RTÉ HAS RELEASED the report of the editorial review of the Frontline Presidential Debate, which was commissioned after the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) upheld a number of complaints against the programme, and in response to concerns raised elsewhere.
The report, authored by Rob Morrison, former Head of News & Current Affairs, UTV, and Steve Carson, Director of Programmes, RTÉ Television, is a review of the editorial processes of the Frontline programme of 24 October 2011.
RTÉ said that the report did not consider the specific issue of a tweet that was included in the programme, which was purported to be from the presidential campaign of Martin McGuinness, which was denied by Sinn Féin.
The BAI previously upheld a complaint by Seán Gallagher about the tweet, saying that in its view the broadcast of the tweet was unfair to Gallagher.
Kevin Bakhurst, managing director of RTÉ News and Current Affairs, said:
RTÉ regrets the mistakes made in the preparation and in the broadcast of the programme. The production was less rigorous than it should have been. However the report has found ‘that the production team had worked conscientiously to deliver a robust but fair debate’, and that ‘the mistakes made in the programme were not the result of bias or partiality’. This echoes the BAI’s finding ‘that there was no evidence to question the bona fides of the programme presenter or the production’.
He added that RTÉ “now has in place best-practice rules, procedures and protocols to reduce the risk of any recurrence of the mistakes that were made” and that recent debates on the Fiscal and Childrens’ referenda have seen these new rules in action.
RTÉ was planning to publish the report, which is the first such report co-authored by an external party to be published, once the formal BAI process had concluded this coming week.
It said it is “disappointed that key findings of the report were made public ahead of the completion of the BAI process and the publication of the report”.
RTÉ has accepted, in full, the findings of the report, which is critical of the programme format, procedures around audience selection, procedures around the preparation and allocation of questions, of the standard of editorial supervision, and of the standard of training on key matters such as social media.
The review team interviewed all members of the Frontline production team (including the presenter), the then-editor of Current Affairs, and the previous editor of the Frontline, and examined programme files, notebooks and emails.
Ten of the eleven on-air questioners were interviewed, with one questioner declining to respond to calls. Interviews were also carried out with 10 other audience members who had been considered as potential questioners, as well as the father of a member of the production team who knew one of the on-air questioners.
With one exception, all questions broadcast were founded on the views of the questioners gathered during the research process. One questioner being unable to attend due to flash flooding on the night, and another audience member was approached to ask the same question.
The review concluded that it was wrong for the question to have been ‘transferred’ in this way. The review said too many questions had been prepared that night. It also said that it was wrong that no direct, challenging question from an audience member was posed to the other frontrunner Michael D Higgins, who subsequently won the election and became President.
An audience member, whose question on abortion was felt to be challenging for Higgins, failed to turn up on the night due to the floods, said the report.
According to the report:
Circumstances on the night – including the extreme weather and the unexpected introduction by one candidate of a dispute over political fundraising – created an unusually challenging environment for the production team.
It also said an issue was the lack of a senior editorial figure whose sole responsibility was to view the programme during transmission and identify editorial and compliance issues as they arose.
The audience was partly selected through approaching people, and the review team concluded that directly approaching potential audience members was not appropriate for an election programme.
It said that in future on election programmes, friends of the team should not be included as audience members, and that questioners should not have connections to political parties or candidates’ campaigns.
RTÉ said it has accepted in full the recommendations of the report, and has worked over recent months to ensure the recommendations have been implemented.
It has introduced new journalism guidelines, training sessions, and revised social media guidelines. An internal editorial standards board has been established to maintain and monitor content standards across RTÉ. The new programme makers’ guidelines will be published by year-end.
RTÉ notes that the report concludes that “the production team had worked conscientiously to deliver a robust but fair debate”, and that “the mistakes made in the programme were not the result of bias or partiality.”