Wednesday 29 January 2020

Pat McGuirk: 'RTE wanted me to gun down Gallagher'

RTE claims whistle-blower 'was happy with his Frontline experience'

Pat McGuirk with the RTE-prepared question. Photo: Tom Conachy
HOPES: Sean Gallagher with wife Trish. Photo: David Conachy


A member of the studio audience at The Frontline presidential debate has told how RTE gave him a prepared question before the programme, and helped him to rehearse it, in what he feels was an attempt to "gun down" the Independent candidate Sean Gallagher -- "to slit his throat".

A complaint against The Frontline debate brought by Mr Gallagher was upheld by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) last week.

The BAI said it was satisfied that there was "no evidence", contrary to the views of Mr Gallagher, that RTE, the presenter Pat Kenny, or the production team "deliberately ... constructed the programme in a manner that lacked objectivity or impartiality".

A businessman, Pat McGuirk, 43, from Co Monaghan, has come forward to challenge that assertion.

In an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr McGuirk said that his initial question, which related to the salary of the President, was changed in conversation with The Frontline team to focus instead on the job creation record of Mr Gallagher.

The question, presented by RTE to Mr McGuirk just moments before the live debate read: "I'm sick and tired of hearing from Sean Gallagher about jobs. He created 100 jobs in the boom and most of them are gone. I think he's too cute for his own good."

Mr McGuirk, who said he was "shocked" by the "hostile" nature of the question, said he could not bring himself to ask it when Mr Kenny referred to him: "I couldn't do it," he said, "I should have backed away altogether."

Instead of asking the question which was handed to him by The Frontline staff member, he asked his own version: "Sean, in the boom time you created 100 jobs and how many of them are still in existence? People are sick and tired of hearing about creating jobs, so how many of them are still there?"

Mr McGuirk said: "The question they gave me was ten million per cent away from where I was, my initial question... I felt it was as if they wanted me to go in [and] gun down Sean Gallagher, to go in and slit his throat. It was horrendous what was on that paper, it was horrendous."

In his initial email to RTE, which has been seen by the Sunday Independent, dated October 18 last, six days before the controversial broadcast, Mr McGuirk declared himself to be a supporter of Mr Gallagher. He wrote: "I believe in Sean Gallagher!"

Yesterday, however, RTE said that a researcher on The Frontline team had had several conversations with Mr McGuirk in the day preceding the broadcast during which he had "indicated additional areas of his interest".

In a statement, RTE said: "One was his view that Mr Gallagher's job creation record was open to question. Mr McGuirk placed weight on his own background as an entrepreneur in the Border area, and focussed on job creation issues in local enterprise; and he expressed scepticism about aspects of Mr Gallagher's campaign and claims in respect of his own job creation record.

"Mr McGuirk said that he was 'sick of hearing' of Mr Gallagher's claims, that he felt he was a 'cute hoor' and playing 'a sneaky game'; that he was in fact 'a (defamatory term)'; and that of the jobs he had claimed to have created, many of these would have arisen during the boom, very few appeared to be left. These were Mr McGuirk's volunteered opinions."

Last night Mr McGuirk strenuously denied that he had made any such derogatory comments about Mr Gallagher. "I was then and still am an admirer of Sean Gallagher. To say that I said that is completely untrue, absolutely untrue. It is defamatory of me. Isn't it obvious that if I was happy with the question that RTE gave me I would have asked it."

In its statement, RTE said: "The staff researcher who maintained contact with Mr McGuirk is quite clear that she did not at any point put words in Mr McGuirk's mouth, nor compromise the integrity of the material offered by Mr McGuirk in his own words, nor act other than within editorial policy and instruction."

RTE also said that on the day of the broadcast, Mr McGuirk was "read the draft question prepared by the programme team" prior to his departure for Dublin.

Last night Mr McGuirk said: "Definitely not, no. Absolutely not, because I was gobsmacked when I saw what was in it."

RTE also said that Mr McGuirk had expressed no issue about the question or its preparation to the programme team members. RTE said he had emailed the programme researcher two days after the broadcast expressing his happiness with the programme experience in "very fulsome terms".

Last night Mr McGuirk said that the communication was a "courtesy thank you" and did not express any views as to his feelings about the question as presented to him. "Shortly afterwards I came to regret sending that email."

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) last week found The Frontline last October was unfair to Mr Gallagher because it failed to clarify the provenance of a tweet wrongly attributed to the campaign of Sinn Fein candidate Martin McGuinness.

The broadcast of that tweet is widely accepted to have damaged the prospects of Mr Gallagher, then the frontrunner, to win the presidency.

The Today With Pat Kenny show on RTE Radio 1, broadcast the following day, had exacerbated this unfairness by failing to clarify the issue, the authority said.

The BAI said the station had made "no apparent efforts" to verify the source and accuracy of a tweet broadcast during The Frontline programme.

In a conclusion which has raised some eyebrows, the BAI's compliance committee also said that the complaint "was not of such a serious nature as to warrant an investigation or public hearings".

The BAI report also stated: "The committee is satisfied that there is no evidence, contrary to the views of the complainant, that the broadcaster, presenter or production team deliberately ... constructed the programme in a manner that lacked objectivity or impartiality."

In relation to the bogus tweet, Fine Gael TD Simon Harris has said it is "essential" that three things now happen: the identity of the person/organisation who sent the false tweet is sought; RTE make a complaint to the gardai under the Postal & Telecommunications Act which states that it is an offence to knowingly send a false message; the Government and "particularly" Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte seek the advice of the AG on whether or not Irish legislation needs to be updated in this area.

"Whilst I certainly do not think one tweet derailed a presidential campaign, that is not really the point. There is an onus on the State broadcaster which is in receipt of a substantial amount of taxpayers' money to uphold the highest standards and to be fair and impartial," he said.

"I believe that the Postal Act has been amended many times over recent years, including by Statutory Instrument. It would now be important that it is amended to include 'electronic means' -- this would mean that the same legal responsibilities would be placed on someone who communicates false information online as those who communicate it via post or telephone."

Sunday Independent

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