Sunday 21 January 2018

RTE puts its faith in word of a criminal

Current affairs' credibility in tatters over 'Frontline' presidential debate

the presidential candidates
RTE's Peter Feeney


RTE is relying on the disputed word of a convicted fuel smuggler to defend the broadcast of a bogus tweet that changed the expected result of the presidential election, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Peter Feeney, the head of broadcast compliance at RTE, has also told the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI): "There simply wasn't time to check the authenticity of the tweet before mentioning it on air."

In an extraordinary attempt to defend RTE, Mr Feeney also says -- "not to excuse, merely to offer context" -- that three non-RTE journalists and 300 members of the public had retweeted the bogus tweet.

Mr Feeney made his astonishing 'lack-of-time' claim to verify the bogus tweet in a letter to the BAI on December 20 last in response to a complaint by a viewer of the controversial Frontline presidential debate programme on October 20.

The bogus tweet claimed that the convicted fuel smuggler, Hugh Morgan, would attend a press conference the next day to back up a claim made in the debate by the Sinn Fein candidate, Martin McGuinness, that independent candidate Sean Gallagher had solicited €5,000 from him on behalf of Fianna Fail.

Mr Feeney's claim that there was no time to authenticate the source and content of the bogus tweet, which is widely agreed to have played a significant role in the outcome of the election, is open to serious doubt. A full 10 minutes elapsed between the posting and broadcast of the bogus tweet. Shortly afterwards, Sinn Fein disowned the tweet. There was then a further full 26 minutes to the end of the broadcast, during which RTE failed to draw viewers' attention to the corrective tweet.

In his letter to the BAI, Mr Feeney confirms for the first time that during the course of the debate the Frontline production team was "monitoring social media coverage of the debate".

Despite this, they somehow still failed to draw attention to the corrective tweet.

It is the revelation today, however, that RTE is reliant on the disputed word of the convicted fuel smuggler, Mr Morgan, in defence of complaints to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland that will cause most surprise.

Last week, it emerged that Mr Morgan's company, Morgan Fuels, was paid almost €3,000 during the campaign by Mr McGuinness. The sum is said to relate to payment for fuel for the campaign bus of McGuinness, a former Provisional IRA leader.

During the course of the debate, which was introduced by presenter Pat Kenny as a possible "game-changer" in the election, the €5,000 fundraising claim was put to Mr Gallagher, who was then the frontrunner.

Specifically, Mr McGuinness, who said he had spoken to Mr Morgan two hours earlier, claimed that Mr Gallagher had called to the home of the convicted fuel smuggler to collect a cheque for €5,000.

In his complaint to the BAI, Mr Gallagher has said that he "expressly, unambiguously and categorically" denied the claim on the Frontline programme.

In the Sunday Independent today, former justice minister and ex-Attorney-General Michael McDowell writes: "Maybe Sean Gallagher was inexperienced in the art of facing people down in public. But, whatever the reason, he emerged the loser from the 'Chequegate' ambush.

"If Gallagher had handled it right, he could have left Montrose on his way to the Park and left McGuinness on the floor."

Subsequent to the debate, Fianna Fail issued a statement which showed that the version of events as presented by Mr McGuinness on RTE was incorrect. Shortly afterwards, further information emerged to cast even more serious doubt on the claims.

Mr Morgan never did attend a press conference to be quizzed on his claims, but he did issue a statement the following day in which he stood over the substance of Mr McGuinness's comments.

However, another news organisation, which had examined the claims, then reported that Mr Morgan could not remember details of the day that Mr Gallagher was said to have collected the cheque and delivered a photograph.

It also emerged that Mr Morgan initially believed it may have been the Fianna Fail TD Seamus Kirk who had called to invite him to the fundraising event.

Notwithstanding these glaring anomalies, it can now be revealed that RTE is to rely on the word of Mr Morgan to defend itself against complaints to the BAI.

The Sunday Independent has seen a copy of a reply sent by RTE head of compliance, Mr Feeney to the BAI in relation to a complaint taken by a viewer from Cork.

Mr Feeney states: "The essential information that Mr Gallagher had solicited considerable funds for Fianna Fail three years earlier has proven to be correct. The business man at the centre of the claim, Mr Hugh Morgan, did issue a statement the following morning confirming the core claim."

In relation to the anomalies that subsequently emerged, Mr Feeney states: "There was and remains some confusion about exactly when the €5,000 was donated and in what circumstances; what is not in dispute is that it happened; this has been acknowledged by Fianna Fail headquarters."

He also points out that Frank Fitzgibbon of the Sunday Times, Conor Pope of The Irish Times and Matt Cooper of Today FM had retweeted the bogus tweet.

Mr Feeney adds: "Given that the same information was available on social media, the production team decided to bring this information to the audience's and the candidates' attention."

Sunday Independent

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