Shrek, RTÉ’s ‘bogus tweet’ gaffe and the problem of digital confirmism…

It was gratifying to read in Saturday’s Irish Times, this passage from Breda O’Brien: “Journalists could not survive without the internet, and there are many respected bloggers, such as Slugger O’Toole, who do the mundane fact-checking.”

For which, much thanks Ms O’Brien. I can’t claim any primary virtue for that accolade (I’ve made more than my own fair share of mistakes); Mr Baker has a better claim to it than most of the rest of us.

Elsewhere the sound of grinding axes around Dublin on the issue of RTÉ Front Line’s reading out of a ‘bogus tweet’ has been almost deafening. For instance, Bruce Arnold has them running an pro Sinn Fein agenda in a campaign when RTÉ were pretty much camped on Martin McGuinness’s front lawn asking endless questions about his IRA past.

RTÉ were caught bang to rights right from the get go, in one critical respect. The Tweet was and remains (since the originator apparently removed it in the middle of this conversation on Slugger) wrong. (Adds: as Cynic2 notes below, responsibility for the initial falsehood lay not with the tweet, but with Martin McGuinness’s earlier contribution to the studio debate).

As Harry Magee noted of the first official statement at the time:

The “two men in a position to confirm or disprove this story were both live on the programme”. It said the simplest thing to do was to put it to them. “This was particularly true of Mr McGuinness had just raised the issue. Clearly he would be in a position to confirm or deny that such an event was planned,” said the statement. The problem was it wasn’t put to McGuinness and in any instance he was not in a position to confirm or deny it.

The latest Sinn Fein comment is less ambivalent:

The tweet had nothing to do with the Martin McGuinness presidential campaign and RTE could have checked this with any of a number of representatives of my campaign team who were present in RTE on the night. They didn’t do this.

Quite.

What’s at issue here is a clash of standards between a regulated news broadcast industry and one that’s not. Put simply, RTÉ cannot get away with what Fox News might in the US, or even what the Sunday Independent might print in the midst of one of its several agenda driven campaigns from the abolition of stamp duty, the exclusion of Labour from the current government, or that old perennial ‘get Sinn Fein’.

Disgruntled production staff at RTÉ might point to the fact that this bogus account’s tweet was retweeted over 300 in less than an hour, including lots of pol corrs and hacks (who have subsequently faded into the background and are noticeable by their absence from the current debate).

The similarity in the two accounts certainly created confusion, even amongst party supporters. Set up on the 17th September, within five days Sinn Fein had reaffirmed the correct designation to supporters via mailing lists and social media following complaints regarding the content being published by @McGuinness4Pres account.

They might also point to the fact that the Presidential candidate only lodged his complaint after the election result was declared. Nothing was said to RTÉ staff on the night, or the following morning during his half hour on Pat Kenny Today or his twelve minute interview on Six One the day after.

Politically, Gallagher was caught out not simply by negative framing of the story but by his failure to kill it, not simply that night but in the days that followed. Yet journalistically, as we noted at the time:

Gallagher’s struggle to recollect the incident arose from the fact that there was no cheque to be collected. Payment for his picture with the then Taoiseach had already been cashed by Mr Morgan. There wasn’t even a brown envelope.

Sinn Fein had successfully employed the indignant weight of RTE’s moral outrage to kill a front runner. Machiavelli would have approved.

Whatever the appeal of Twitter and the independent route to market it provides for politicians and journalists alike this story provides one lesson that’s as old as professional journalism itself: unqualified leads are dangerous.

And if there’s a more universal lesson it is that Twitter, like much of the rest of the tools offered by the Internet, has its own quite limited value. If a newly romanced press is not to fall into digital confirmism it must chart its way round Twitter’s own hysterical forms of churnalism by improving the capacity of journalists to engage more independent judgement with the longer game of politics.

Or put a simpler way, to quote a line in the latest ‘Shrek’ film where the eponymous hero says to his mate ‘Donkey': “There’s a stack of freshly prepared Belgian waffles in the middle of the forest. Don’t you find that even a wee bit suspicious?”

