'Pat McGuirk of Newbliss in Co Monaghan was one of several dozen people who made contact with The Frontline office wishing to appear in the audience for the presidential debate.
n his initial contact he included personal and business information about himself and expressed an interest in asking a question about candidates being willing, if elected, to take a pay cut as President.
Over a number of phone conversations -- three or four -- a Frontline researcher explored Mr McGuirk's suitability and interest as a possible audience member. His tabled question about pay cuts was initially of interest as one of a wide field of questions submitted by many applicants being considered for audience places. As that field of applicants and possible questions narrowed and other topics were felt to have more currency in the campaign, or appeared to be more likely to be asked by other audience members, it was decided that this question would not be taken from Mr McGuirk.
The conversations with Mr McGuirk up to that point had already indicated additional areas of his interest. 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 focused 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 [and] very few appeared to be left. These were Mr McGuirk's volunteered opinions.
The programme team balanced all of the applicants for audience seats, along with the spread of topics tabled by the applicants, and the range of topics which the team itself felt would have the greatest relevance on broadcast night. Mr McGuirk was thought a positive choice for an audience seat. It was noted that he was expressive and personable.
In a further phone conversation with the researcher, Mr McGuirk was asked if he would confirm the wish to attend and if he was willing to ask a question in the area of regional job creation and Mr Gallagher's credentials in this regard, given the interest he had shown in this. He agreed to attend and agreed he would be happy to offer a question expressing the views he had outlined on this other area.
On the Monday (broadcast day) the programme team in reviewing the spread of all audience members, topics and issues finalised the 'map' of all of these. In this process a question was drafted using the substance and language offered by Mr McGuirk on the job creation topic in his research phone conversations. Mr McGuirk was then phoned by the same researcher who had dealt with him throughout. He confirmed attendance -- a particular issue given the occurrence of widespread flash floods on that day -- and was read the draft question prepared by the programme team from his own statements and in language as noted from the research conversations.
Mr McGuirk agreed that the question as drafted was accurate and agreeable to him, other than that he felt now on reflection that using the term 'cute hoor' in respect of Mr Gallagher -- a phrase he had offered -- might be disrespectful. The programme team accepted this. They had already opted not to use the defamatory term which he had also offered.
On arrival in RTE, Mr McGuirk was given a printed text of the question as agreed earlier by him. He was asked -- as were other audience members -- to take time to read the prepared question over, to check that it was agreeable and if so to practise delivering it; and if [he] wished to vary it to his own phrasing. Mr McGuirk agreed to do this and in due course asked the question on air albeit with a further variation additionally softening his own phrasing.
Mr McGuirk expressed no issue about the question or its preparation to the programme team members. He emailed the programme researcher two days after the broadcast expressing his happiness with the programme experience in very fulsome terms. He has made no contact subsequently to differ from this. RTE is concerned and disappointed that he has made the claims put forward by the Sunday Independent.
It is proper for RTE to note that research preparation work with audience members is a normal and regular part of production for live programmes with audience participation. In current affairs programmes in particular it is done with consideration for balance, fairness and other issues. The selection of questions offered by prospective audience members is normal.
The adaptation or sub-editing of submitted questions is a part of programme preparation for reasons of coherence, duration and potential libel. In debate programmes, regard must also be had to the spread of questions and to topicality and balance as between candidates.
The practice of the production team in providing a typed copy of an agreed and planned question is in the interests of providing a reference for guests, to guard against nerves which are commonplace when members of the public ask questions on live television. 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.
On occasions, where a question has been accepted from one prospective audience member and this person does not attend, but where the question accepted is regarded as proper and necessary for balance, another audience member may be asked if s/he is willing voluntarily to ask a similar question on that subject. For example: on the night of The Frontline debate one such question was among a number submitted by audience members who were then unable because of flash flooding to attend the broadcast; this question -- concerning candidate Gay Mitchell -- was offered to another audience member who agreed to ask it and did ask it on air.
RTE in its announced review of editorial standards and practices has undertaken that all aspects of editorial content and editorial risk is to be reviewed for safety and best practice.
This review already incorporates audience selection on studio programmes and the preparation and finalising of questions. The acting MD of News and Current Affairs has already set this review in train in the News division and it will report to the Director General in the near future."