RTÉ has more to reveal on 'Frontline' affair as charge of 'manufacturing' controversy persists


ANALYSIS:LESS THAN a week ago, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) seemed to have put an end to the controversy surrounding the “bogus tweet” on RTÉ’s Frontlinelast October.

The broadcasting watchdog upheld Seán Gallagher’s complaint about its unfairness and the (unspecified) damage it had done to his presidential campaign.

Gallagher accepted RTÉ director general Noel Curran’s apology, although the BAI made no finding that the programme makers had an agenda or had set out to manufacture controversy, a central plank of the argument advanced on Gallagher’s behalf.

Despite the lack of effort by the broadcaster to verify the tweet’s provenance and its somewhat blasè attitude afterwards where it resorted to “end justifies the means” arguments, it was a matter of great import for the broadcaster that the BAI made no finding of bad faith.

But yesterday, the controversy re-erupted only four days after being put to bed. An audience member on Frontlinethat night, Pat McGuirk, claimed in the Sunday Independent that he was primed by programme researchers to put a hostile question to Gallagher.

The focus now shifted to another aspect of the programme’s editorial approach: how questions get to be put to contributors.

It must be said that McGuirk’s assertions are to some extent undermined by an email he sent to The Frontlinetwo days after the broadcast. The email was glowing in its praise of the researcher with whom he had dealt. But since then he has had a Damascene moment and the fresh claims do bear scrutiny.

McGuirk’s version is that he contacted The Frontlineto ask one question (about presidential pay) and he ended up asking a question he never intended to ask (Gallagher’s record on employing people). In other words, he claimed that words had literally been put in his mouth in pursuit of The Frontline’s agenda.

On live programmes involving audiences an impression may be given that the questions are always those of the audience members alone. But that is seldom the case and invariably some degree of artifice is involved. Sure, there is a need for an audience that is broadly representative and for the questions to be fair and balanced.

Moreover, while acting head of current affairs at RTÉ Steve Carson cavilled at questions about who sets the agenda for the programme (and the mix of questions to be asked), it is clear (and understandable and 100 per cent correct) that the decision ultimately lies with the programme-maker. And what was most surprising, and slightly unsettling, about what was disclosed by the Sunday Independentwas the involved nature of the process.

The eventual question emerged from a number of conversations with a researcher and bore no relationship to his original question. One of the criteria, according to RTÉ’s own statement, was that McGuirk was “expressive and personable”.

A question was drafted, using the substance and language used by McGuirk in his conversation with the researcher. But was it really his question or was he merely a mouthpiece for a question chosen by The Frontline?

It becomes more tricky when it comes to making the subjective call of was it a fair question to ask in the circumstances, or was it provocative and unfair? In other words, the debate revolves around responsible broadcasting.

The bogus tweet controversy, and RTÉ’s bona fides in handling it, was dealt with in a comprehensive manner by the BAI decision. However, some other questions remained unanswered. One relates to RTÉ’s need to disclose the full narrative and sequence of events. The second relates to finding out who was behind the bogus Twitter account. And the third relates to an honest examination of how “audience questions” are chosen and whether they are done in a responsible and fair manner.