RTÉ head: 'Impossible to say' whether Frontline debate changed election

Noel Curran says the swing between Sean Gallagher and Michael D Higgins is too large to attribute to one programme.

RTÉ’S DIRECTOR GENERAL has said it is impossible to say whether the events of the Presidential debate on ‘The Frontline’ in October 2011 single-handedly turned the outcome of last year’s Presidential election.

Noel Curran told the Oireachtas committee on Transport and Communications that Seán Gallagher – who held a 14-point lead over Michael D Higgins before the debate, and ultimately trailed him by 11 per cent in first preference votes – had appeared on many other broadcasts between the Monday night debate and Thursday’s polling.

“I don’t know how you can say that this programme decided the outcome of the election,” Curran told the grouping of TDs and Senators.

“This programme was watched by 700,000 people. 1.8 million people voted in the election. That means 1.1 million people didn’t even see this programme,” he said.

Sean Gallagher appeared on the ‘Today with Pat Kenny’ programme the following morning. That had an audience of 230,000 people.

He appeared on the Six One news the following evening. The audience while he was on air was 600,000 people. Did that have an influence? I don’t know.

He added that coverage of Gallagher’s performance, and his links with Fianna Fáil which had been the subject of several exchanges in the debate, had been “wall to wall for days”, with coverage on TV3′s ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne’, Today FM’s ‘The Last Word’ and other shows.

While there had been a 25-point swing between the two candidates between the final polls and the ultimate outcome, Gallagher had lost about 11.5 per cent of this support while Higgins had gained about 14 per cent.

“The swing of 14 per cent could have gone, 3 per cent somewhere, 2 per cent somewhere else, 1 per cent somewhere else. It didn’t,” Curran insisted.

That can’t be attributed to a single programme.

The direct0r-general commented that people both inside and outside of the media trade “sometimes exaggerated” the impact that individual programmes or events could have.

“I’m not saying it didn’t impact on the election at that time,” he said, while arguing that it was impossible to say whether the Frontline debate singularly changed the outcome of the election “given everything that was going on”.

“I can’t say that, because I don’t know. And I don’t know that we’ll ever know.”

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