Defeated presidential candidate Seán Gallagher in a letter to the Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte today has called for a full public inquiry into the RTÉ ‘Frontline’ presidential debate and said that new claims raise “fundamental questions” about the impartiality of the national broadcaster.
In his letter, which has been handed to the Minister, Mr Gallagher said he was troubled by emerging evidence that RTÉ “seems to have stage managed or set the agenda” for the programme.
Mr Gallagher referred to a report in yesterday’s Sunday Independent citing Pat McGuirk, an audience member in the October 24 debate, which he found “deeply disturbing”.
“This new information relating to the Frontline programme and its production staff raises the most fundamental questions about the trustworthiness and impartiality of our national broadcaster,” Mr Gallagher said.
Mr McGuirk has alleged that his question for the candidate was changed by the production team, who also helped him rehearse it. RTÉ has denied the allegations, maintaining the question about Mr Gallagher’s job creation record was based on conversations he had with researchers.
In his letter today Mr Gallagher said that the claims should have been made available to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), which last week upheld a complaint from Mr Gallagher relating to a bogus tweet read out on the live programme, but said that a public investigation was not warranted.
“In my view RTÉ have not justified the confidence of the BAI who took the view that “there was no evidence that would lead one to question the bona fides of the programme presenter or the production team in its approach in the programmes that were the subject of the complaints”, Mr Gallagher wrote.
“Trust in our national broadcaster is at the core of our democracy. That trust has now been brought into serious question,” he continued.
Mr Gallagher insisted his concerns relate to the democratic process, and not to last year’s presidential election.
“This is not about me,” he wrote, adding in a separate statement that he would not challenge the outcome of the election, and offered his full support to President Michael D. Higgins
“The investigation in my view needs to provide full discovery of all communication within the production team including the presenter; communication within RTE regarding the Frontline programme; between RTE and members of the public with particular reference to the methodology and process of selecting audience members; all communication between RTE and members of the audience in the period leading up to and after the programme and all communication between RTE and the campaign teams, candidates and parties regarding the Frontline programme," Mr Gallagher wrote.
“It is a matter of urgency that trust in our national broadcaster be restored.
“In my view it will take a full and comprehensive investigation if this is to happen.”
Mr Gallagher said he was available to meet with Minister Rabbitte at any time.
However the Minister subsequently said that as far as he was concerned, the matter has been dealt with.
Saying he had yet to read the letter from Mr Gallagher, Minister Rabbitte said any additional evidence has to be produced.
"There has been an inquiry by the statutory agency responsible for this and its findings are in the public domain," the Minister said.
"Now if there is additional evidence, this additional evidence has to be produced - and so far, that hasn't happened," he added.
Support for Mr Gallagher’s bid for a public inquiry had been gathering momentum, with Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton earlier today saying she felt “uneasy” about the affair.
Fianna Fáil communications spokesperson Niall Collins also said he supported calls for a full inquiry into the matter, and was critical of the BAI report.
However speaking today, another ‘Frontline’ audience member described her experience of participating in the debate as being very different from that outlined in yesterday’s Sunday Independent report.
“I would have had a couple of emails and maybe three or four ‘phone conversations (with the ‘Frontline’ production team) beforehand,” said Glenna Lynch, who as among those to put a question to the candidates.
“But there was absolutely no sense of any type of editorial direction, or a push to go one way or another, or a suggestion,” she said.
“It just didn’t happen – it wasn’t my experience at all.”