Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 12 December 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Editorial Review of The Frontline Presidential Debate: Discussion with RTE
The purpose of this morning's meeting is to discuss with Mr. Noel Curran, director general, RTE, the report of the editorial review of "The Frontline" presidential debate. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Curran, who is accompanied by Mr. Kevin Bakhurst, managing director, MD, of RTE news and current affairs, Ms Clare Duignan, MD of RTE radio, Mr. Brian Dalton, MD of corporate development, and Mr. Rob Morrison and Mr. Steve Carson, co-authors of the report. Mr. Roy Coveney is also in attendance.
I draw their attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise them that the opening statements they have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I now invite Mr. Curran to make his opening statement.
Mr. Noel Curran:
I thank committee Chairman and members for inviting us today to discuss the findings and recommendations of the review into "The Frontline" presidential debate programme that was broadcast on 24 October last year. I thought it would useful to the committee for the authors of that review, Mr. Rob Morrison, former head of news and current affairs at UTV and Mr. Steve Carson, director of programmes in RTE, to also attend this morning to answer, along with us, any questions the committee may have regarding their review and report. Before coming to the committee's questions, however, I want to give it a clear sense of how RTE has reacted to the serious mistakes and misjudgments made in this programme and what actions we have taken.
In March, responding to the decision by the BAI to uphold complaints taken by Mr. Seán Gallagher and others against RTE arising from "The Frontline" presidential election debate programme, I expressed RTE's deep regret at the failures identified by the BAI and apologised on behalf of RTE to Mr. Gallagher, both on television and radio, as well as in a written statement. In addition, it was then, on foot of the BAI's decision and concerns expressed elsewhere, that we commissioned a full review of the programme.
The review team was selected carefully to provide the appropriate mix of external independence on the one hand and knowledge of RTE's practices and procedures on the other. Both Mr. Morrison and Mr. Carson are very experienced and while it makes for difficult reading for me and for everyone in RTE, I am very grateful for the diligence and thoroughness by which they carried out this review. The review was completed and presented to our board in June. It was shared with the BAI, as agreed, for its consideration in July. There were then a number of exchanges and queries over the coming months, and it was published two weeks ago. It is the first time in RTE history that such an editorial report, involving an external independent author, has been commissioned and published. On publication of the report, Mr. Kevin Bakhurst, our new managing director of news and current affairs, apologised again to Mr. Gallagher, all the other candidates and the audience for the mistakes that occurred in the programme.
What happened in this programme, coming so soon after what happened in the "Mission to Prey" programme, has had a profound impact on RTE. Over many years, RTE has earned and retained the trust of its audiences through great programming and an adherence to very high editorial standards. Nowhere has this been more so than in news and current affairs. The very serious editorial failures made in these two current affairs programmes have rightly caused RTE to review and interrogate all of its editorial policy, practices and values. These errors and failures have presented many challenges to many people in recent months, not least to those who were directly affected by them, but they have also caused concern and anger, both within RTE and among its audience, the public, whose trust in the organisation we value above all else.
RTE must always be open and honest when it get things wrong. In any given week our editors, programme makers and journalists make thousands of decisions which influence public debate and discussion. We will make mistakes. To expect that we will always get these judgments completely right is to pretend that these judgments are easy and obvious, and to ignore the possibility of human error. What is critical, though, is that we learn what we can from those mistakes and make whatever changes are necessary. This is part of being accountable and is essential to public trust and public support.
The critical first part of that is to understand what went wrong. That is what the review into this programme was about and what it did in meticulous detail. It addresses all the critical issues - the format of the programme, the audience selection, the framing of questions and the editorial management of the programme. It benchmarked the approach taken in this programme to the approaches taken by other broadcasters of similar programmes. Finally, having clearly identified the shortcomings in the programme, it made very clear recommendations for RTE as to how best to conduct future debate programmes of this kind so that the mistakes are not repeated. We have implemented all those recommendations already.
It is worth outlining all the changes that we have implemented in RTE in recent months in response to what happened in these two programmes. RTE has completely re-structured the editorial management of RTE television current affairs; over the past few months, RTÉ has made a number of significant new appointments to its news and current affairs division and there are more new appointments to follow; RTÉ has completely rewritten its journalism guidelines for all editorial staff; new social media guidelines are now part of the new journalism guidelines; all editorial staff from across the organisation have attended training sessions on the new guidelines; RTÉ has established a new editorial standards board, the purpose of which is to help maintain and monitor content standards through regular review of programmes and regular consultation with editors and programme makers; RTÉ has put in place a new process for dealing with significant editorial complaints; and in the new year, we are putting in place a new system to better track and monitor the range and diversity of on-air contributors and panellists on all of our radio and television programmes. Notwithstanding, and not underestimating for a second, the very significant criticisms that the BAI made in its statement of 22 November, it is important to note the BAI stated that its compliance committee:
is satisfied that RTÉ has taken significant steps to address the issues that have arisen from the production of this programme. Furthermore, the broadcaster has publicly committed to implementing these changes. While the efficacy of the changes will only become apparent over time, it is the Compliance Committee's view that the broadcaster has seriously engaged in making the changes necessary to prevent a reoccurrence of the mistakes evident in key aspects of the production... .All of the changes we have made are just steps in the right direction but I would hope that the range of measures we have introduced clearly shows RTE's determination to learn from its mistakes and to make its journalism stronger, fairer and more transparent.
It is also important for the committee to be aware that all of these changes to our journalism have been implemented through a period of enormous change for the organisation as a whole. At the beginning of last year, RTE was forecasting a deficit of €30 million. Having taken a number of difficult decisions, including reducing staff numbers by 20%, we are now on target to regain financial stability next year. In the past 12 months, we also successfully launched SAORVIEW, on time and on budget, allowing the Exchequer to net hundreds of millions of euro from spectrum sell off. We have restructured our digital offerings, re-focussed our commercial enterprises and tackled a number of thorny issues, including that of fees paid to presenters with their co-operation.
Early next year we will publish a comprehensive strategy document for the organisation that will set out a very different future for RTE, while also looking critically at everything we now do and how we could do it better. Most important, all of these changes have happened while we have maintained the quality and breadth of our services to the public from the Olympics and European Championships to the drama "Love/Hate", but in the end, everything comes back to the audience and the trust they have in us. All this positive change should not deflect us from the mistakes we have made and how we can learn from them. I know the high standards that are rightly expected of us. I believe that the majority of RTE output meets those standards. I also know that public trust is essential for any media organisation, but especially for RTE as a public service broadcaster.
RTE produces more than 40 hours of current affairs programming across our radio and television services each week. It is at the heart of our output. It is our daily connection with the lives of our audience and public life in this country. I am fully aware that the significant changes we have made to strengthen our journalism will mean little unless they are embraced by all managerial and editorial staff and acted upon in the thousands of editorial decisions we make every day. They will only work if programme makers from the most junior to the highest level clearly understand and accept their responsibility and their role in rebuilding RTE's reputation for very high quality journalism. Most of all though, it is through great programming that we will rebuild trust with our audiences because not alone do our audiences expect us to be accurate and fair, they also expect that we will not lose our nerve and that we continue to challenge, to probe and to ask the difficult questions in the public interest. I thank the Chairman.
I thank Mr. Curran for a comprehensive overview. I acknowledge that he stated that he will report to the committee at a later date with his comprehensive strategy document. Will he take us through, in simple language, the procedures on the night, how the breakdown occurred, who was responsible and what RTE has learned? One of the issues the public cannot understand is how this could have happened in a station with many layers of people checking everything.
Mr. Steve Carson:
Mr. Morrison and I can talk the committee through how the report was carried out, the key conclusions and recommendations we found and address the Chairman's question about how this could come to pass. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland noted it was a thorough review. It was based on interviews with all the members of "The Frontline" team, the former editor of current affairs, the previous head of "The Frontline" and approximately 20 members of the studio audience. We talked to executives from other broadcasters. We reviewed extensive programme files, people's notebooks, e-mail exchanges and we looked at records of texts that had been sent to that programme and other programmes. We interviewed some members of the team twice to cross-reference information we had gathered and to probe areas of concern that had been thrown up by the research. We looked not only at the questions that had been broadcast but at other questions that had been prepared and not broadcast. We even looked at social media activity after the broadcast and that was a mark of the thoroughness with which we wanted to approach this.
The terms of reference were straightforward: to look at the processes, how the questions were devised, how the audience members were selected and to what extent this was different from the standard for "The Frontline" or to what extent this compared with similar programmes. We did not look at the issue of the tweet on the basis that this had been ruled on by the BAI and was the subject of a separate personnel disciplinary investigation at the time. Mr. Morrison will talk though our basic findings.
Mr. Rob Morrison:
We came up with conclusions to the editorial review after what Mr. Carson has described as an in-depth research period and a substantial investigation, and we made a number of recommendations to RTE to address the issues and to prevent it happening again in similar programmes in the future. The headline findings were largely to do with the origination of the questions and the make up of the audience. That was where most of the problems lay.
There were a number of questions around the derivation of the questions and the balance to those asked of the candidates in the programme. The most serious omission from the questions was, once the team had decided they would ask each member of the panel at least one challenging question, for some reason, no direct challenging question was asked of Michael D. Higgins from the audience.
We found a number of things about which we are unhappy. First, the format of the programme was very confused and much too complicated. They had what we call a roadmap of questions. Normally, for a programme of that length, there might be ten or 12 questions in the roadmap but this had up to 50 questions. The situation was, therefore, very confused on the night. It was not helped by the worst weather in living memory and when it came to it-----
Mr. Rob Morrison:
Another serious problem was the fact that in the gallery on the night, there was a senior editorial figure but he was involved in talking to politicians on the floor and journalists in the green room. This is an important point from the report. It required somebody to be there solely to watch the programme on transmission to ensure all compliance issues and all issues around balance were addressed. That person was not there for the entire programme and if the person had been there, he or she would surely have seen that no question was addressed to Michael D. Higgins. That was a definite failing and it is one of our key recommendations.
There were other issues around allegations of people being given questions to ask and having questions written for them. Again, there was a complicated system for backup questioners. We only found one person, again as a result of the floods, who was given a question to ask that was not theirs. In others words, they had not written it; it had been written by a person who had not turned up. Even still, we considered that inappropriate and wrong. Questions were swapped where people were not expected to turn up and people were brought in off the substitutes bench. They maybe had a question and they were asked to swap their question for another question. It was again absolutely unnecessarily complicated and that was inappropriate at least.
There is a certain degree of redrafting of questions because of legal issues or because the question is too long. This happens on all programmes. It was not unique to this programme. Most programmers to whom we spoke, from the BBC in London and UTV, said quite a lot of redrafting of questions goes on but not to the point where they are rewritten. We found in the report that it came much closer to rewriting than we would like. However, we did not find any evidence - and this was a judgment - that a question had been written by the production team for a member of the public.
We concluded that the method of selection of the audience, given it was a presidential election debate, was inappropriate. It would have been appropriate for a regular edition and I have worked on similar style programmes to "The Frontline".
With regard to other issues, we found that training was poor.
We also found that awareness of RTE editorial guidelines was low. This was true of staff and freelancers as the latter worked on this programme. Those were the main findings of the editorial review.
Mr. Steve Carson:
I have a few more points to make in respect of our findings and will then address how this could come to pass. The recommendations in the report cover a number of other areas. We specify that the lines of editorial management within current affairs need to be clarified. Other colleagues in RTE can explain how that is being done.
Mr. Steve Carson:
That was one of the problems. The proposed format they were working to was not spelled out in detail in advance. Our recommendations in the report are clear that this must be the case. We found that the team, which was fairly small, were all working on regular editions of "The Frontline" in the run up to this. One of key recommendations is that resources need to be provided to allow at least one person to focus on a show like this. We also say in our recommendations that it is not appropriate to have personal friends of the production team or people with a connection to a party running a candidate in an election programme.
Mr. Morrison and I have discussed how this could happen. The reality is that a series of mistakes which interacted with each other were made by a series of people. The weather played a part. If some of these things had happened in isolation, we would not have had the cumulative failure we did have. We noted that there were gaps in experience in the report. It was a relatively inexperienced team working to an unclear brief for which one needs to look to senior management in current affairs. We found that the overall steering committee in RTE received some reports about what the plan was and was aware that the audience selection format was changed from "The Frontline" programme on the general election in March and approved that. We concluded that it was not an appropriate format. RTE has run two editions of "The Frontline" on the fiscal treaty and children's referendum that have been compliant. In future, the steering committee needs to get far more detail and perhaps be more probing about what the format is. That essentially covers what we found.
