Former candidate for the presidency Sean Gallagher has called for the “full discovery” of communications within state broadcaster RTÉ surrounding the Frontline TV program fronted by Pat Kenny during which a controversial tweet was broadcast during the presidential election campaign.
Gallagher on Monday confirmed he had written to Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte calling for an inquiry after claims made in the Sunday Independent by a member of the audience during the candidates’ debate broadcast on October 24.
That audience member, businessman Pat McGuirk, 43, from Newbliss, Co. Monaghan claimed he had been groomed by program staff for his question. He said he had wanted to ask a question about presidential pay, but after a conversation with the Frontline team he had been given a question that asserted that most of the 100 jobs created by Gallagher during the boom were now gone.
The latest dispute follows a finding by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) last week that a complaint from Gallagher about a bogus tweet read by Kenny was unfair but “was not of such a serious nature as to warrant an investigation or public hearings.”
The BAI found no evidence that RTE, Kenny or the production team had deliberately constructed the program in a manner that lacked objectivity or impartiality.
Gallagher, an independent with past links to Fianna Fail, was ahead in the race for the presidency when Frontline was broadcast last October.
But the tweet read by Kenny, and which was not corrected although program staff knew within minutes that it was bogus -- and was still not corrected on a Kenny radio show next morning -- is widely believed to have cost Gallagher the presidency.
The tweet was prompted by a high-profile series of claims and denials that Gallagher was still linked to fundraising for Fianna Fail despite having resigned from the party and run as an Independent.
Michael D. Higgins soared past Gallagher to win the presidential poll days later.
Within days of the BAI finding that there was no evidence that Kenny or his production team on
Frontline deliberately constructed a program that lacked objectivity or impartiality, McGuirk challenged the assertion.
He told the Sunday Independent he wanted to ask a question about the salary of the president.
Instead, after discussion with the Frontline team his question was changed to focus on the job creation record of entrepreneur Gallagher.
Moments before the live debate he was told to state, “I’m sick and tired of hearing from Sean Gallagher about jobs. He created 100 jobs in the boom and most of them are gone. I think he’s too cute for his own good.”
McGuirk told the paper he was “shocked” by the “hostile” nature of the question and couldn’t bring himself to utter it when Kenny approached him on screen.
Instead, he asked his own version of the question, “Sean, in the boom time you created 100 jobs and how many of them are still in existence? People are sick and tired of hearing about creating jobs, so how many of them are still there?”
McGuirk said, “The question they gave me was 10 million percent away from where I was, my initial question. I felt it was as if they wanted me to go in and gun down Sean Gallagher, to go in and slit his throat.”
In his call to the communications minister to order an inquiry and “full discovery” into that night’s Frontline, Gallagher said it was a “matter of urgency” that trust in the national broadcaster be restored.
Fianna Fail also called for a public inquiry into the bogus tweet and alleged coaching of audience members in the debate.
RTÉ has strongly disputed McGuirk’s versions of events. Its acting head of current affairs, Steve Carson, maintained the text of the question had been agreed with McGuirk before the show was aired. This was borne out, he said, by an effusive “thank you” email from McGuirk two days later.
RTÉ said on Monday evening that it has set up a full editorial review to examine the production of live audience-based programs in the wake of the Frontline controversy.
The station said it had also begun a “personnel investigation” in connection with the broadcast of a bogus tweet during the debate.
RTE credibility was put under the microscope last year when its Prime Time program falsely claimed a parish priest fathered a child by a teenage girl when he worked on the African mission.
The station has already apologized and settled the case in the High Court for a confidential amount of money believed to have been more than €1 million.
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