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Column: The Frontline debacle shows we need an independent debates commission

TV debates are important – and proper independent oversight would help build trust in our elections, writes Michael Moynihan TD.

Michael Moynihan

MUCH MEDIA SPACE has been given to the impact of RTE’s Frontline Presidential Debate and its failings. And rightly so. A national election was undermined by the failure of this television programme to adhere to proper standards. This is an extraordinary and unprecedented situation. It truly was the ‘game-changer’ in the election. However, the task of all those involved and all those of us concerned with improving politics in Ireland is to learn from this sorry saga and to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that it can never happen again.

Unfortunately, reading the RTÉ Report and the BAI Compliance Committee’s response to it, I am concerned that an opportunity to really learn from what has happened is in danger of being lost. The crisis arising from The Frontline Presidential Debate was a symptom of a problem that is more fundamental than the failure to provide social media training, the failure to exclude relatives from the audience or even the failure to have an executive responsible for balance monitoring the debate. Rather, I believe it was a symptom of a fundamentally flawed view of the role of broadcasters in election debates. It was the symptom of a view which sees the broadcaster, the presenter and an activist audience as participants with equal status to the candidates who are supposed to be debating each other and seeking a mandate from viewers.

This flawed view has led to a situation where the hunt for ratings and programme brand-building becomes as important or more important than the quality of the debate. This problem did not begin with the Presidential Election. Indeed, because of our concerns about audience selection processes on The Frontline, Fianna Fáil refused to confirm our participation in the 2011 Frontline General Election Leaders’ Debate until we received assurances that the studio audience would be selected by an external organisation.

New system needed

With no candidate in the Presidential Election, my party’s interest in this issue is not about the outcome of the election. I have spoken out because I believe that this is an important moment and we should use it to look forward and design a system and structure for election debates that protects the integrity of broadcasters and the democratic process. It is easy for politicians to criticise the media, but if we are going to do this, we have a responsibility to come forward with constructive suggestions on how things can be done differently.

For my part, I have written to the BAI to suggest that the time has come to create an Irish Election Debates Commission based on international best practices. This commission, comprising representatives from BAI, the broadcasters and political parties would come together in each election cycle to agree on the number, location and format of the principal debates. The Commission, rather than the individual production teams in individual broadcasters, would then take responsibility for ensuring that the format, audience selection, arrangements to ensure balance are all based on agreed best practice.

Given the centrality of televised debates in the election process, an Irish Election Debate Commission could also play a very valuable role in education and engagement with new voters outside election time and in a non-partisan way. This is a non party political initiative – it’s about improving everyone’s confidence in the election debate process.

Michael Moynihan is a Fianna Fáil TD for Cork North West. Michael plans to present detailed proposals to the BAI and broadcasters for an Irish Election Debates Commission to be established. If you would like to give you views and feedback on this policy proposal you can email Michael at renewal@fiannafail.ie

Read: RTÉ publishes working document of Frontline Presidential Debate review>
Read: RTÉ: Full statement on “two very serious editorial failures”>
Read: RTE failed in obligation of fairness to Sean Gallagher… says RTE Board>

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Michael Moynihan

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