Wednesday 21 March 2018

RTE accused over fake tweet that scuppered Gallagher's Aras bid

The defeated candidate, who had been leading the race, says RTE ignored the basic standards of journalism, writes Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

In effect, it was the tweet that determined who would become President of Ireland. On October 24, Sean Gallagher, an independent candidate, took part in a television debate between all seven candidates on the RTE current affairs programme The Frontline.

At the time, Gallagher was the clear frontrunner to win the Presidency, but he would subsequently fail to win the election. The final debate was broadcast live less than 57 hours before polling and less than 40 hours before a moratorium on media coverage of the election.

By common agreement, the following moment was to prove decisive in what had often been a controversial campaign.

At 10.39pm, a tweet was posted to a Twitter feed "#aras11". The Twitter account responsible was "@mcguinness4Pres".

It read: "The man that Gallagher took the cheque from will be at a press conference tomorrow. #aras11."

Earlier in the debate, certain matters had been put to Gallagher relating to his involvement in the past in fundraising activities for Fianna Fail. In particular, Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein candidate, claimed that Gallagher had called to a businessman's house to collect a cheque for €5,000.

At that stage, Gallagher "expressly, unambiguously and categorically" denied the claim, as he states in a detailed submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland last week.

Yesterday, a spokesman for RTE told the Sunday Independent: "This matter is currently the subject of a complaint to the BAI and we will be dealing with it through that process -- that is the only way in which it can be dealt with it at this time."

The debate had moved on from the issue of the cheque by the time of the first commercial break at 10.13pm.

"The timing is highly significant to the issue of fairness and impartiality," Gallagher says in his BAI submission.

At 10.43pm, there was a second commercial break, which lasted five minutes and six seconds. On return from that break, at approximately 10.49pm, the presenter, Pat Kenny, put the following to Gallagher:

"Now, a development, which I want to put to Sean Gallagher. On the 'Martin McGuinness for president' Twitter account, Sinn Fein are saying they are going to produce the man who gave you the cheque for five grand. Now, do you want to change what you said or are you still saying that it just simply didn't happen? Are they up to dirty tricks or what?"

According to his 22-page submission, excluding voluminous attachments, Gallagher claims that RTE at all times "expressly or implicitly" represented to him, the audience, viewers and the electorate that:

• The source of the tweet was Sinn Fein.

• It was an official tweet published by the campaign of Martin McGuinness.

• Sinn Fein had organised a press conference at which the allegations already denied by Gallagher would be repeated.

• Sinn Fein would 'produce' the businessman who it was claimed had made the allegations to McGuinness.

• Gallagher had lied to the audience, the viewers and the electorate.

Ten minutes had elapsed between the posting of the fake tweet and its broadcast by RTE.

Gallagher claims it is "reasonable to infer" that at no time did RTE take any steps to verify the provenance of the tweet or the thrust of its contents.

He also claims that at no time did Pat Kenny, the presenter of The Frontline, put the fake tweet to McGuinness, either to verify its provenance or the truth of its contents.

Earlier in the debate, McGuinness had claimed that he had spoken to the businessman concerned some two hours previously.

It would have been "reasonable to infer" that had such a press conference been planned, McGuinness would have been aware of it, Gallagher now says.

He claims that at no time did RTE "comply with the norms of responsible journalism", as he, the audience, viewers and the electorate were entitled to expect.

That is, he claims, RTE "did not seek to confirm" the veracity of the fake tweet with either McGuinness or people connected in an official capacity with his campaign, many of whom were in Montrose that night.

But Gallagher goes even further than that.

He also claims that RTE did not inform him of the fake tweet during the five-minute commercial break and therefore, failed to offer him time to consider it and prepare his response before the live debate recommenced.

Instead, he claims, Pat Kenny "wrongfully and recklessly" put the unverified fake tweet directly to him on live television.

This was done, he claims, in circumstances where RTE "ought to have known" that the tweet came from an account other than the official Sinn Fein account.

Gallagher points out that on September 17 last Sinn Fein had issued a public statement from the account @sinnfeinireland, which stated: "FYI -- there is no official Twitter for Martin McGuinness's presidential bid. Such an account will only exist after ratification. #aras11."

In his submission, Gallagher claims that at 11.02pm, still during the course of the live debate, there was a corrective tweet from the official McGuinness campaign account, which read: "As official campaign twitter for Martin, we need to point out that we have made no comment on the Gallagher FF donation issue" #aras11#rtefl".

According to Gallagher, not only was the corrective tweet posted to the #aras11 feed, (from which RTE had taken the fake tweet 23 minutes earlier) but also to RTE's own feed #rtefl.

Notwithstanding this, he says, RTE did not make any reference whatsoever to the official tweet.

It also failed to draw this information to his attention or to the attention of McGuinness, the audience, viewers and the electorate at any time during the remaining 26 minutes of the live broadcast.

Gallagher claims that RTE's revisiting of the allegation of the cheque collection was based solely on the fake tweet.

The "dramatic presentation" of the assertion that Sinn Fein had made an official statement that it was to hold a press conference, "did cause Mr Gallagher to honestly doubt his recollection", which had "grave personal and political consequences", his submission reads.

He tells the Broadcasting Authority that RTE itself published the results of a post-election Red C poll, which indicated that the "ambush" of Gallagher on The Frontline had lost him the election in which, at the time, he was the frontrunner.

Gallagher says it is "significant" that RTE now accepts that the tweet as published in the debate was fake and that the (anonymous) tweet poster has admitted the fake.