It may be time to return to asking the most obvious questions first.

  • wee buns

    Leo Varadkar’s accuses RTÉ of having a ‘liberal leftish’ bias…..things jus gets stranger & stranger in this here country.

  • ranger1640

    As the Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne said “I’ve interviewed Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams and they are so well disciplined and so well honed that no interviewer gets anywhere with them.

    “You get nowhere with them because they lie.

    “They lie all the time. They don’t mind lying and they’ve rehearsed their lies and they’ve been trained to lie, and that’s what they’re doing.”

    “like so many other Irish people”, he had lost interest in the presidential election.

    He said that when he looks at Mr McGuinness, he does not think “statesman and politician”, but rather “former IRA man and former gunman”.

    He went on: “Do the Irish people want this guy to be head of the armed forces and all those connotations?

    “And under the Constitution there are many, many different things about which Sinn Fein, and he will wriggle, and weasel words as usual, because they’re very, very good at doing that.”

    I’ll not argue with that Gay.

    Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/republic-of-ireland/gay-byrne-fires-astonishing-broadside-at-mcguinness-in-tv-rant-16053993.html#ixzz1ovwdoruc

  • michael-mcivor

    If Mr Gallagher could not handle 1 Question on live T.V or to keep calm under a small amount of pressure then both Martin McGuinness And RTE have done the Irish people a favour by making sure that Gallagher did not get the presidential job-

  • cynic2

    So SF didn’t create the lie, they just exploited it and that’s alright then?

    Ah well. It beats murdering people

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, the false information came from Martin, not the tweet (3.50 mins in):

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “What’s at issue here is a clash of standards between a regulated news broadcast industry and one that’s not.”

    The tweet is just one of the headaches for RTÉ:

    Seán Gallagher: “The revelations in this morning’s Sunday Independent are by Frontline audience member Pat McGuirk, who says that RTÉ changed his submitted question and rehearsed him prior to the debate. These revelations are gravely alarming.

    From the Sindo:

    The question, presented by RTE to Mr McGuirk just moments before the live debate read: “I’m sick and tired of hearing from Sean Gallagher about jobs. He created 100 jobs in the boom and most of them are gone. I think he’s too cute for his own good.”

    Mr McGuirk, who said he was “shocked” by the “hostile” nature of the question, said he could not bring himself to ask it when Mr Kenny referred to him: “I couldn’t do it,” he said, “I should have backed away altogether.”

    Instead of asking the question which was handed to him by The Frontline staff member, he asked his own version: “Sean, in the boom time you created 100 jobs and how many of them are still in existence? People are sick and tired of hearing about creating jobs, so how many of them are still there?”

  • Mick Fealty

    Erm… http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/irishsun/irishsunnews/4188028/Frontline-fraudster.html The Sindo also carried a disclaimer from RTE which called into question the precise allegations in Mr Corcoran’s article on the day of publication.

    A case of the Sindo preaching its own ‘do as I say, not as I do’ doctrine?

  • wee buns

    Pram loads of toys being flung in all directions – these people are behaving like they don’t have the free will to contradict a television producer – how hard can it be? For reasons of organization & to avoid repetition, shows with a studio audience must be pre planned and choreographed. Sabotage of the ‘core of our democracy’? Get a life Mc Gurk.

  • John Ó Néill

    The ‘false information’ had been doing the rounds for at least a week at that stage. On Vincent Browne’s show the same night Fionnan Sheehan filled in the backstory including that, a week before, Gallagher had been given an opportunity to respond but hadn’t. The actual context was in debunking Gallagher’s denials of anything more than a passing involvement with FF. In that regard there is a serious “watch the lady, watch the lady” dimension to the afterlife of this story. Gallagher quickly slipped into FF clientist argot and volunteered the political safety word envelope which no-one else had mentioned (he also berated an audience member, Glenna Lynch, as well which did him serious damage too).

