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Jody Corcoran: Labour connection casts shadow over RTE's 'Frontline' debate

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Aoife's father,
Tom Kelleher, far left, who is a Labour councillor on Fingal County Council, with now Education Minister
Ruairi Quinn, centre, and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, right

Aoife's father, Tom Kelleher, far left, who is a Labour councillor on Fingal County Council, with now Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, centre, and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, right

Aoife's father, Tom Kelleher, far left, who is a Labour councillor on Fingal County Council, with now Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, centre, and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, right

One of the more curious aspects of RTE's The Frontline presidential debate is that the Labour candidate, Michael D Higgins, was not asked a direct question by a member of the studio audience.



Higgins was the only real challenger to the then frontrunner, Sean Gallagher, there being 13 points between them at the time, according to an opinion poll published closest to the broadcast.

Yet the Labour candidate remained virtually unchallenged throughout the debate, certainly from a member of the audience, while Gallagher, in particular, was placed under the spotlight.

It was, of course, entirely legitimate for The Frontline to ask difficult questions of Gallagher or to facilitate the audience to put those difficult questions to him.

But upon repeated viewings, the question arises, was there an over-concentration on Gallagher that night, to the point that it was unfair? The question is particularly relevant, in hindsight, when we consider everything we know now but did not know then.

Besides Gallagher, if any of the other candidates have cause to feel aggrieved by the comfortable passage afforded to Higgins, then the independent candidate David Norris and, indeed, the Sinn Fein candidate Martin McGuinness, may be such candidates.

As it happens, both Norris, and to a lesser extent McGuinness, were drawing their, by then, declining support from the same 'liberal-left' voter pool, as Leo Varadkar might say.

An analysis of the questions asked by the audience shows that, by a long way, Gallagher was allowed by RTE to be placed under ferocious pressure.

In fact, the camera was on Gallagher for 18 minutes longer than it was on the candidate least in the spotlight, the other independent candidate, Mary Davis.

Yet Michael D Higgins, the only candidate with a realistic, although outside, prospect of stopping Gallagher's momentum towards the Aras, was allowed to sail serenely through the 90 minutes, and to appear quite presidential in doing so.

In terms of audience participation, there is no doubt that the 'star' turn came from Glenna Lynch, a businesswoman who got not one, but two bites at Gallagher in relation to his business dealings.

Five months on and Lynch has become a bit of a media 'celebrity' herself, as her return to The Frontline three weeks ago may testify, as well as her appearances on the Tonight with Vincent Browne show on TV3 where she popped up again last week, this time hosted by Ivan Yates.

She told Yates that she had "strong views" about Gallagher, "worries", in fact, that he was about to become President. She had not believed it possible that he would win, but as the big day drew closer, it became apparent that he would, or could.

So she sat down and dashed off a two-page "rant" to Pat Kenny, which, despite her "desperation", seems to have been sufficiently analytical of Gallagher's business dealings to draw the attention of The Frontline team.

Upon getting the go-ahead, Lynch honed her analysis and was well prepared, then, for her interaction with the unsuspecting Gallagher when the opportunity came, not once but twice.

She also launched into Gallagher on the Today with Pat Kenny Show next morning, a radio programme which was also heavily criticised by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

During the show, Gallagher, by now on the ropes, had raised a question as to the political leanings of Lynch, the issue which seems to have sparked what she said was her decision to contact the show.

In any event, Lynch -- at the time, of course, she may not have made up her mind -- was to confirm the day after the debate that she intended to vote for Michael D Higgins, who had sailed through The Frontline debate unscathed.

Indeed, the questioning of Lynch's bona fides by Gallagher seems to have been the issue which provoked the ire, not just of Lynch, but also a producer of The Frontline programme itself.

The influence of Twitter, and social media in general, will turn out to be the issue which has dogged the presidential election.

It was, after all, the broadcast of a bogus tweet on The Frontline, and the programme's failure to broadcast a corrective tweet -- even though it had 26 minutes to do so -- which ultimately did for Gallagher.

It is legitimate, therefore, to peruse the Twitter account of The Frontline assistant producer concerned -- Aoife Kelleher -- to glean her thoughts at the time of the broadcast and subsequent events.

Kelleher and Glenna Lynch follow each other on Twitter.