Mr. Rob Morrison:
In conclusion, we would quantify these mistakes as significant. There were significant failings in this programme but our in-depth research and all the investigations found no evidence of what one would call bias, either party political bias or political animus against any of the candidates.
I welcome the delegation from RTE. We are reviewing a report by RTE and the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland on the "The Frontline" programme conducted to elect the President of the Republic of Ireland. No greater honour can be bestowed on anyone than to be elected Head of State of the Republic of Ireland. The programme and report reveal extreme shortcomings. Mr. Morrison and Mr. Carson spoke to the teams, checked the notebooks and spoke to the staff. The referee on the night was Pat Kenny. Do they find it odd that he was not asked for his opinion on what happened on the floor of the programme? It is like a football match where one interviews the water carriers, sideline people and umpires but forgets to interview the referee.
I hope that in trying to answer the committee's questions, RTE will not refer to the weather because the weather has an adverse effect on many occupations, none more so than this year. I do not think RTE was baling silage on 24 October. Surely the delegation will not come up with the junior infants'-style excuse that the weather had something to do with the carrying of the programme. RTE is a television station in existence for over 50 years that is supposed to be at the top of its game in respect of technology. An RTE delegation gave the committee its expertise in respect of SAORVIEW. It is not acceptable or believable to imagine that the Irish people would believe that RTE could not verify a tweet live on air or explain it the next morning or in any of the reports. The report has not clearly stated who sanctioned the fake tweet. Who decided not to include the corrective tweet? The argument has been made that communication broke down. RTE is a serious broadcaster of long standing and I do not accept this argument.
The delegation spoke about how seriously it takes public broadcasting. It faces two major issues this year relating to "Prime Time" and this edition of "The Frontline". There is considerable scrutiny of what is going on in RTE. There should be an independent audit of a range of programmes going back over the years instead of a report by RTE. Such an independent report would examine programmes going back ten, 15 or 20 years to see whether an agenda exists in RTE. A perception exists among people on that particular edition of "The Frontline" that an agenda existed on that night and this argument has not be disproved.
It is not longer acceptable for RTE to decide the format of televised election and referenda debates. We should be looking for an independent commission to decide on the format of these debates. Election to any public office is an honour in any republic and it cannot be besmirched by shabby programming or excuses relating to weather. It is not acceptable. The only way to go is to have an independent broadcasting commission for all debates on elections. RTE is the State broadcaster paid for by the licence fee. In a republic, the aim is for the State broadcaster to be independent but RTE standards in respect of this programme left much to be desired.
I will stick to questions as much as possible but I acknowledge and welcome the attendance of the delegation from RTE and its presentation. I also acknowledge its efforts subsequent to the review it is putting in place. We are here this morning because there was no sense of balance in that edition of "The Frontline" and because it is important that we give balance to what actions have been taken.
The reason the delegation is here this morning is because the BAI criticised it for not publishing the full document upon which the report was based. That evoked suspicion not only among this committee but among the general public as if there was something in that longer document that was not released. I acknowledge the fact that RTE has published that document. As the delegation stated, RTE's inquiry into the programme dealt with how the audience and questions were selected. There is a reference in the document to the inexperience - perhaps I am using the wrong word - of the editorial team. The perception among the public has been confirmed in the longer document where it was stated that following the general election debate involving the party leaders, the editor thought the programme was a bit stilted but that editorial safety was his main concern.
I put it to the witnesses that, for this reason, someone decided to stir the pot for the presidential debate so that it would not be so stilted. Some of the candidates, including the candidate who led in the opinion polls going into the debate, Mr. Seán Gallagher, were casualties of this decision. If the idea was to target him for more questions because he was the leader, it is interesting that the candidate in second place was asked no questions. This is one of the public's concerns.
