'Frontline' audience selection criticised


Audience selection by market researchers for the controversial Frontline presidential debate was rejected as “sterile” by the production team, according to an internal RTÉ Frontline report published yesterday.

Instead, the programme continued “the standard Frontline format of directly approaching members of the public” when selecting the audience.

This approach was approved by the presidential election steering group at RTÉ, a working document on the programme said yesterday.

However, it led to a situation where “there appears to have been a blurring of the line between people who were known to the production team from previous programmes, so-called ‘Friends of Frontline’, and personal friends of the production team,” the document states.

The 27-page working document was prepared following a review of the Frontline programme, commissioned by RTÉ last March and conducted by former head of news and current affairs at UTV Rob Morrison and director of programmes at RTÉ Television Steve Carson. It was completed in June and was submitted to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland whose compliance committee considered it at a meeting on Tuesday, November 20th.

On November 22nd, the BAI compliance committee called on RTÉ to also publish the working document on which an already-published internal report was based, as this “would provide additional insights into the editorial failings”.

RTÉ indicated its willingness to publish the working document but said there were confidentiality issues where some who took part in the review process were concerned.

On-air questioners

Mr Morrison and Mr Carson interviewed 10 of the 11 on-air questioners who, as audience members, took part in the programme.

One person declined to respond to their calls. Of the 10, four had their details redacted from the working document published yesterday “due to confidentiality, privacy and data-protection issues”.

The remaining six – Siobhán Feely, Brendan Butler, Kevin Conroy, John McCarroll, Dermot Fitzpatrick and Liam Murphy – were happy with how they and their questions were treated on the programme.

The document criticised the inclusion of Mr Fitzpatrick on the programme as he is a friend of Frontline assistant producer Aoife Kelleher and had been a supporter of her father, Labour councillor Tom Kelleher.

Where audience selection was concerned, the document said “the new executive producer (Michael Hughes) says he discussed with other past and present members of the production team, the presenter (Pat Kenny) and then (then) editor, current affairs (Ken O’Shea), the pros and cons of using a market research company to select audience and questions.

“With the exception of the previous editor of Frontline (David Nally), it appears that the consensus was that the market research method was expensive and had generated a poor debate.” The production team, it said, “wanted to have active audience involvement”.