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Editorial failings at RTE’s controversial Frontline debate worse than it admitted


EDITORIAL failings in the production of RTE's controversial Frontline presidential debate were more significant than it admitted, the broadcasting watchdog has revealed.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) called on the station to release a working document which its own review was based on.

Its compliance committee said the document features additional information and comments that indicate the editorial failings were more significant than has been identified by RTE.

"For this reason, it is the committee's opinion that the publication of the working document would provide greater understanding of these failings, would support the principle of transparency and would be in the public interest," the BAI added.

The programme, in October 2011, dealt a hammer blow to presidential frontrunner Sean Gallagher's chances of victory in the election after it broadcast a tweet from someone falsely claiming to represent rival candidate Martin McGuinness.

The tweet, which was not sent by Mr McGuinness's campaign team, claimed a man who allegedly gave Mr Gallagher a cheque for a Fianna Fail fundraiser would be presented at a Sinn Fein press conference the following day.

This heaped pressure on independent candidate Mr Gallagher to explain his past links to Fianna Fail.

The editorial review commissioned by RTE in the wake of the BAI investigation did not specifically examine the tweet issue as it was subject to a separate investigation by the state broadcaster.

Instead, the review team, chaired by former Ulster Television head of news Rob Morrison and RTE's director of programmes Steve Carson, looked at the overall editorial processes of the Frontline programme.

RTE revealed there had been a series of failings in the production and broadcast of the Frontline presidential debate, but the probe concluded that the mistakes were not made as a result of bias or partiality.

RTE said it accepted the review findings and expressed regret at the errors flagged up.

The BAI said it was evident that the production of this programme fell significantly short of the standards expected of Irish broadcasters by the public.

"The report, the working document and the earlier findings of the BAI's compliance committee highlight the serious and significant editorial failings that took place during a television debate of utmost public importance and interest," it added.

"It is the view of the committee that these failings related to the fundamentals of journalistic practice and could, in its opinion, have been avoided had the broadcaster applied established good practice in the conduct of a news and current affairs debate to the standard required for a presidential election."

The internal review team criticised the production team for the failure to confront eventual presidential winner Michael D Higgins with a direct and challenging question from an audience member.

They also criticised how producers had rewritten audience members' questions and printed the amended versions on cue cards for them to read, and identified errors with how the audience was selected.

PA Media