On October 26 last, the day before polling day, Kelleher can be seen to leap to the defence of Lynch: "Appalling sexism & smear directed at Glenna Lynch this evening by Gallagherites," she tweeted #vinb, a reference to the Vincent Browne show on TV3.

Indeed, the day before, Kelleher informed her followers on Twitter that Lynch, "the small business owner from Stillorgan who grilled Sean Gallagher" on The Frontline and Today with Pat Kenny, was on the Vincent Browne Show.

By the way, Glenna Lynch is, indeed, a small business owner, in the interior design business; she also happens to be registered in the Companies Office as a director, in Scotland and the UK, of WGS Holdings and Worldoffruit.com, companies related to the publicly-listed Fyffes.

Kelleher appears to be such a fan of Lynch that, on November 8 last, she informed her Twitter followers that the small business woman was "impressive again" on the Vincent Browne show, this time to discuss the "appalling facilities on halting sites, anti-Traveller prejudice".

But perhaps her more interesting tweets were posted on the day of the election count itself.

For example, she retweeted a tweet by the scriptwriter and actor, Mark O'Halloran, which stated: "It sure is a great result for the little people!" when it became clear that Michael D Higgins was going to win the Presidency.

This is the same Mark O'Halloran who six days ago, on March 12, as the controversy continued to rage, posted: "RTE used underhand methods to scupper Fianna Fail candidate. Bravo."

And then this from Kelleher on the day of the election count, to Michael Hughes, the executive producer of The Frontline: "Noel Whelan on #todaypk says: 'It was Frontline what done it, Pat."

I have listened again to that broadcast and, indeed, the commentator Noel Whelan, an acquaintance of Gallagher, did attribute the victory of Higgins to The Frontline, at which point another voice in the studio declared that Kenny did not seem too sorry.

But perhaps the most curious tweet posted by Kelleher that day was in response to a tweet posted to #aras11 by Colm Tobin. Tobin stated: "The holders of fake twitter accounts are surely the real winners after today's election." Ms Kelleher re-tweeted and added: "Heh!"

Of course, RTE cannot be held to account for the tweets sent in a private capacity by one of its producers, even if that producer had worked on one of the most controversial programmes ever broadcast by RTE.

Ms Kelleher, after all, held the relatively less influential position of assistant producer of The Frontline presidential debate.

Ultimately, senior colleagues would have been more responsible to meet the requirements laid down by the executive producer, Michael Hughes, to another audience member hopeful: "We are obliged to ensure the debate is balanced and that no one candidate gets excessive time."

The audience member hopeful concerned, Austin Stack, had wanted to ask Martin McGuinness a question in relation to his father Brian Stack, the chief prison officer of Portlaoise Prison, who was murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1983.

Hughes told Austin Stack days before the debate: "We already have some speakers on this very important theme." The "speakers" on The Frontline may not have had the same emotional impact of the son of an IRA murder victim, but the programme did, indeed, include two questions from the audience for McGuinness.

One was from a young woman introduced only as 'Emma'; she is Emmy Maher, a student at DCU who has associations with Fianna Fail.

A frequent contributor to RTE phone-in shows, and a regular communicator with RTE, by tweet and text, she declined to respond to attempts by the Sunday Independent to contact her last week.

In any event, her question succeeded only in allowing McGuinness to rail against a "partitionist" attitude in the south and to go on at some length about his right as a person from Northern Ireland to stand for the Presidency of the Republic.

A more interesting question came from Kevin Conroy, a retired schoolteacher from Cooley in Co Louth, a former neighbour of the late Tom Oliver, who was murdered by the Provisional IRA in 1991.

Kevin Conroy told me last week of his surprise when he was contacted by The Frontline "out of the blue" inquiring as to his interest in participating on the programme.

Conroy is also a regular communicator to RTE programmes, as well as to the Vincent Browne show, by text and email. His political views, therefore, were well known to The Frontline.

He was pleased to take up the offer, which was extended by assistant producer Aoife Kelleher.

Conroy submitted three questions, one of which asked if McGuinness regarded IRA killings as "murder" or "war victims"; another which asked if Michael D Higgins was Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, but which was never asked.

Intriguingly, Conroy's question for Gallagher part-related to the event McGuinness subsequently ambushed him on -- the Fianna Fail fundraiser event at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dundalk.

Conroy is no fan of Gallagher. He told me last week that he felt Gallagher was not upfront about his association with Fianna Fail. He was happy, therefore, for two of his questions to be merged into one, that is, a question to McGuinness which included a statement about Gallagher.

