'Frontline' Gallagher tweet unfair


The use of an unverified tweet about Seán Gallagher during the final televised presidential election debate last year was unfair, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has said.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland yesterday upheld a complaint from Mr Gallagher about The Frontline programme, saying that the station had made “no apparent efforts” to verify the source and accuracy of the tweet broadcast during the debate. A special meeting of the RTÉ board takes place tomorrow to discuss the matter.

Speaking on RTÉ Morning Ireland today, Mr Rabbitte said he agreed with the authority’s ruling and that there were lessons to be learned from the incident.

“Most reasonable people would accept the adjudication of the BAI that the use of the tweet in this fashion was unfair to Seán Gallagher,” he said. “It’s a matter for RTÉ to put in place guidelines to attempt to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Mr Rabbitte said many people held RTÉ’s current affairs coverage in high regard and that the incident highlighted the need for care to be taken to verify information especially “up against an election date when so much was riding on it”.

The tweet, incorrectly described by presenter Pat Kenny as having been issued by the official Martin McGuinness campaign, put Mr Gallagher under increased pressure to explain his past links to Fianna Fáil.

The authority also said the Today with Pat Kenny radio show broadcast the following day, on which Mr Gallagher appeared, exacerbated the unfairness of The Frontline debate by failing to include any clarification regarding the tweet.

Speaking on his radio programme this morning, Kenny said that RTÉ felt it would be inappropriate for Today with Pat Kenny to cover the matter having been ruled upon yesterday.

“We’re not ruling out covering it at some point but we’re not covering it today,” he said.

Mr Gallagher, a Co Louth businessman, who had gone into the debate a clear leader in the presidential election opinion polls but ended up finishing second to Michael D Higgins, has not ruled out taking legal action against RTÉ.

Mr Rabbitte said new media posed enormous challenges to journalists, particularly on live programmes, but that he felt RTÉ had since handled the incident well by apologising and admitting new protocols needed to be put in place.

Asked if the competitive media environment was responsible for such an error, Mr Rabbitte replied that there was sometimes a “tendency to manufacture drama”.

He said it had been the case for some time “on that particular programme” – in reference to The Frontline - and that he was unhappy with how he felt it had set public and private sector workers against one another “for a prolonged period”.

Mr Rabbitte said the incident was a factor in deciding the outcome of the campaign but that it was hard to say how significantly it contributed to his former Labour Party colleague Michael D Higgins winning the election.

“If you talk to Labour people involved in the campaign they will tell you it was their view that the campaign was turning. It was a factor, it wasn’t the only factor but it was a factor,” he said.

The revelation of the tweet, during the final debate in the presidential election campaign, was seen as pivotal to the subsequent slump in Mr Gallagher’s popularity.

At an early stage in the debate, Mr McGuinness alleged that Mr Gallagher had called to the house of a businessman to collect a €5,000 cheque for Fianna Fáil, and the tweet stated: “The man that Gallagher took the cheque from will be at a press conference tomorrow.”

Mr Gallagher said the ruling confirmed his view that there was an institutional failure by RTÉ. The station’s desire to “manufacture on-air drama won out over the truth” as it abandoned its own reporting guidelines, he said in a statement.

“This public service broadcaster introduced, in a grossly unfair manner, a controversial and bogus tweet into a crucial and live presidential election debate, just days before polling, without first having verified where it came from, and whether it was in fact genuine,” he stated.