Lee's behaviour raises legitimate questions about ethics

 

Journalist's decision raises questions about transparency and ethics for him and for RTÉ, writes NOEL WHELAN.

THE LAST seven days have certainly proved to be a long week in byelection politics. Those diehard Fianna Fáil supporters who

always felt that RTÉ in general and its economics editor in particular were biased against their party will no doubt feel vindicated by George Lee's decision to stand for Fine Gael in Dublin South. However, those making such broad-brush assertions of bias are being unfair to Lee and his 17 years as a working journalist.

That said, Lee's behaviour in recent weeks does raise legitimate questions about ethics, transparency and impartiality for him and RTÉ. It must be discomforting for the national broadcaster that its lead reporter on the dominant political story for much of the last year appears to have transformed almost overnight from being an impartial journalist to an advocate for the main Opposition party.

Lee was untypically vague on Tuesday when closely questioned about how and when his candidature came about. He spoke of being approached "over recent weeks" and how it had been "in the ether" for "possibly a month or two", but that he had only "come to the conclusion" to run last weekend. However, senior Fine Gael sources apparently told journalists before last weekend that they would be announcing a "big fish" candidate for Dublin South this week.

Eight weeks ago, George Lee had an hour of Sunday night television to advance his thesis on how our boom was blown. In the last six weeks he has fronted and, as editor, presumably set the tone of RTÉ's coverage of both the emergency budget and the National Asset Management Agency solution to the banking crisis. Just days before he became a Fine Gael candidate Lee, as RTÉ economics editor, was part of a panel discussion on Pat Kenny's radio show during which he again complained about government incompetence this time for an "atrocious" Lisbon referendum campaign.

RTÉ is particularly conscious of the need not only to be impartial but also to be seen to be impartial. They are even careful to ensure that any connections discussion panel participants might have or had with political parties are declared. In my case, for example, presenters often introduce me as a former Fianna Fáil candidate. Even though it is now 12 years since I stood for election, I take no issue with this and apparently Fine Gael's press office screams if they don't. Unfortunately, listeners cannot know whether anyone else on a panel might emerge as a political party candidate 12 hours later.

Over the years, RTÉ has insisted that employees who leave to work for political parties and return to RTÉ serve a decontamination period before resuming frontline news coverage. Seán Duignan anchored evening news before becoming Albert Reynolds's government press secretary.

On returning to RTÉ, he was quarantined away from political coverage for several years. Shane Kenny was a leading current affairs radio presenter when he became John Bruton's press secretary and was similarly quarantined on return to RTÉ.

It is surprising therefore that similar constraints have not been put in place for RTÉ journalists travelling the other direction across the media/political divide. At a minimum, one would expect that a journalist's own ethics or RTÉ's policy would require that senior management be notified at an early stage by anyone planning to switch to politics so that he or she could be removed from politically sensitive stories.

The moment George Lee seriously considered becoming a Fine Gael candidate, his status changed from being an impartial reporter on the Government's economic policy to someone with a vested interest in criticising the Government's performance. It was then he should have confided in his editorial managers.

It is also surprising that journalists who have so much to say about politicians or senior civil servants going directly from government to the private sector - for example querying Tom Parlon's move to the Construction Industry Federation having been minister of state at the Office of Public Works - are so quiet when similar issues arise touching on their own profession.

Such concerns about ethics and transparency are important, but in reality they matter only within a small media and political circle. They will have no impact on the wider electorate in Dublin South or elsewhere. Therefore, securing George Lee as a candidate has rightly been seen as a major coup for Fine Gael.

As I wrote last week, Fine Gael should always have been favourite to win the Dublin South byelection; it was their delay in selecting a candidate which saw Labour's Alex White become frontrunner by default. Fine Gael polled 27 per cent there in 2007, with Labour polling only 10 per cent. Lee's candidature was worth waiting for however - not least because the later he declared, the longer he could continue in RTÉ and the more his profile could be leveraged to electoral advantage.

Lee has the required mix of expertise and credibility necessary for celebrity journalists to transfer successfully to politics. Voters can instantly perceive him as a frontbench spokesman or minister. He is also a first-rate communicator. Even though he has no canvassing experience, Lee is personable and with the advantage of instant recognition will have no difficulty engaging with voters on the campaign trail.

All of this makes him the perfect candidate for a high-profile byelection in a constituency like Dublin South. It is a constituency where there is always a multiplier on the national mood and where national media coverage really matters.

At a time when Fine Gael is on a surge and the economy is central, Lee's candidature is likely to capture that public mood and a win will deliver a significant further boost to Enda Kenny.

In the medium term however, Fine Gael may come to regret enticing him out of RTÉ where he could have done the Government even more harm in the lead up to the next general election.

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