The other public concern is that presidential and general election debates seem to be competitions between the top presenters within and without RTE, who are paid considerable fees, to get the largest audiences and to be the most controversial. Truth and balance become lost. I would be interested in the witnesses' comments in this regard. It is the overriding belief among the public that, be the presenter Pat Kenny, Miriam O'Callaghan or someone else, everyone wants to trump everyone else. As the debate in question was the final one, there was a perception that the candidates, the truth and a sense of balance were casualties.
It has been stated that all of RTE's staff have done social media courses. Presenters in RTE and other broadcasters have Twitter accounts on which they make personal comments. Given some of those comments in recent weeks, it is difficult to see how they would give certain individuals fair interviews.
Mr. Noel Curran:
I agree with Deputy Moynihan on the importance of the office of the President of the Republic and of any coverage relating to it, particularly in the immediate run-up to an election. I have no argument in that regard. We got it wrong. I would like to revert to related elements later. I understand that Mr. Kenny was-----
Mr. Noel Curran:
He was interviewed as part of the report. The references to the weather do not mean that the studio was leaking or so on. Rather, they related to the number of people who did not turn up at short notice. As an experienced broadcaster, we should have coped with that problem. We are not making excuses. We do these debates well and have done them for a long time. We should have had contingencies for this problem, but we did not. The references are not meant to use the weather as a lame excuse. Many people did not turn up at the last minute. On such a big night with so many candidates, this created an added degree of disarray. We should have dealt with it.
Regarding the Deputy's referral to the debates commission, we are open to having discussions about how debates are done. RTE used to be the only broadcaster that did debates. Other broadcasters now do them. We are open to having positive discussions with whoever. The experience of commissions elsewhere is mixed. America has the Commission on Presidential Debates, CPD. Although it is an independent, non-profit organisation, it is effectively controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. The CPD discusses a 32-page contract on how to carry out the debates with the parties. Eighteen pro-democracy groups took legal action against the CPD at the last election and candidates of smaller parties have continually stated that they have been excluded. It is a non-profit, separate corporation, but it was founded by the two main parties. Canada examined the idea of a commission and decided not to have one.
The UK has pursued an approach whereby the broadcasters and three political parties agree a 75-page document that is published in advance. This was the first time it was done and people were conservative in their approach to it. Negotiating such a contract would be difficult. I have negotiated three leaders' debates. They took up more of my time than any other programme that I have ever put together. Given that we have five parties, a strong independent sector, a range of broadcasters and a regulator, a commission would be complicated. This does not mean it would be impossible or that RTE will only do this work one way.
There is almost no country in which people are satisfied with debates. Many complaints were made about the moderator during the pivotal debate in the last election. When the UK used an audience research company, ICM, 80% of the audience had effectively shown party affiliations while 20% were unaffiliated. Only yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron stated that he believed that the debate structure needed to be changed, as it was sterile and boring and the public did not engage properly with it.
There is no perfect system. In RTE's defence, we have been running debates for a long time and, as far as I am aware, no serious complaints or issues have arisen concerning them, including our debates on the fiscal treaty and children's referenda. I will give the committee a sense of how our approach has changed. There were 26 people from the "Yes" side and 27 people from the "No" side in the audience of our "The Frontline" programme on the children's rights referendum. We took ten audience questions, five from the "Yes" side and five from the "No" side. The difference in time allocated to both sides for their answers was 36 seconds in a 33-minute segment of the programme. We are learning. Perfection is not a virtue that I have ever claimed for RTE, but we have done debates well in the past. This does not rule us out from engaging positively and proactively in any new debate on how to run them.
We will publish more information on our approach in advance of future debates. We hold many discussions with political parties. Understandably, they have different views on debates. Often, these depend on how well they believe candidates will do. That is a natural decision.
Regarding the independent audit, the reputable Press Ombudsman examined our procedures as a result of the "Mission to Prey" programme. We have implemented each of his recommendations. Another reputable external contributor was involved in this report and we have implemented all of the recommendations. The quality of our journalism and our approach to news and current affairs is not reflected in the two reports on the programmes in question. One cannot do 40 hours of news and current affairs live every week in the white heat of election debates and not encounter problems every week.
We also have huge internal checks and balances, which did not work in this instance. That is why we have put in place new systems for the future.
