On Monday, October 24th 2011, as the last week of the Presidential election began, Harry McGee notes that
…weekend opinion polls gave the former Dragons’ Den panellist (Sean Gallagher) a commanding lead: 43 percent support compared to 26 percent for his nearest rival, Michael D Higgins of Labour.
RTE’s mistake was not so much allowing the late Martin McGuinness to level false accusations at Gallagher, as taking a tweet fom an attack account set up as @McGuinness4Pres on the same day as the official @martin4prez2011.
The programme-makers bogus Tweet was merely used to support a false accusation levelled by McGuinness during the debate by claiming, again falsely, that:
The man that Gallagher took the cheque from will be at a press conference tomorrow. #aras11
— McGuinness4Pres (@McGuinness4Pres) October 24, 2011
It had been a pretty rough campaign, with a large field of candidates being picked off one by one: each with a rough line of questioning not dissimilar to the line taken by RTE that night with Gallagher.
The confrontational nature of RTE FrontLine programme was a perfect match for the terrible times the southern electorate was going through, but it also led to what at times looked like a wreckless courting of public anger.
Something reflected in an independent report subsequently commissioned by RTE itself. Harry Magee again:
After initially standing over the programme, RTÉ had acknowledged within a year that mistakes had been made. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld six complaints made against the broadcaster during 2012. An independent investigation was conducted by Rob Morrison, a former head of UTV current affairs, and by another senior broadcasting executive, Steve Carson.
They did not question the bona fides of the Frontline team but were highly critical of editorial decisions and processes including audience selection, question selection, and the fact that Higgins was not forced to field any audience questions, while Gallagher faced three very searching questions.
Gallagher’s solicitor, Paul Tweed read out a statement, saying the case was taken…
….not just about the unfairness shown to him but also about protecting the integrity of the democratic process and ensuring that what happened to him will not be allowed to happen again.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty