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FF letter: Higgins election is 'undermined' by RTE

The election of Michael D Higgins as President has been "undermined" by the "failure" of RTE to "adhere to proper standards", Fianna Fail has said to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) and to RTE.

In a letter on Friday to the chairman of the BAI Bob Collins, and to the director- general of RTE Noel Curran, which has been seen by the Sunday Independent, Fianna Fail states: "This is an extraordinary and unprecedented situation."

The party's communications spokesman, Michael Moynihan, wrote that the "crisis" arising from The Frontline presidential debate was a symptom of a "fundamentally flawed" view of the role of RTE in election debates.

While the undoubtedly dramatic development may arguably have the potential to create a constitutional crisis, Fianna Fail is careful to fall short of calling into question the legitimacy of the election of the President.

The party has instead concentrated fire on the national broadcaster following the publication of an RTE editorial review into the hugely controversial Frontline presidential debate programme broadcast by RTE last year.

A spokesman for RTE yesterday said: "RTE has no comment on the letter from Michael Moynihan TD."

In the letter, Mr Moynihan has also accused the Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, of attempting to "undermine" a request by the BAI Compliance Committee that RTE publish a "working document", which informed the RTE editorial review of the programme.

On RTE radio after the publication of the BAI statement, Mr Rabbitte sought to play down what has developed into a serious confrontation between RTE and the BAI, the regulatory body for broadcasters in Ireland.

He said he suspected that "a confusion of language" may be behind what he described as "the squabble" and he supported RTE's contention that the working document could not be published because of confidentiality commitments, which had been given to participants in the review.

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But today, politicians from Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail have called on RTE to publish the working document, upon which the broadcaster based its conclusion that, while "mistakes" were made, they were "not the result of bias or partiality".

Significantly, in a statement last week, the BAI Compliance Committee, while not actually rejecting it, did not explicitly endorse the RTE review finding that the "mistakes" were not the result of "bias or partiality".

The Fine Gael parliamentary party chairman, Charlie Flanagan, who was director of elections for Fine Gael candidate Gay Mitchell, is among those who have called for publication.

"A mechanism must be found to publish the working document in the public interest," Mr Flanagan said. "I would echo the call of my colleague John O'Mahony, who has called on RTE to come before the Oireachtas Communications Committee on this matter."

Mr O'Mahony, a constituency colleague of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has said: "In the interests of transparency, I believe it important for RTE to appear before the committee as soon as possible and I have sent a request to the committee on this matter. I also believe that RTE needs to publish the working document on which their report on The Frontline programme is based."

Also yesterday, Fianna Fail TD Timmy Dooley, who sits on the committee, said RTE must circulate the working document to committee members on a "confidential basis" and then come before the committee "before Christmas".

Labour Senator John Whelan, also a committee member, has said that RTE should "immediately comply" with the BAI request to publish the working document.

He said: "It is unseemly to have the State broadcaster at odds and procrastinating in relation to this matter on foot of a reasonable request from the independent and statutory regulator."

Mr Whelan added: "I now call on the chairman of the RTE authority, Tom Savage, to make the full working document available to the public as requested by the BAI. Not to do so would be a serious affront to the statutory body responsible for oversight and compliance in the sector."

The published RTE review was critical of the programme format, procedures around audience selection, procedures around the preparation and allocation of questions, of the standard of editorial supervision and of the standard of training on key matters such as social media.

But in a statement last week, the BAI Compliance Committee said, from a review of the working documents, its view "indicates that the editorial failings of the programme were more significant than has been identified by RTE".

One of the authors of the RTE review, Rob Morrison, has now threatened legal action against the BAI alleging "serious defamation" following the statement of the Compliance Committee.

The other author, Steve Carson, director of programmes at RTE, has said he was "supportive" of the decision of Mr Morrison, a former UTV news executive who is also a former senior producer and deputy editor in RTE current affairs.

The BAI has also said the RTE editorial review and working document "offered sufficient basis" for the Compliance Committee to make its determination: "As such, the BAI has cast no question over those who prepared the report, and associated document."

The letter from Mr Moynihan, to Mr Collins and Mr Curran, will ratchet up pressure on RTE.

Mr Moynihan wrote: "The election for the head of State of our republic was undermined by the failure of this television programme to adhere to proper standards.

"This is an extraordinary and unprecedented situation. It truly was the 'game-changer' it set out to be."

Addressing the BAI chairman, Mr Moynihan said: "I welcome the fact that RTE has made the report public and share your view that the working paper upon which it is based should also be published in full. In that context, I would also like to express my disappointment and frustration with the attempt by Minister Pat Rabbitte to undermine your requests."

Yesterday, Mr Flanagan said, in light of the BAI statement, "the working document needs to be circulated".

Mr Flanagan, who attended The Frontline debate, added that he had "formed the view" quickly that night that there was "great hostility" towards the Fine Gael candidate and party officials who attended.

He added: "I also formed the view, quickly – how should I say – that there was a strong republican hue in the audience that night."

In his letter to the BAI and RTE, Mr Moynihan said: "I am concerned that an opportunity to really learn from what has happened is in danger of being lost. In particular, the RTE report and related interviews with senior RTE executives on the subject suggest that the mindset, which in my view led to this problem, remains in place."

Mr Moynihan said the "crisis" arising from The Frontline debate was a "symptom of a problem that is more fundamental than the failure to provide social media training, or a failure to exclude relatives from the audience, or a failure to have an executive responsible for balance monitoring the debate, incredible and unacceptable as this lapse is.

"Rather, it was a symptom of a fundamentally flawed view of the role of broadcasters in election debates. It was the symptom of a view which sees the broadcaster, the presenter and an activist audience as participants with equal status to the candidates who are supposed to be debating each other and seeking a mandate from viewers.

"Indeed, because of our concerns about audience selection processes on The Frontline, Fianna Fail refused to confirm our participation in the 2011 Frontline general election leaders' debate until we received assurances that the studio audience would be selected by an external organisation."

He said that the time had come to create an Irish Election Debates Commission comprising representatives from the BAI, the broadcasters and the political parties.

An RTE spokesman yesterday said: "RTE fully accepts that The Frontline presidential debate failed to adhere to proper standards. The BAI found that there was no cause to doubt the bona-fides of the presenter or the programme team; the independent report by Rob Morrison and Steve Carson found that serious mistakes were made, but not as a result of bias and partiality. The programme did not set out to be a game-changer."

Sunday Independent