The Deputy mentioned going back 15 or 20 years to consider programmes properly. There was a Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, investigation into "Mission to Prey" and although the investigator moved incredibly quickly, it still took seven months rather than the indicated two months. Due process takes a considerable amount of time, as the BBC is now finding out. It launched an investigation into "Newsnight" which it indicated would be done in four weeks and although we are two months into that, we still have not seen the end product. Going back 15 or 20 years, involving people who have left the organisation and moved on, is not necessary. In the opening statement I mentioned that these programmes have had a profound effect on RTE and we are moving on and making changes. People should judge us on how we react to those changes.
The BAI criticised us for not publishing the working document. There has been much understandable commentary about stand-offs involving RTE and the BAI in this regard. The BAI compliance committee, led by Mr. Chris Morash, whom I have never met, does a very fair job, although it is difficult. I agree with some of its decisions and strongly disagree with some, which is to be expected. It does a difficult and important, although sometimes thankless, job. We had a difficulty with the wording in its statement regarding the difference between the two documents. I will not get into that here.
We also felt that if we had known we would be asked to publish the working document, we could have got clearance in advance. We did not know that and we saw 20 minutes before the press that this request would come through. We knew we would be asked to publish the report and we agreed to do it. We never said that we would not publish the working document. As soon as we saw the statement, we met immediately as a group and considered how to get the approvals to get out the working document. This is not a big stand-off between RTE and the regulator, and we have no issue with the idea that RTE must be regulated. If people make complaints, they cannot be dealt with just by RTE and there should be recourse if public money is used. Although I disagree with some of the judgments made by the compliance committee, as I would, it does a very fair job on the whole.
I will bring in Mr. Bakhurst and Ms Duignan in on the issue of social media. I will come back to any questions I have forgotten.
Mr. Noel Curran:
The tweet was not included in this report because the BAI had already ruled on it. We had already dealt with the tweet issue, which is why it was not in this report. We did not investigate the tweet issue separately because we had given all the relevant documentation to the BAI and made our submission. It ruled on the issue.
I will ask my two colleagues to contribute on the issue of social media, which is a difficult issue for all of us. There is no point saying it is not difficult. It is new and growing in popularity. As a broadcaster we feel we must be in that space and we cannot become irrelevant. We ask every adult in the country to pay a licence fee and we cannot pick and choose which elements of those licence fee payers we serve.
It is a difficult issue. We are putting in place new guidelines and we are adamant that people cannot tweet opinions and should display impartiality in what they do in social media. We are clear with our people about that. Mr. Bakhurst has experience of this in both the BBC and RTE, and Ms Duignan will also comment.
Mr. Kevin Bakhurst:
I thank the committee for inviting me before it today in what is my first appearance here. I am pleased to be here. Social media is a real issue for any public service broadcaster or any broadcaster that wants to maintain the trust of an audience in the impartial approach to news and current affairs. Social media has become an inherent part of what we do around the world and it is a source of amazing material that we would not get otherwise from our audience and also from conflict zones like Syria, where it is very difficult for journalists to operate properly. We need a system to deal with social media.
We deal with social media as a source of material, and as Deputy Moynihan noted, it is critical that we know how to deal with it. It was completely unacceptable that the tweet in question got to air and I like to think that will never happen again in a debate like that. We must have the right systems and level of knowledge in place in dealing with social media, which is fast evolving.
While we receive material via social media it is also an important way for us to put out content, and some of the RTE accounts are quite successful in doing this through Twitter etc. Personal use is probably the thorniest area, and we already have some strict guidelines within RTE. I have no doubt that the people who work for us know exactly how seriously we take those guidelines, and we have recently ensured that everybody has read and signed both journalism and social media guidelines. I have stated clearly that if people have not read and signed them, they should not be working for us.
This is a constantly evolving field. We have done training in social media and I have commissioned one of the best social media trainers I know to come in again in the new year to do a few new sessions. The field is constantly changing and we take it extremely seriously. I personally monitor many of the tweets by our people in news and current affairs to satisfy myself that they are not putting anything out there which in any way questions the impartiality of what they do.
