| 17.9°C Dublin

Putting sensationalism before facts hurts us all

Carol Hunt finds it strange that RTE refuses to acknowledge, let alone try to correct, the wrong done to Sean Gallagher

THE 'Sunday Brunch' newspaper discussion at the Electric Picnic's Leviathan tent is always a pretty laid back affair. So laid back that last year I found myself commandeered on to the panel with 10 minutes' notice.

The guest of honour on the show that morning was Dragon's Den entrepreneur, presidential hopeful, and seemingly most controversially of all, ex-Fianna Fail member, Sean Gallagher.

There was a general feeling that Gallagher had hitherto been a little less than candid about his Fianna Fail past.

There were also suspicions that FF was trying to pull a fast one on the electorate by packaging "its" man as an Independent and not another jaded, cynical politician from a party whose brand was then toxic with the majority of voters. (Although FF was still hankering after Gaybo at that time.)

Comedian and musician Paddy Cullivan hosted the 'brunch' and, rather than focus on that morning's news, he set about finding out what every person in the packed out tent wanted to know -- how deep was Gallagher's involvement with Fianna Fail?

Here I have to admit that I was prepared to be as judgmental as the rest of the (mainly) South County Dublin (SOC) audience in the Leviathan tent. Not only have I never voted for FF in my entire life, but I have never even ticked any FF name as a preference.

But Gallagher answered every question Cullivan threw at him; carefully, thoughtfully, sometimes passionately or with humour but always, it seemed to me anyway, with great honesty.

Later I would remember it as the most incisive interview with Gallagher of the entire campaign. Perhaps it was because there were no TV cameras on him, few journalists and no over-anxious handlers (wrongly) advising him to play down his past FF credentials, or perhaps it was just that the atmosphere that Sunday morning was congenial, the audience was ready to listen, there were no catcalls, hisses or boos, there was no agenda, no need to make the interview a "game changer". Or perhaps Paddy is just a bloody good interviewer.

Whatever it was, the crowd listened with interest as Gallagher explained how FF was the party it was natural to join in his local area if you were passionate about community and young people, etc ... as he was. They asked a lot of questions, the Electric Picnic people, and Gallagher answered them all. There was a sense that the majority were fairly impressed with what they heard.

I have to concede that I found myself liking Gallagher -- a lot: his energy; his passion; his intelligence; his charm; his 'get up and go' attitude.

In particular I liked his lack of political sophistication. He didn't have a pat answer always at the ready -- he thought about the questions instead of just going into 'spin-mode' like most of our politicians trained by expensive advisers. His big, brash honesty was refreshing, and the fact that he had a young, and very charming, wife wasn't likely to hurt his election prospects either.

I didn't vote for him though. My man was always going to be David Norris -- but I wouldn't have cried myself to sleep if Gallagher had got to the Aras instead, as he looked set to before the infamous "Tweetgate".

Last week Gallagher gave his first interview since that catastrophe. He didn't sound bitter, but he did give the impression that he knows he is a man who was badly wronged. It's hardly surprising that he's less than happy with what happened during the Frontline programme, and what followed it. In all probability, if this catastrophe had not occurred, he'd be president of Ireland and not an unemployed ex-entrepreneur.

In brief, he and Murray (interviewer and ex-campaigner) discussed the fact that a tweet from an unofficial account containing information which turned out to be incorrect was referred to by Pat Kenny on the programme as if it were legitimate.

Gallagher -- who was on pain medication for a disc problem at the time, and as a fellow sufferer I can sympathise with him here -- understandably became flustered. I mean, who expects such a professional and experienced journalist as Kenny to throw the near equivalent of a "and when did you stop beating your wife?" question at a leading presidential candidate on national TV?

Once Gallagher said the word "envelope", he was finished. The baying, tabloid-style audience was having a 'Christian to the lions' moment -- Frontline had somehow segued into The Jerry Springer Show. Gallagher was referred to as "Fianna Fail's bagman", a title he would never recover from, despite the fact that he did nothing other foot-soldiers in every political party do all the time. (Whether you disagree with such donations to political parties, as I do, is a totally different issue.)

But here's the real travesty: the fact that the tweet was not from an official Sinn Fein account and was also untrue didn't seem to matter. That Sinn Fein informed the Frontline team of this fact during the programme seemed irrelevant also. Nor did anyone in RTE see the need to inform Sean Gallagher of this the following morning when, wounded and naturally confused and frustrated about these surreal events, he inadvisably hit out at audience member Glenna Lynch, thinking that perhaps she too was part of a set-up against him. Glenna wasn't, but can the same be said for the refusal of RTE to acknowledge, let alone attempt to correct, the enormous wrong done to Gallagher?

The strangest thing about this whole affair was that RTE just didn't seem to 'get' what it had done. In a letter to the Irish Times, RTE Head of Broadcast Compliance Peter Feeney insisted that the tweet was "essentially accurate" (it was not) and that: "The tweet had been noted and retweeted by several hundred people on the evening of the broadcast of the Frontline programme including senior newspaper journalists and one Irish newspaper editor, before it was raised in good faith by Mr Kenny on the live broadcast."

Now, any person with experience of Twitter knows that "a retweet does not mean an endorsement" -- that is, just because you retweet (send on to your followers) information/gossip you receive does not in any way confirm its veracity. That's why many "tweeters" put the above caveat on their personal information page.

Last week, Gallagher was accused of comparing the wrong done to him by RTE with the wrongs done to victims of child abuse by the Catholic Church. If this was true it was pretty narcissistic. But it's not. Gallagher compared the incomprehensible way that RTE refused to see or admit anything wrong about its behaviour to him during and after the Frontline programme with the way the Church initially refused to admit that its victims may have valid cause for complaint and redress.

Similarly, Gallagher is being ridiculed for likening the groupthink, the lack of confirmation of facts that led to the defaming of Fr Reynolds, with "Tweetgate".

Yet they are similar: both put sensational TV before the facts; both ignored the basic rule "if in doubt, leave it out". It's not just Sean Gallagher who has been badly served by this whole debacle -- our democratic process has been also.

Sunday Independent