The statement about Gallagher was as follows: "I would just begin by saying I fully agree with you [McGuinness] in relation to Sean Gallagher and the damage Fianna Fail has done to this nation."

Austin Stack, meanwhile, told me last week that during several telephone conversations with Hughes before broadcast, the executive producer had told him the programme intended that "non-committed" voters in the audience would ask questions of the candidates.

This was offered by way of explanation that Stack himself would not get to question McGuinness. RTE sources indicate that the issue of "non-committed" voters was not discussed with Stack.

In any event, as we know, Glenna Lynch did not publicly disclose her intention to vote for Michael D Higgins until after the debate.

But what about another member of the audience, a young man introduced only as 'Dermot', who asked a difficult question of David Norris. It turns out that there is more to him than was made apparent on the night.

This was his question: "Would David Norris accept that since his return to the race he has shown a remarkable lack of judgment?"

The young man is question is, in fact, Dermot Fitzpatrick. Let us return now to the medium known as social media -- Twitter, Facebook and the like.

A routine perusal online reveals that Fitzpatrick is a Facebook friend of Aoife Kelleher, and also that they engage with each other on Twitter. For example, on October 14 last, a week before the debate, the pair discussed the relative merits of the Hollywood actor Ryan Gosling.

Fitzpatrick is also, obviously, interested in the affairs of the nation. For example, on February 14 last year, shortly before the general election, he re-tweeted a tweet critical of the then Fine Gael health spokesman, now Health Minister, James Reilly, a TD in Dublin North.

The tweet read: "Fine Gael health spokesman James Reilly negotiated huge salaries for consultants but is indifferent to the plight of student nurses."

The original tweet was posted by Tom Kelleher, the then vice-chairman of Fingal County Council and, as it happened, a general election candidate for the Labour Party in Dublin North.

Tom Kelleher is the father of The Frontline assistant producer, Aoife Kelleher.

Three days before The Frontline debate, Tom Kelleher engaged in an exchange with Dermot Fitzpatrick on Tom Kelleher's Facebook page.

Tom Kelleher: 'Vote Michael D Higgins for President.' (The post included a YouTube message from the would-be President.)

Dermot Fitzpatrick replied at 15.06: 'Oh, all right then.'

Tom Kelleher said at 9.20: 'that was easy!'

Three days later, Fitzpatrick turned up on The Frontline to raise a question as to the judgement, or otherwise, of David Norris.

As I reported last week, The Frontline chose not to follow in the presidential debate the criteria it had followed in the leaders' debate before the general election.

That is, Millward Browne Lansdowne and independent academics were not used this time to chose audience members and the questions they may ask.

The opening question in the presidential debate set the tone for what followed.

It was a legitimate question addressed to all of the candidates, but loaded against Sean Gallagher: "What do they think it says about the country that just eight months after we ejected Fianna Fail from office, an ex-Fianna Fail businessman looks set to be our next president?"

The only Gallagher supporter who got to ask a question that night was the unfortunate Pat McGuirk, who has had his life turned upside down since he gave his account to the Sunday Independent last week.

In his initial email to The Frontline, McGuirk declared: "I believe in Sean Gallagher!", yet somehow -- and this is in dispute -- he moved or was moved to a position where, according to RTE, he expressed scepticism about aspects of the Gallagher campaign.

According to RTE, McGuirk had said he was "sick of hearing" of Gallagher's claims in relation to job creation, that he felt he was a "cute hoor" and playing "a sneaky game"; that he was in fact "a (defamatory term)".

McGuirk disputes that he said any such thing, but his admiration, or otherwise, of Gallagher is not necessarily the point.

The point is that, by its own account, RTE was prepared to allow another member of the audience ask a question that was highly critical of Gallagher.

Worse than that, by the account of RTE, the potential existed that McGuirk would defame Sean Gallagher. 'Defame' means "to injure the reputation of someone by libel or slander".

Yet RTE was still prepared to allow him on a live TV in front of 900,000 viewers.

In all, three hostile questions were pitched to Gallagher that night, and he was inherently criticised in several others; that is before we consider the ambush that was the bogus tweet.

And still a rather curious aspect of the entire affair remains unanswered: why was Michael D Higgins not asked a direct question by a member of The Frontline studio audience?

Sunday Independent