COLETTE BROWNE: Tweetgate leaves RTÉ all a twitter, but there was no plot against Gallagher

HISTORY is written by the winners, except on those rare occasions when it is written by a sore loser who claims to have lost a presidential election because of an errant tweet.

RTÉ has been subjected to self-righteous indignation and smug criticism from politicians and media rivals since the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) published its report into ‘tweetgate’ — the infamous, and erroneous, 140-character comment purporting to be from Martin McGuinness’s official Twitter account, broadcast during the Frontline TV show presidential debate.

Considering the wailing and gnashing of teeth engendered by the BAI report, one would be forgiven for thinking it found in favour of RTÉ. It didn’t. The report stated the broadcast of the bogus tweet was unfair, that the production team had not verified the information and that there was no attempt to correct the error, despite a clarification from McGuinness’s team being tweeted 30 minutes before the end of the debate.

It was a scathing rebuke of the lack of journalistic standards employed in the programme and hugely embarrassing for the State broadcaster. While Gallagher alleged that Frontline presenter, Pat Kenny, betrayed a “lack of objectivity” and “partiality,” the BAI found “there was no evidence that the broadcaster, presenter or production team deliberately concealed information regarding tweets or constructed the programme in a manner that lacked objectivity or impartiality”.

There was no smoking gun to indicate a subversive plot to discredit Gallagher until the Sunday Independent published incendiary claims from an audience member who alleged he had been “planted” and armed with a question to “gun down Gallagher” and “slit his throat”.

Strong stuff, at first glance, but the evidence to back up these wild assertions seems tenuous. To recap, Monaghan businessman Pat McGuirk contacted the Frontline team a week before the debate. He said he was interested in attending and wanted to ask a question about presidential pay.

In the event, McGuirk said a researcher on the show drafted an unrelated question, regarding Gallagher’s job-creation record, which left him “shocked” by its naked hostility. He was so ‘traumatised’ by this experience that he not only asked the question, but, two days after the broadcast, sent an effusive email to the Frontline team congratulating them on a job well done.

Now, having mulled over his treatment at the hands of RTÉ for the past six months, McGuirk’s tune has changed and he says “the question they gave me was ten million per cent away from my initial question … it was horrendous”.

Quite the volte-face, considering his earlier praise, but perhaps his brief stint moonlighting as a semantic assassin, in furtherance of a sinister RTÉ plot to deny Gallagher the keys to the Áras, caused him to suffer from an acute bout of Stockholm syndrome followed by a spell of post-traumatic stress disorder. Who knows?

We do know McGuirk’s accusations are denied by RTÉ. In a lengthy statement, the broadcaster said a researcher had a number of conversations with McGuirk, who said he was “sick of hearing” Gallagher’s boastful claims regarding his entrepreneurship, said he was a “cute hoor” and that he was playing “a sneaky game”.

The question asked by McGuirk was drafted by the researcher but was framed in language that he had used and, tellingly, he offered no objection when it was read to him before his arrival in the Montrose studio. RTÉ also kept contemporaneous notes of conversations with McGuirk, which support its version of events, and has produced the email in which he said the Frontline staffer was “very good” at her job and Kenny was “lucky to have [her] at his right side”.

Despite the obvious dichotomy between McGuirk and RTÉ, Gallagher has pounced on the Monaghan man’s disputed recollections as “evidence” that the broadcaster “stage-managed” and “set the agenda” for the debate.

Overstretching further, he also says “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”.

Evidently adept at hyperbole, meaning a career in politics likely beckons, the statement Gallagher released on Sunday implied that the edifice of our democracy was in danger of crumbling in the wake of the controversy.

Really? Other paid-up-members of the frothing-at-the-mouth tinfoil-hat brigade, which apparently includes Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, appear to think so and have gone so far as to allege RTÉ is a hotbed of “liberal bias” where leftwing elites plot their diabolical plans to influence elections using every trick in the partisan political handbook. Of course, the obvious defence of these wild conspiracy theories is simple — if RTÉ is so expert at exerting a sinister left and liberal bias, then why is centre-right Fine Gael the biggest coalition partner in a government that is pursuing draconian austerity policies that would exceed Margaret Thatcher’s wildest dreams? And, for that matter, why is the motley crew of self-dubbed socialists in Fianna Fáil teetering on the verge of extinction, having managed to achieve irrelevance some time ago?

THE reality is rather more prosaic, with current affairs presenters on RTÉ — like Seán O’Rourke, Miriam O’Callaghan, and Pat Kenny, among many others — scrupulous about relaying the facts of the news, not their own peculiar interpretation, by asking their assorted guests probing and hard-hitting questions.

Essentially, everyone is treated equally badly. That’s not to say there are not problems within the organisation. RTÉ has had a torrid time in recent months, and, worst of all, most of its suffering has been self-inflicted.

The nadir came with the appalling libel of Fr Kevin Reynolds, with the organisation braced for the imminent publication of another BAI report into that fiasco, while a raft of cutbacks and increased competition have further threatened the quality of its programming.

The broadcaster, the most powerful and well-resourced media organisation in the State, has also been woefully behind the curve when it comes to recognising the importance of social media, and its failure to institute basic guidelines on its use — protocols that it is now, belatedly, in the process of implementing — has led directly to its current travails.

However, to twist the incorrect broadcast of a tweet into some kind of Orwellian plot to politically assassinate a presidential candidate stretches credulity beyond imaginable limits and suggests that those shouting loudest, demanding a public inquiry into the debacle, are more concerned with witch-hunts than reform.

It also ignores the reality that Seán Gallagher is the primary author of his own downfall, and had he better prepped for the debate, and the inevitable questions about his close links to the Fianna Fáil party, he could now be sitting pretty in the Áras.


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