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RTÉ says it’s ‘standard practice’ to give ministers questions before Budget phone-in

A story in The Times reports on the advance warning given to Ministers Noonan and Howlin yesterday morning.

Updated 5.39pm

14/10/2015. RTE 1 - Budget interview. Pictured (Lt Seán O'Rourke speaking to Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin prior to yesterday's programme Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

RTÉ HAS DENIED that an advisor to Micheal Noonan threatened that the Finance Minister and Brendan Howlin would not appear on the traditional post-Budget phone-in unless they got sight of the questions in advance.

A report by journalist Ellen Coyne in The Times (Irish edition) claims that one of Noonan’s advisors told a ‘Today with Seán O’Rourke’ producer that neither minister would appear on the programme unless questions from listeners were made available beforehand.

Coyne reports on how she inadvertently witnessed this conversation between RTE staff and Department of Finance officials having been shown into the wrong room while the ministers were preparing for the RTÉ Radio One phone-in.

The decision to give ministers advance notice of the questions was criticised by Fianna Fáil finance spokesperson Michael McGrath today. He said he’d be prepared to do the phone-in without prior notice of the questions.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, RTÉ said: “At no time was a threat delivered that a Minister would not appear on the programme as a result of his press advisers not seeing the questions in advance.”

The national broadcaster said that this morning’s story is “factually inaccurate”.

However, The Times’ editor Richard Oakley has tweeted this afternoon to say the digital-only newspaper stands by its story:

The RTÉ statement goes onto say that it is “standard practice” to give post-Budget queries from members of the public to ministerial advisers prior to the programme going live.

The primary purpose of the post-budget programme is to enable the more detailed, personal and specific queries raised by individual voters and businesses to be addressed to the most accurate degree possible, and that requires some research to be done by government advisers on the individuals’ specific questions.

The broadcaster said this protocol had been agreed in advance and “has been standard practice for years”.

14/10/2015. RTE 1 - Budget interview. Pictured (Lt Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

The statement continued:

There was no debate about access to the questions prior to going on air for that specific programme. We would like to reiterate that RTÉ does not advise Ministers or guests of questions in advance of interviews.

RTÉ added that the programme’s editorial team have “complete and total editorial control of the programme and only they determine which calls go to air and in which order”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance declined to comment and said all queries should be referred to the RTÉ Press Office.

In a statement this evening, McGrath said that it was “beyond belief” that advisors insisted on getting word for word detail of the questions in advance.

Perhaps naively, I always believed that this annual phone in was a genuine, spontaneous engagement between the people and the Ministers in which anything about the Budget could be asked.

He said that he did not know what the practice had been in the past, when Fianna Fáil was in government, but said if he was Finance Minister he would never seek advance notice of questions.

“If I were ever given the privilege of being Minister for Finance, I would take post-Budget questions live on air without advance notice of the questions and would simply do my best to answer them,” he claimed. 

Poll: Should Noonan and Howlin have got the questions in advance? 


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Read: What was Enda doing with his hands during Mary Lou’s Budget speech?

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