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Prime Time is holding three European election debates - but not everyone's happy about it

Almost 200 complaints have already been made – before anyone’s even opened their mouth or read out any tweets.

Ming is not happy
Ming is not happy
Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

PRIME TIME WILL hold a series of special election debate programmes running for three consecutive nights, starting today.

All candidates standing in the European Elections in Ireland have been invited to take part in these studio debates.

With such a large number of candidates in each constituency, RTÉ has decided that viewers will be best served by dividing each programme into two separate debate panels to ensure they are as coherent as possible.

In order to allow as much time as possible for candidates to make their points, there will be no live audience and no opening or closing statements. On each night, the debates will be preceded by a short report outlining some of the issues in the constituency but not featuring any of the candidates.

First Panel: All sitting MEPs and one representative each from any party which secured more than 10 per cent of the vote in the last European Elections or the last General Election

Second Panel: All other candidates

Where a party that secured more than 10 per cent of the vote in the last European Elections or the last General Election has more than one candidate standing in a constituency, the sitting MEP will be invited to take part in the first panel debate and the other candidate(s) will be invited to take part in the second panel debate.

Where a party has two sitting MEPs in one constituency, both will be invited to take part in the first panel debate.

In mediating each debate, the presenters will prioritise the need to allow a genuinely informative discussion between the candidates to take place but will also take account of the electoral track record/level of public support of the candidate or party involved.

‘The lowest trick yet’

A number of independent candidates have criticised the format of the debates, saying it gives an unfair advantage to party members and sitting MEPs.

TD Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, who is running in Midlands-North-West, issued a statement describing RTÉ’s approach to the debate as “the lowest trick yet”. He encouraged his supporters to complain to the national broadcaster about the issue.

luke ming rte complaint Source: Facebook

Flanagan has also sent a legal letter to RTÉ, challenging its decision.

He’s not alone in criticising the broadcaster.

Senator Rónán Mullen, also an independent candidate in M-N-W, has lodged a formal complaint with Noel Curran, Director General of RTÉ, over the format of the debates.

Mullen said he understood organising a debate with so many candidates can “pose a challenge”, but said the chosen format “lessens the level of diversity on each debating panel and treats candidates unequally and unfairly”.

The current segregation of panels means that there will be only one consistently anti-government and EU-critical voice on the first panel. Also, the fact that half of the proposed panel would represent Fine Gael and Labour reduces the potential for criticism of the Government and its policies.

“The requirements under the Broadcasting Acts are that RTÉ present a plurality of views within each broadcast. RTÉ has a statutory obligation to the viewing public, in particular during an election campaign, to give equal and fair representation,” Mullen remarked.

Prime Time defended the format on Twitter, saying all candidates will get their say.

However, the ‘two panel’ move has not gone down well with some.

Laura Fitzgerald, Coomunications Manager at RTÉ News and Current Affairs, said the station has received 186 complaints via email “of which a large proportion appeared to be under the wrong impression that Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan was not invited to participate in the debate”.

This is not the case, all candidates have been invited to take part in the Prime Time studio debates for each constituency.

“The majority of complaints also appear to be either identical or mostly identical in wording,” Fitzgerald said.

It’s one of these things … Everyone is fighting their corner for coverage.

She added that RTÉ put “a lot of work” into devising the format of the debates and was “very mindful” of the need to be fair to each candidate.

Debate information

Tonight, David McCullagh and Miriam O’Callaghan will present the debate on the Midlands-North-West constituency at 10.35 pm.

The candidates standing in this constituency are:

Thomas Byrne (FF), Matt Carthy (SF), Mark Dearey (GP), TJ Fay (Ind), Mark Fitzsimons (Ind), Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan (Ind), Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher (FF), Ben Gilroy (DDI), Marian Harkin (Ind), Jim Higgins (FG), Lorraine Higgins (Lab), Cordelia Níc Fhearraigh (FN), Mairead McGuinness (FG) and Rónán Mullen (Ind).

On Monday 19 May, Miriam O’Callaghan and Claire Byrne will present the debate focusing on the South constituency at 10.35 pm.

The candidates standing in this constituency are:

Richard Cahill (Ind), Deirdre Clune (FG),  Brian Crowley (FF), Jillian Godsil (Ind), Simon Harris (FG), Kieran Hartley (FF), Theresa Heaney (CD), Seán Kelly (FG), Liadh Ní Riada (SF), Diarmiud O’Flynn (Ind), Peter O’Loughlin (Ind), Dónal Ó Ríordáin (FN), Grace O’Sullivan (GP), Phil Prendergast (Lab) and Jan Van De Ven (DDI).

The final special programme in the series will feature the Dublin consistency on Tuesday 20 May at 9.35 pm, presented by Claire Byrne and David McCullagh.

The candidates standing in this constituency are:

Lynn Boylan (SF), Nessa Childers (Ind), Emer Costello (Lab), Thomas Darcy (DDI), Mary Fitzpatrick (FF), Brian Hayes (FG), Paul Murphy (SP), Eamon Ryan (GP), Bríd Smith (PBP), Jim Tallon (Ind), Raymond Whitehead (DDI) and Damon Matthew Wise (FN).

All three RTÉ Prime Time Election Debates will be broadcast live on RTÉ One, RTÉ News Now and available worldwide on the RTÉ Player.

- Additional reporting by Hugh O’Connell 

Keep up to date: All things Election 2014

Read: Spending cuts and immigration policy main issues in EU Commission presidency debate

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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