    Oddly the current Minister of Communications gets to arbitrate over this when the beneficiary was his Labour party colleague (the actual space Gallagher and FF need to push this story in to). And if the weight of public responses to a significant amount of media coverage there doesn’t seem to be any sympathy out there for Gallagher. If the coverage can roll till the weekend, when St Patrick’s day will dominate for the next week that will get the coalition to within a week of handing over another €3.1bn for Anglo.

    *watch the lady*

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    Erm indeed, Mick. The whole shambles brought little dignity to the office of President.

    ‘Envelope’ was a major slip-up, John, as you can see from the audience reaction.

  • Mick Fealty

    The ‘envelope’ reference was slipped in earlier by Martin. Here’s the relevant bit:

    “He also told me that after the event that Sean Gallagher called around to his house and took a cheque for €5000. He says its not true and he’s begging for someone to come forward and say that it was true.”

    Simply put, it wasn’t true. And no one stepped forward to say it was true. A political ingenue flipped by Machiavellian scholarship. And a great deal of economy with the truth.

  • andnowwhat

    Gallagher was false started and bolted off on his own. He3’s like a boxer suing the the other for assault, that’s the game.

    Just look at the half truths, non truths and disingenuous crap that was fired at David Norris. Also look at the vile comments made about the 2 previous presidential incumbents in their first elections.

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick that says ‘cheque’ not envelope. The slip into the FF glossary was Gallagher’s.

    On another note – is the issue of digital and social media confirmism not getting overblown? With the bonnet coming up on how questions and audience are prepped/selected, the much greater reach and fundamental power of editorial in old media is much more glaring and persuasive in developing the ‘news’ and ‘debating’ the issues of the day.

  • Mick Fealty

    Scroll on a bit further: “I will stand against the brown envelope culture that has actively destroyed our economy”.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think you should read the link to the Sun first John. I think there are design problems with the FL format, especially in the context of an election. But the regulator has had his say. Time to let RTE go away and think about it without yet further political interference?

  • http://igaeilge.wordpress.com Concubhar

    Sure Seán Gallagher let himself down and lost an election – but RTÉ through shoddy standards lost a further chunk of confidence and trust from its viewers. The tweet could easily have been checked. There are vested interests all over the place – the head of the BAI is a former RTE DirectorGeneral and Pat Rabbitte was a contributor to Michael D’s election fund. As a public service broadcaster RTE needs to be more accountable to the public rather than merely fobbing us off with internal inquiries.

  • John Ó Néill

    Mick – the McGuirk story was all over the radio on Monday (and Monday’s Evening Herald). While the reports all state that he was a self-proclaimed Gallagher supporter, it’s not clear if he was one of the invited members of audience (all the candidates were permitted to bring a certain number to that debate). Either way, I think the statutory reporting period for a complaint is quite short (fourteen days) and is made first to RTE, then if not dealt with, onto BAI within seven, so it couldn’t be considered by BAI as part of the normal course of events.

    Also, for completeness – I think it was the Irish Mail on Sunday that was in touch with the person who was tweeting on the @McGuinness4Pres but I’ve no idea how far it went.

    On a final note – I think there is an additional subtext here in Anthony O’Reilly and Denis O’Brien putting pressure on RTE.

  • Alias

    Do RTE production teams scan Twitter for bogus fly-by-night accounts from which to report false information during live election debates as a matter of policy and routine? Hardly. It had to have been one of the Shinner’s team in the studio who pointed Pat Kenny’s crew in that direction.

    The reality here is that a media group and a political party perverted the outcome of a presidential election with deliberate lies. That shows the utter contempt that both have for the electorate and the democratic process.

    In return, the electorate would be well advised for have utter contempt for both.

  • andnowwhat

    Alias;

    Do you know what a hashtag does in the case of Twitter?

  • Alias

    I haven’t a clue. But I suspect that you’re about to enlighten me?

  • jthree

    The Irish Times today reported that McGuirk has a criminal conviction for dishonesty over a hooky insurance claim.

  • ranger1640

    Marty says in the interview and I paraphrase “that If he becomes Irish President he will stand against cronyism, he will stand against greed and the brown envelop culture . Cronyism what that be the same opposition to cronyism that put Mary McArdle into an £80k a year job as a “Sinn Fein special advisor”????

