'Frontline' report shows RTÉ has still not grasped need for accountability

Sat, Nov 24, 2012, 00:00

On Pat Kenny’s RTÉ radio programme the day after the presidential election last November, I advanced an explanation for the dramatic collapse in Seán Gallagher’s vote: “It were Frontline what done it.”

“Mea Culpa,” Pat Kenny joked, happy to acknowledge the influence his RTÉ television programme had exerted. At that stage there was no reason not to claim credit.

There is, therefore, a consistency at least in the acknowledgment by RTÉ current affairs editor David Nally to Newstalk last Monday that the Frontline debate had changed the outcome of the presidential election.

Nally was speaking after the publication of the internal RTÉ report into aspects of the Frontline programme, co-authored by former UTV director of news and current affairs Robert Morrison.

There is much about the timing of the publication of this report, RTÉ’s initial response to it and the subsequent criticisms of it by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) that suggests, notwithstanding the changes in management of news and current affairs, RTÉ at a corporate level just doesn’t get the point about the need for public accountability.

This internal report was remarkably short. It runs to just eight double-spaced pages. It is effectively no more than a set of conclusions or findings, some of them very cautiously worded.

The report was completed, it seems, last July. RTÉ refused to publish it at the time, saying it did not wish to do so until after the BAI, to which it had sent the report, had dealt with it. The report was circulated only within RTÉ and to the BAI. It was shared neither with Gallagher nor with any of the other candidates.

Details of the report were leaked to the Sunday Business Post just days before the BAI was due to make a determination. RTÉ then decided, presumably in its corporate interests, to publish the report rather than wait the couple of days remaining.

On Tuesday the BAI compliance committee found there were “serious and significant editorial failings” and these were “more significant than had been identified in the published report”.

Notwithstanding RTÉ’s insistence that the report should not be in the public domain before the BAI considered it, Kenny chose to go public with a selective take on its contents. On September 4th he told journalists the Frontline team was “completely vindicated”.

Kenny was also dismissive of the ongoing controversy about the programme in terms that, deliberately or otherwise, served to undermine the apology previously given to Gallagher by RTÉ.

Now that we can read the full report we see that while it concludes that the production team was not motivated by any bias, the report is damning of the way the team put the programme together. It could not on any reading be said to be a complete vindication. RTÉ declined this week to offer a view on the appropriateness of Kenny’s public intervention before the report was published.

My sense at the time of the broadcast was that Frontline’s desire for dramatic and entertaining television, and its boast that the programme could be a “game-changer”, caused it to lose perspective and to have almost no focus on the need for the programme to be fair to all candidates. That appears to be confirmed by this report.

RTÉ is struggling to accept that as the national public service broadcaster it put out an unbalanced programme, did so three days before the vote to an audience of more than three-quarters of a million people, and did so in a way that changed the outcome of a presidential election.

Not only was the programme as broadcast significantly unbalanced against Gallagher and to a lesser extent some of the other candidates, it was also easier on Michael D Higgins. He was not asked any direct questions from the audience.

The RTÉ report makes much of the fact that Higgins was still “challenged” because he was asked questions by Kenny. Reviewing the programme, one sees that dozens of such follow-up questions from Kenny were directed at Gallagher, all of them sharp, some of them snide. Only a handful of such questions were addressed directly to Higgins, including the soft-ball “Do you think you made a mistake in staying so presidential”.

When I worked in politics I understood that for all election and referendum campaigns RTÉ had a tough steering committee rigorously monitoring coverage to ensure balance across the station’s various programmes and platforms.

You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when told this week by RTÉ that the steering group did not meet at all on the days between the Frontline debate and the commencement of the moratorium on election coverage. Instead it was left to the current affairs section itself, headed as it was by the same personnel responsible for the unbalanced programme, to review the programme for balance.

I made it clear in the lead-up to the presidential election that I was a friend of Gallagher’s. I knew him of old and we had renewed our acquaintance the previous summer. Gallagher, of course, carries the principal responsibility for the errors he made in understating his Fianna Fáil past during the campaign and fumbling the questions during the Frontline debate. He has paid a significant price for those errors.

In the months since the election I have been among those who have encouraged him not to pursue the legal options available in seeking redress from RTÉ and to focus instead on the new set of business and personal challenges on which he has embarked. In my view it should be left to the BAI and the media generally to ensure accountability for RTÉ’s errors.

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