final TV debate when presenter Pat Kenny read out a tweet from a fake Twitter account.
It claimed a man who had given a €5,000 cheque to Mr Gallagher would appear at a press conference the next day.
Mr Gallagher lost the subsequent election, finishing behind Michael D Higgins. Just last year RTÉ settled a court action and apologised for using the tweet.
Speaking today, Mr McGuirk said: “In nearly every major referendum or election we’ve had in nearly the last decade there has been some stroke or some interference by RTÉ in relation to the debate. Sean Gallagher is the most high-profile example of that.”
In a statement last night, RTÉ said it was “disappointed” Ms Sherlock didn’t show up for the debate “despite confirming her participation last week”.
“The television debate on the referendum continued with the panel of Minister for Health Simon Harris and Peadar Tóibín TD, in addition to substantial contributions from the audience, which gave an equitable and fair opportunity to both sides to express their views,” the broadcaster said.
In a further statement this afternoon, RTÉ said they informed the No campaign “from the outset that the panel on the RTÉ Prime Time debate would not include anyone who had already been a panellist on the Claire Byrne Live debate just a week previously”.
“However the No campaign insisted that Maria Steen (a lawyer) - who was a panellist on the Claire Byrne Live debate - was the only option it would put forward.
“In the interests of facilitating a wide range of voices and to maintain its editorial independence RTÉ Prime Time declined the offer of Ms Steen while making it clear that it was very open to other suggestions,” the statement said.
The broadcaster has now also released figures showing that 738,000 viewers tuned into Prime Time at some stage. The show had an average of 348,000 viewers who watched the full hour.
In the Dáil today, Independent TD Mattie McGrath alleged that Ms Steen was not allowed on the programme because Mr Harris was “afraid” of her.