RTÉ displayed preference for drama over accuracy

Sat, Mar 10, 2012, 00:00

There are questions that still need to be answered about how RTÉ handled the tweet, writes NOEL WHELAN

THE MOST curious part of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s judgment on Seán Gallagher’s successful complaint about the Frontlinepresidential debate was its contention in the last paragraph that the issue he raised “was not of such significant nature as to warrant an investigation or public hearings”.

RTÉ’s own Red C “Recall” poll published the day after the presidential election showed that 28 per cent of voters switched their first preference vote in the final week of the campaign, with 58 per cent switching from Gallagher to Higgins.

Despite incessant negative stories about him in some media in the week before the Frontlinedebate, Gallagher’s vote had increased in three polls.

Gallagher’s bad media performances the day after the Frontlinedebate compounded his difficulties; his tone in some was destructive and flowed perhaps from frustration at his performance the previous night. There is no doubt in my view that it was Frontlinewhich “done the damage”.

That is not to say it was the exchange about the bogus tweet alone, or RTÉ’s error surrounding it, which caused his downfall.

Gallagher has only himself to blame for the fact that he equivocated and for the words he used when Pat Kenny put the bogus tweet to him. For that he paid a very high price.

The issue now is not the outcome of the presidential election but RTÉ’s attitude to accountability and the standards operating within its current affairs division.

One wonders how much impact a broadcaster error has to have before it is adjudged to be significant by the BAI.

This newspaper in its editorial on Thursday described this aspect of the BAI decision as “illogical” but went on to doubt whether a public inquiry would shed any further light on the matter since the facts appear to be clear.

I disagree. There are a number of important questions about how precisely the tweet was handled which still need to be answered publicly, either by RTÉ or some other investigation.

We need to know the precise sequencing in order to assess the scale of the error.

Was it an isolated human mistake or systemic failure? Did some lowly researcher monitoring social media transcribe or transfer the content of the tweet wrongly or without realising it wasn’t official or did senior producers just simply disregard the basic need to check the facts?

In fairness to Kenny we should also be told what he knew about or asked about the provenance of the tweet before he used it on the programme.

Several senior journalists in RTÉ have suggested to me that the enthusiasm for using this tweet and getting it on air quickly came from some of the most senior people in RTÉ’s current affairs division present in the production box on the night.

Unlike the Gallagher campaign, I do not believe the Frontlineproduction team ambushed its candidate. It was not biased against him or out to get one candidate in particular.

However, its decision-making and systems on the night were clearly flawed. Its actions displayed a naive reverence towards twitter and a preference in television for pace and drama over accuracy and credibility.

As the frontrunner Gallagher was the primary focus of the debate, and therefore the one most likely to be treated unfairly. The programme makers had an obligation to ensure this didn’t happen, but instead became the authors of a grave unfairness.

Admissions and apologies delivered when first charged always carry more weight than those offered after conviction. RTÉ’s attitude to the complaint was informed by its need to defend against any suggestion it acted with deliberate bias against Gallagher. On that particular aspect it succeeded.

It is wrong, however, that right until the BAI finding was published on Wednesday RTÉ sought to defend its use of the tweet.

When first confronted by other media and later in its response to Gallagher’s complaint RTÉ argued there was no time to verify the tweet, even though senior Sinn Féin personnel were on site in Montrose. RTÉ also implied it should be forgiven for failing to check its accuracy because it had been retweeted many times.

Even more curiously RTÉ wrote a letter to this newspaper three weeks ago complaining about the suggestion in a front page article that Kenny “read out what turned out to be a bogus tweet”. RTÉ claimed that while the source of the tweet was disputed, “the information contained in the tweet was essentially accurate”.

This is simply untrue. Sinn Féin never produced Hugh Morgan at a press conference or otherwise. Morgan himself did issue a relatively detailed statement the next day but then refused to be interviewed about his otherwise unverifiable claims. We have heard nothing since from Morgan apart from two apparently contradictory accounts given to different newspapers, including one suggesting he gave the cheque to Seamus Kirk.

We do know that Morgan could not have given the cheque to Gallagher after the fundraiser as McGuinness suggested on Frontline. Fianna Fáil confirmed the next day that the cheque was lodged before the event.

We also now know that 80 per cent of all of the petrol and diesel used in McGuinness’s “nationwide” campaign tour was bought from Morgan’s company.

The day after the BAI judgment even RTÉ’s Morning Irelandpresenters were describing the tweet as bogus.

RTÉ learnt from its disastrous handling of the immediate aftermath of Kevin Reynolds’s libel case. This week its director general was out early, the board met promptly and the station was up front with its regret.

Real insight for RTÉ will come, however, when it can acknowledge its own errors before others point them out.