'Frontline' a symptom of failure on TV political debates
Media&Marketing:On Sunday we learned, though a leaked report, that the presidential debate on RTÉ’s programme The Frontline in October 2011 had been the subject of an internal review and had been found seriously wanting.
No senior editorial figure was in place on the night to ensure impartiality; questions were distributed unevenly; and there were problems with audience selection and with the training given to the production team.
“Serious mistakes were made,” acknowledged RTÉ’s managing director of news and current affairs, Kevin Bakhurst, in a radio interview on Monday. “It was not a perfect programme.”
The report concluded that the “mistakes made were not the result of bias or partiality”.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) had already found against RTÉ for not verifying the tweet put to Seán Gallagher during the debate.
At this remove and with only one debate under the spotlight – because we expect and deserve impeccable standards from our licence-fee-funded State broadcaster and because it turned out to be an election game-changer – it’s easy to forget that the debate on The Frontline was one of many. In such a competitive environment, the giddy urge to come out as entertaining and the “best” has to have been, on some level at least, a factor for all broadcasts.
The Late Late Show had a presidential debate, so had TG4 (though only one of the candidates was fluent in Irish), Prime Time, and finally The Frontline – that’s four debates put out by the national broadcaster. TV3 had one with Vincent Browne in the chair.
And none was a debate in the true sense of the word.
On the Late Late the seven candidates sat in a semicircle like a committee meeting in a parish hall and parroted soundbites while ignoring each other. It was eye-poppingly dull.
No matter how they were dressed up – the podiums, the word “debate” in the title – the broadcasts were effectively one-on-one interviews or opportunities to peddle soundbites. Crucially, the candidates rarely interacted or challenged each other.
Vincent Browne began with the warning “I want a free-flowing debate” and his was more interactive than the others, though it ended up with Browne skewering three of the candidates – Mary Davis, David Norris and Martin McGuinness – so that even the following day it was difficult to recall a single thing the other four candidates were asked or said.
And so The Frontline, after a strong, headline-grabbing outing by Browne, had to up the entertainment ante. Pat Kenny’s Monday night current affairs programme has always been an uneasy mix of Joe Duffy’s Liveline and a stilted panel show. Unexpectedly, for its presidential debate, the audience, not Kenny, got to ask the questions. And as facilitator he was relaxed, up for a bit of banter.
The meat and potatoes of the programme came from that day’s newspaper polls, which marked out Gay Mitchell, Mary Davis, Dana Rosemary Scallon, David Norris and Martin McGuinness as no-hopers; Michael D Higgins as a long shot; and Seán Gallagher as president-in-waiting.
Against that backdrop, it’s hard to see how each of the seven was ever going to be treated the same; it simply wouldn’t have made any sense in television terms.
By the time every mention of the word “envelope” caused the audience to laugh uproariously, viewers at home knew we had strayed far from anything that could have been considered a serious, controlled, current affairs-led presidential debate.
Of the Frontline team responsible for the mistakes uncovered in the report, Bakhurst said “there was a number of individuals, there were sanctions against some of those individuals, but we’re not going to get into details of the individuals or what their sanctions were”. It was an unsatisfactory comment from the public service broadcaster at a time when transparency was called for.
But while the mistakes are being pondered – and they were significant for any current affairs programme – it would be worth acknowledging that, when it comes to political coverage, we just aren’t able to do genuine TV debates in the true meaning of the word debate. Everything we saw during the presidential election proves that.
* Twitter @berniceharrison