It is "further significant", he says, that the businessman, who it was claimed would appear at a press conference, was now on public record as stating that he could not recall if, in fact, it was Gallagher who had contacted him about the fundraiser or another person, an elected representative.

"The foregoing simply goes to highlight the recklessness of the broadcaster in publishing the material complained of," Gallagher claims.

He says that at least one other news organisation which had tested the allegation with "accepted journalistic norms", decided not to publish the story.

RTE "applied no such norms of journalistic integrity as could reasonably have been expected", he claims, and chose to publish the material in the course of a live broadcast before an estimated audience of 900,000.

It is "further instructive", he claims, that Pat Kenny, during the course of a radio interview with Gallagher the following day, failed to make any reference to the fact that the tweet was fake.

"This demonstrates a further failure on the part of the broadcaster to correct the public record at an absolutely crucial time and further demonstrates an editorial policy which was unfair," he claims.

Gallagher has submitted that the debate was "not presented in a fair, objective or impartial manner". In particular, the manner in which RTE chose to treat the fake tweet, was "unfair" in circumstances where it:

• Chose to put into the public domain material which it "ought to have known" was false.

• It would not have put this into the public domain, had it employed "reasonable norms of journalism"; by doing so, it distorted a crucial debate and "recklessly" misled Gallagher, the audience, viewers and electorate.

• "Failed to take any reasonable steps" to confirm the provenance of the fake tweet;

• "Failed to take any or any reasonable steps" to confirm the truth of the contents of the fake tweet.

• Failed to put the tweet to members of McGuinness' campaign team for corroboration during the relevant commercial break.

• Was in possession of material of a potential damaging nature to Gallagher and "failed or refused" to put him on notice of this during the relevant commercial break so that his "first reaction" would be on live television, for "dramatic effect".

• "Failed to employ any reasonable journalistic norms" for assessing the source of the material to be published.

• Presented the tweet as emanating from an official Sinn Fein source.

• Presented the tweet as emanating from the campaign of Martin McGuinness.

• Recklessly published false material in the course of a live broadcast.

• "Failed to take any action" on foot of receipt of the corrective tweet and thereby misled not only Gallagher, but the audience, viewers and electorate.

• Had the opportunity in the final 26 minutes of the debate to publish a corrective tweet from the official Martin McGuinness twitter account and did not take such corrective action and therefore "continued to mislead" Gallagher, the audience, viewers and the electorate.

The importance of the broadcast in the context of the presidential election cannot be overstated, Gallagher says.

Indeed, at all times RTE was not only alive to this, but "boasted" about it, he claims. In his introduction, Pat Kenny referred to the programme as a possible "game changer" in the presidential race.

Gallagher has submitted that RTE "pursued an editorial policy which abandoned the norms of journalistic integrity" in order to fulfil this self-appointed role "as game changer".

He says that the "absolute failure" of RTE to corroborate the truth of the fake tweet or to check the sources, amounted to "recklessness" with regard to the truth of the material.

At this point in his submission, Gallagher makes even further damning allegations against RTE which the Sunday Independent is unable to publish for legal reasons. RTE yesterday declined to respond to these allegations.

In his submission, he also highlights the failure of RTE to have any -- or any adequate -- policy for the use of material posted on the internet, such as Twitter or other social media. He noted "with concern" that the BBC has had such editorial guidelines for some considerable time.

Gallagher says: "The importance of RTE News as a key purveyor of impartial information to the Irish people cannot be over-stressed. Whatever licence may exist for opinion and expression of personal views in general programming, there is a strict obligation within news to observe due impartiality. RTE's legal obligation to impartiality extends only to news and current affairs." He claims that RTE "breached this obligation".

Gallagher has submitted that the use of the fake tweet was an "absolute and flagrant breach" of RTE's stated objectives in relation to accuracy and objectivity. He has also claimed that RTE was "not impartial" in the handling of the political debate, as is required by its own policy.

In conclusion, Gallagher claims that RTE:

• Was in breach of the requirements of Section 39(1)(b) of the Act.

• Was in breach of it own published programme standards and guidelines.

• Failed to have any or adequate regard to accepted journalistic norms.

• Had regard to a fake tweet which it "ought to have known" was of false provenance and likely to be untrue in content.

• Published such fake tweet and asserted the truth of its provenance and content in circumstances where it "ought reasonably to have known" that both were false.

• Failed to take any or any reasonable steps to verify the source of the fake tweet.

• Failed to have any regard to a corrective tweet which called into question the provenance and truth of the fake tweet and, in particular, failed to draw the corrective tweet to the attention of Gallagher, the audience, viewers and the electorate during the 26 remaining minutes of the debate, thus distorting the debate.

• Abandoned such journalistic norms as may be expected of RTE to fulfil a self-appointed role as a "game changer".

In redress, he is seeking a full investigation into the circumstances in which RTE received the fake tweet and the corrective tweet and the decision to "ambush" him with the fake tweet on live television.

He has submitted that an oral and/or public hearing should be held and that RTE should be compelled to attend and to provide all relevant records, manual or electronic format, so that it can be ascertained precisely what occurred and why RTE acted with such "reckless disregard" in terms of fairness at a decisive point in an election campaign.

Gallagher is further seeking a formal apology from RTE for the publication of the fake tweet to be broadcast on The Frontline at a time and in such terms as may be approved in advance.

Finally, he says RTE should be compelled to publish and implement a policy for the treatment of material posted on the internet, Twitter, social networks and other electronic media to ensure that "sufficient safeguards" are in place to ensure no repetition occurs.

Sunday Independent

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