    Come off it Marty, your doing yourself and Sinn Fein an injustice, cronyism is at the heart of Sinn Fein.

    As the Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne said “I’ve interviewed Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams and they are so well disciplined and so well honed that no interviewer gets anywhere with them.

    “You get nowhere with them because they lie.

    “They lie all the time. They don’t mind lying and they’ve rehearsed their lies and they’ve been trained to lie, and that’s what they’re doing.”

    “like so many other Irish people”, he had lost interest in the presidential election.

    He said that when he looks at Mr McGuinness, he does not think “statesman and politician”, but rather “former IRA man and former gunman”.

    He went on: “Do the Irish people want this guy to be head of the armed forces and all those connotations?

    “And under the Constitution there are many, many different things about which Sinn Fein, and he will wriggle, and weasel words as usual, because they’re very, very good at doing that.”

    I’ll not argue with that Gay.

    Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/republic-of-ireland/gay-byrne-fires-astonishing-broadside-at-mcguinness-in-tv-rant-16053993.html#ixzz1ovwdoruc

    http://www.u.tv/News/McArdle-quits-Stormont-advisor-post/ff1ee618-b301-4b5e-b090-41b46064f261.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Bruce Arnold has them running an pro Sinn Fein agenda in a campaign when RTÉ were pretty much camped on Martin McGuinness’s front lawn asking endless questions about his IRA past.”

    Of course RTE weren’t running a pro-McGuinness ticket but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an agenda. Sean Gallagher was seen as Fianna Fail by proxy, and if there is an agenda in RTE it is a visceral loathing of Fianna Fail, it makes the BBC’s anti-Tory bias look almost mild by comparison.

    There may be Fine Gael voters in RTE, a disproportionately high number of Greens and a huge number of Labour supporters but I’ll bet you couldn’t find a Fianna Failer in RTE outside of the bloke who cuts the grass in Donnybrook or perhaps the chap who reads out hogget mart prices on the Farmer’s Report at 5.45 am. Odd this considering Fianna Fail is still among the most popular parties in the Republic.

    RTE were gunning for Gallagher, if that gave a boost to the Sinners so be it, Anyone But FF was the watchword, the fact that RTE’s darling ended up winning the election was merely a happy bonus for the boys and girls of Montrose.

    I have never voted or supported Fianna Fail in my life but I can smell the stink of unbiased reporting when it wafts out of RTE at ten thousand miles.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thats the out working of the problem, not the cause itself. I’m not sure if agenda is the correct term. I’m pretty sure what we saw here was an absence of journalistic rigour: a form of casino journalism?

    The first installment was the false story about the cheque (which had a limited impact). The reading out of the tweet was read then as confirmation and constituted a handsome pay off for both the programme and Martin.

  • jthree

    Vincent Browne is the SBP made the po
    int that the real lack of journalistic rigour was the failure to expose, until almost the last night, Gallagher’s deep involvement with FF and his attempts to minimise it

  • John Ó Néill

    @jthree

    Agreed. And all the info was out there and easy to find including RTÉs own website. The same people are struggling to put a credible ‘poor Sean’ backfill over the story.

  • Harry Flashman

    Is anyone seriously doubting an anti-Fianna Fail slant at RTE?

  • John Ó Néill

    Harry – at editorial level? Many of the main presenters that would be influencers of public opinion (O’Callaghan, Kenny, Finucane, Sean Whelan) clearly aren’t anti-FF. Joe Duffy has issues but not sure how overtly anti-FF they are. How does the slant manifest itself?

  • Mick Fealty

    I don’t doubt it, but it’s the wrong question. What’s more scandalous? The candidate’s connection with Fianna Fail and Cowen or a false allegation from another candidate fed him by a recently acquired sponsor from Fianna Fail?

    And how you do you investigate that kind of stuff a priori?

    Personally, I’m much less exercised about bias against one party or another than the poor analysis we’re being offered on politics arising from an inability to ask pretty straightforward questions.

  • John Ó Néill

    Great piece on this from Colette Browne in the Examiner.