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Column: BAI report does not close file on That Tweet

Seán Gallagher’s Áras bid may have been derailed with or without the tweet from fake McGuinness account. But the point is we need to know who was behind it, says Derek Mooney who knows all about losing a job amid a Twitter controversy…

Derek Mooney

BESIDES OUR FIANNA Fáil backgrounds, Seán Gallagher and I have something else in common: an errant tweet has contributed to us both losing out on a job.

In my case it partly caused me to lose a job I already held. I was Willie O’Dea’s adviser and programme manager when Dan Boyle sent his infamous tweet.

Its claim that there would: “Probably be a few chapters in this story yet” proved baseless, nonetheless 24 hours later the Minister had resigned and yours truly was clearing out his desk. C’est la vie. The tweet only brought the inevitable forward by twelve months.

In Seán’s case the broadcast of a tweet from a bogus account during the Frontline presidential debate played a major play in derailing his campaign and denying him the job he wanted.

Yesterday the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland gave its verdict on his complaint against RTÉ, The Frontline and The Pat Kenny Show on RTÉ Radio 1.

It was a fairly damning judgement. The BAI found that Seán Gallagher had been treated “unfairly” on three counts.

  • One: by the broadcast of the initial bogus tweet from an account that purported to be from the official Martin McGuinness for President campaign.
  • Two: by the failure of the Frontline to tell the audience of the subsequent tweet from the official McGuinness campaign denying that it had issued the bogus one.
  • Three: by the continuing failure of the Today with Pat Kenny radio show the next morning to properly clarify the status and background of the two tweets.

Given that it found that a programme that was intended as a presidential debate was unfair to one particular candidate, it was amazing to see the BAI go on to say that no further investigation or inquiry is required as the complaint “was not of such a serious nature as to warrant an investigation or public hearings”.

It is not as if this might have affected the outcome of an election or anything… oh, hang on a minute… Yes, it might.

No one can definitively state whether the tweetgate affair altered the outcome, but we do know that Sean Gallagher was the poll leader before the debate and he wasn’t a few days later. We also know that tallies of the postal votes – ie, those votes cast and returned to the presiding officers before the Frontline debate – showed Gallagher topping the poll.

What is not speculation is that someone sent that tweet to affect the outcome of the presidential race

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that viewers watching the Frontline debate might have switched from Gallagher to Michael D Higgins even if the tweet had never been mentioned.

All this is in the realms of speculation. What is not speculation however is that someone sent that tweet to undermine the front runner and affect the race.

So, yes, this matter does require further investigation.

The BAI has determined that Mr Gallagher was treated unfairly in how the tweet was handled. RTÉ’s Director General made a sincere and genuine apology and the RTÉ Authority is to examine the BAI’s finding.

This is all right and proper. But RTÉ’s actions are only part of the case.

Like others watching the campaign on the internet I was not aware of the difference between the real and fake McGuinness for President twitter accounts until the controversy broke that night.

The confusion was easy as, according to some social media watchers, both twitter accounts were created on the same day. Indeed, as part of its own defence, RTÉ argued that many other journalists were similarly confused and had taken the first bogus tweet as genuine. (A defence rejected by the BAI.)

The question remains: who was responsible for sending out the tweet? Are we going to tolerate a situation where an election outcome can potentially be so easily influenced by one person or group of people acting in the shadows?

We have seen thousands of people protest on the streets of Moscow regarding accusations that Putin rigged their Presidential election, are we not to try and look a bit deeper into this case?

Isn’t the integrity of our democratic process worth a bit more effort?

Derek Mooney is a communications and public policy consultant. He was working as adviser and programme manager for Willie O’Dea up until the former Defence minister resigned in February 2010. You can read from Derek Mooney here.

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