Minister says RTÉ coverage is biased towards liberal and centre-left parties


A SENIOR Fine Gael Minister has claimed that RTÉ has a bias towards political parties that are centre-left and have liberal views.

Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar said the national broadcaster’s tendency to favour such parties might be innocent and unintentional but it was there nonetheless.

Mr Varadkar told The Irish Timesthis bias was most obvious in the station’s coverage of American politics. “I do not carry any candle for the Republican Party and will not be supporting them. But with RTÉ, this is when it is most obvious. Republicans are bad and Democrats are good.

“It is also there in its domestic coverage. There is a bias towards centre-left parties and liberal views.”

He also said RTÉ was “encouraging people to break the law” by giving access to campaigners urging people not to pay the household tax. He claimed RTÉ would not give access to groups advocating that people refuse to pay the television licence fee.

However, RTÉ sources said that all political parties periodically claimed bias in favour of other parties or viewpoints.

Mr Varadkar’s Labour Party ministerial colleague Pat Rabbitte responded to the comments by saying: “I am not quite sure what might sound liberal and left-wing to Leo.”

Mr Varadkar was commenting as renewed controversy hit the broadcaster over its Frontlinepresidential debate in October 2011. An audience member, Pat McGuirk, alleged at the weekend that he had been primed to ask a hostile question of candidate Seán Gallagher.

In a statement last night RTÉ said staff had taken research notes of conversations with Mr McGuirk in advance of the broadcast.

“The notes support the form of the question printed for Mr McGuirk on the night of broadcast, both in substance and in the wording used,” the statement said.

It added that Mr McGuirk’s satisfaction with the RTÉ programme and staff was evident in an email received from him two days later.

Mr Guirk (43), from Newbliss, Co Monaghan, said last night in a statement issued through his solicitor he was willing to co-operate with any public inquiry into the matter and he fully stood over the allegations.

It emerged yesterday he was convicted in the Circuit Court in early 2011 for offences related to a false insurance claim worth €27,000. He had pleaded guilty to a charge of deception in relation to a claim for lost jewellery and was order to pay €6,000 to three charities. He declined to comment on this last night.

Mr Varadkar, commenting generally, said RTÉ needed to have a good look at itself and its editorial practices. “It is a public service broadcaster and not a private company. It needs to be very responsible in what they do.”

He said he was particularly concerned about the manner in which anonymous texts and tweets were being used as a matter of course on live programmes, with no effort to find out who sent them or about possible agendas or deliberate targeting. He accepted that parties, including Fine Gael, use strategies to text and tweet comments to live current affairs shows.

“Broadcasters started encouraging texts and tweet. Political parties have tried to manipulate the process. As long as it exists, political parties will try to do it.”



I should first say that I am personally grateful to you for the public contributions which you have already made in respect of the finding by the Broadcasting Authority [of Ireland] last week that our national service broadcaster, RTÉ, contravened their statutory duty in the Frontlinedebate of 24th October, 2011, and particularly your contribution to RTÉ’s Morning Irelandprogramme of Thursday, 8th of March.

I should also say that my concerns in respect of the Frontlineprogramme relate to the democratic process, and not to last year’s presidential election. This is not about me.

What troubles me now is the emerging evidence that RTÉ seems to have stage-managed or set the agenda for what I understood to be a question and answer session between the candidates and members of the audience.

That was the basis on which I participated in this programme. The evidence is contained in an interview with an audience member in yesterday’s Sunday Independent, and I find it deeply disturbing. This follows the decision by the Broadcasting Authority, which highlighted an institutional failure by RTÉ.

This new information relating to the Frontlineprogramme and its production staff raises the most fundamental questions about the trustworthiness and impartiality of our national broadcaster. It was not available to the Broadcasting Authority.

In my view, RTÉ have not justified the confidence of the Broadcasting Authority, who took the view that “there was no evidence that would lead one to question the bona fides of the programme presenter or the production team in its approach in the programmes that were the subject of the complaints”. RTÉ have let the Broadcasting Authority down.

The evidence now emerging should have been disclosed to the Broadcasting Authority. And it should have been made available to me.

On the information made available to it, the Broadcasting Authority decided that “the complaint was not of such a serious nature to warrant an investigation or public hearings”. I had requested public hearings specifically so that the documentary records relating to the programme should be made available. RTÉ have refused my request for these documents under a Freedom of Information Act request.

What is interesting to note is that the decision that the matter was not serious was criticised in an Irish Timeseditorial of 8th March as “illogical”. It has also been criticised in other news media, including the Sunday Timesand Sunday Independent.

There is a growing consensus that this is a very serious issue indeed, and that it merits your further consideration, and a public inquiry.

Trust in our national broadcaster is at the core of our democracy. That trust has now been brought into serious question.

I urge you, as Minister for Communications with responsibility for RTÉ to consider whether the emerging evidence (not available to the Broadcasting Authority), and revealed in the Sunday Independent, warrants a full investigation, so that unanswered questions arising from the programme can be examined fully, and answered.

The investigation, in my view, needs to provide full discovery of all communication within the production team, including the presenter; communication within RTÉ regarding the Frontlineprogramme; between RTÉ and members of the public with particular reference to the methodology and process of selecting audience members; all communication between RTÉ and members of the audience in the period leading up to and after the programme, and all communication between RTÉ and the campaign teams, candidates and parties regarding the Frontlineprogramme.

It is a matter of urgency that trust in our national broadcaster be restored. In my view it will take a full and comprehensive investigation if this is to happen.

Yours sincerely,