Behind the scenes of 'The Frontline' - what happened and when

Thu, Mar 15, 2012, 00:00

RTÉ’s The Frontlineprogramme on October 24th 2011 is generally regarded as having had a pivotal role in deciding the presidential election. It was the last televised presidential debate, held just three days before polling day.

21.30:The large RTÉ production team is led by the head of current affairs, Ken O’Shea, and the programme’s executive producer, Michael Hughes. Hughes is in the “gallery” (control box) for all the programme, along with others. O’Shea is also there but, according to senior RTÉ staff, comes and goes.

21.56:Soon after the opening statements, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness begins a direct attack on Gallagher. He says he has been contacted earlier that night by an unnamed man, later identified as fuel merchant Hugh Morgan, who has claimed Gallagher invited him to a €5,000-a-head dinner in Dundalk with then taoiseach Brian Cowen and collected a cheque afterwards. McGuinness’s version is wrong in one aspect at least: the cheque was cashed before the event in 2008. Gallagher denies he collected the cheque.

22.27:Glenna Lynch tackles Gallagher about a director’s loan that seemed to breach company law. Gallagher struggles with his reply. Ms Lynch, a Dublin businesswoman, wrote to The Frontlinea week earlier. Another who did so was Pat McGuirk, a poultry farmer from Newbliss in Co Monaghan.

For the leaders’ debate for the general election in February 2011, RTÉ used a polling company to choose an audience representative of the general population. But there was a sense at senior levels in RTÉ the audience had been dull, so the strategy is changed for The Frontline. People are invited to apply by email to become members of the audience and submit a question.

On the day of the programme a “map” is drawn up, trying to get a representative spread of people and a diversity of topics. Three of the direct questions put by audience members will be put to Gallagher, compared with one or two for other candidates. RTÉ sources say this is unsurprising given he is clear front runner.

22.27: The political blogger David Cochrane of Politics.ietweets: “A SF person has told me they have the person who gave the 5k cheque to Gallagher and are likely to roll him out tomorrow.” Cochrane had been contacted by a Sinn Féin official a few minutes beforehand and told the man would be produced the next day.

22.34:A tweet is sent out from the @mcGuinness4Pres Twitter account: “The man that Gallagher took the cheque from will be at a press conference tomorrow.” The account was set up on the same day as the official Sinn Féin site and has retweeted much of its content. It has never been established if the content of the tweet was based on Cochrane’s tweet several minutes earlier.

The message is retweeted by other Twitter accounts.

Suzanne Collins, a PR adviser to the Gallagher campaign, spots the tweet and alerts campaign PR director Richard Moore. But he is in an ante-room and has no way of contacting Gallagher in studio.

22.52:After an ad break, Pat Kenny announces a development. He puts it to Gallagher that “Sinn Féin say they are going to produce the man who gave you the cheque for five grand.”

McGuinness goes on the attack. Gallagher’s uses the phrases “no recollection” and “if he gave me an envelope” in a reply that draws some laughter from the audience.

22.55:Advisers to the candidates are in a small room close to the studio. When the Sinn Féin team hears the tweet being read out, general secretary Dawn Doyle rings the person who runs the party’s Twitter account, who confirms it hasn’t come from them. He says a correction is being drafted.

Around the same time, Newstalk’s political correspondent Páraic Gallagher comes into the room where most journalists are located to say the tweet has not come from the official Sinn Féin Twitter account and is “bogus”.

23.02:The official @martin4pres account tweets: “As official campaign Twitter for Martin we need to point out that we have made no comment on the Gallagher FF donation issue.” It is 26 minutes before the end of the programme.

23.10 (estimate):At some stage after the Sinn Féin clarification, certainly before the end of the programme, members of The Frontline team become aware of it. According to a reliable source within RTÉ, a note is made of the tweet and there is awareness of it in the gallery but it is not passed on to the presenter Pat Kenny.

The source, who asked not to be identified because of ongoing investigations at the broadcaster, refers to differing recollections of what happened, including some gaps in recollection among key personnel making decisions.

“A note was made [of the second tweet] but it did not travel along the line to studio,” says the source.

Another RTÉ source says the “personnel investigation” now being conducted would be very focused on discovering the exact time the team became aware of the clarification tweet, and why it did not make it to air.

“The story of what happened in the gallery that night is not complete.”

23.12:McGuirk puts a question to Gallagher about his record in job creation. McGuirk has since complained that researchers manipulated his question and reframed it as a hostile question to Gallagher rather than a general question on presidential pay. RTÉ has rejected the allegation, saying it drafted a question for McGuirk on the day of broadcast using “the substance and language” he had used.

23.30: Programme ends. Several RTÉ sources say that some team members are made aware there is an issue with the tweet but the significance of it is not comprehended or passed on.

TUESDAY, 25th:

Morning Irelandnews headlines state: “Sinn Féin promising to produce the individual at the centre of the accusations today.”

10.00:On Today with Pat Kenny, the fact the that the tweet came from a bogus account is mentioned by a contributor. But it does not arise elsewhere, and it is not mentioned by Gallagher, who is interviewed.

Gallagher does not raise the issue when he is interviewed later by RTÉ Radio’s News at One, and by Bryan Dobson on Six-One.

According to Gallagher’s PR director Moore, the tweet became a serious issue later in the week as on Tuesday the team were wholly preoccupied with trying to rally after the Frontlinesetback.

Senior editorial managers in RTÉ say they became aware there was an issue with the tweet much later in the week, when it had been raised in other media.