RTÉ refuses to release political complaints

Mon, Jul 16, 2012, 01:00

RTÉ HAS refused to release details of complaints it has received from politicians and political parties under freedom of information legislation, saying to do so could have “an adverse effect on management”.

The State broadcaster also argued that because it was the only media organ subject to freedom of information (FoI), the release of information could have an adverse effect on its competitive position.

“If politicians and their agents felt that they could not continue normal discourse with RTÉ without all that correspondence being available under FoI, they might consider switching their attention to other broadcasters and the print media, none of whom are subject to FoI,” RTÉ’s freedom of information officer, Peter Feeney, said in a letter refusing access to the material.

Mr Feeney said RTÉ was subject to the legislation only for its non-programme-related functions. All correspondence from politicians and political parties were therefore exempt.

He said he had also considered the possibility that releasing the material could have an adverse effect on management.

The process of dealing with the exchange of views about content and policy between journalists and “those in the public realm” could be damaged if this exchange had to take place in full public view.

“It is surely in the public interest that the practice, to use a cliche, of full and frank discussion can take place between public service broadcasters and politicians and their agents without that exchange being in full public view. Anything else could damage RTÉ’s news and current affairs service, which would not be in the public interest.”

The broadcaster identified correspondence received from a variety of political parties and politicians, without providing the details of the complaints involved. The presidential election campaign inspired separate complaints from Fine Gael and Labour, two from Sinn Féin and one from independent candidate Senator David Norris.

Fianna Fáil complained about the level of coverage it received on Prime Time and during the fiscal treaty referendum.

Independent TD Finian McGrath contacted the station about coverage of the technical group, while one member of that group, Luke “Ming” Flanagan, corresponded about coverage of a debate in the Dáil.

Government press secretary Feargal Purcell wrote to the broadcaster about a Frontline programme last October, which dealt with the then upcoming referendums on judges’ pay and Oireachtas inquiries.

Mr Feeney later wrote to The Irish Times saying Fianna Fáil communications director Pat McParland had indicated he had no objections to the release of the party’s research findings on media coverage.

In the document, Fianna Fáil claims RTÉ’s Prime Time programme was “clearly biased” in favour of the Opposition before last year’s general election, but that bias was dramatically reversed after Fine Gael and Labour were elected.

Mr McParland claimed there was a “radical, unilateral and unexplained change” in RTÉ’s approach to covering political opposition.

“Prime Time, while particularly egregious, is not an isolated example,” he said.