Ms Clare Duignan:
Deputy O'Mahony made a particular observation about personal comments that he may have read in media recently were made by RTE personnel. I believe I know the Deputy's reference, which was an extremely inappropriate and sexist comment made about a gentleman who had a particular view on the right to life debate. The person who made that tweet does not work for RTE and is not on a contract as an employee with RTE. The person occasionally makes programmes for RTE and is currently making such a programme. As such, he is not governed by the guidelines we have for our own staff. Nevertheless, we expect anyone working for us not to bring RTE into disrepute, as the comment did. As soon as we were made aware of it we contacted the person in question, who has apologised to us and the person to which he directed the comment. He completely recognises that it was entirely inappropriately. That is the first time I have come across a comment like that being made by anyone with any association with RTE.
It is very difficult for us to monitor what every person who will ever do any form of work as a contractor for us will do but when we contract people, we indicate clearly that they must not act in a way that brings the reputation of RTE into disrepute, as the comment in question did. The person in question has never worked in the news and current affairs division. Although it was an unacceptable comment, I reassure this committee and the public that the person has never been in a position where he could make editorial judgments around balance and fairness.
I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. I and my party of Sinn Féin welcome this report.
We would support RTE's view that the audience and participants in shows are entitled to expect fairness and honesty and that integrity is at the basis of everything that it does. We support and expect independence and unbiased broadcasting. We would agree with the statement that the audience expects that RTE will not lose its nerve and will continue to challenge and probe. For a democracy it is important that RTE continue to do that.
However, I shall set the context. There is no doubt that the tweet should not have been broadcast and that there was plenty of opportunity on the night to identify that it was a fake tweet. Sinn Féin people were present on the night and would have provided verification. Ironically, the matter has brought to the surface public interest matters that need to be debated. The electorate made up its own mind when voting and I respect its democratic decision.
My first question is the most obvious. Did no one in RTE have the savvy to know that the programme was a potential minefield? Surely somebody should have. The delegation said that no senior editorial person designated to deal with that aspect of the show. Such a person should have been provided. Can we have the editorial criteria for the selection of topics, panellists and audience members for general shows of "The Frontline"? It is disturbing - I would like to know how common it is - that friends or acquaintances of the production team are invited to join shows such as this. What is the selection criteria used for audience members with regard to political leanings or affiliations, sex, age group and geographical area? There is a view that Dublin 4 is well represented but not the rest of the country. Is the socioeconomic background taken into account when it comes to the selection of audience members?
Mr. Curran stated in his report that this is the first time in the history of RTE that such an editorial report, involving an external independent author, had been commissioned and published. Perhaps that is part of the problem and it should be an ongoing process. Perhaps broadcasters should have outside validation of what they are doing to ensure that it is in accordance with the criteria, guidelines and the standards that they have set themselves.
I thank the delegation from RTE for appearing before the committee. My question relates to the tweet. It is unclear to me how RTE dealt with the tweet. Was it possible to trace its origin and the IP address from which it was sent? Technology is available to do so. The fact that the tweet was subsequently disowned is also something that needs to be examined.
The programme was interesting. It was a riveting programme to watch and we had not had anything like it before. The delegation talked about social media, its impact and how people can say things on social media that they could not say anywhere else. That raises all kinds of questions. How was the tweet traced? Was it possible to trace the IP address from which it was sent?
I welcome the delegation from RTE and thank it for its clear and concise presentation. I have a couple of questions on the preparation of the report. I do not want to question the professional integrity of Mr. Steve Carson or Mr. Rob Morrison in any way. There could be a perception - there is in some quarters - that the two gentlemen have RTE connections.
I have a question for Mr. Curran on the investigation team. Did he have a concern that a perception might emanate from the investigation team that it was effectively RTE investigating itself? Mr. Curran stated that he wanted it to be external and independent but it is hard to see how the investigation can be viewed as independent. Let us do a comparison with the Savita Halappanavar case. It led to a lot of discussion and debate in this country and within RTE's current affairs and news department. RTE was correct to pursue the Government from that perspective. As a result, a significant change was made to the make-up of the investigation team into that case. The consultants from Galway were removed from the panel. Again, I am not questioning their integrity but it would have been wholly inappropriate had those people remained on the investigation and cast a shadow over it.
Mr. Curran also said that much of the problem seems to revolve around the fact that there was nobody really in charge on the night. He has been around RTE for a long time and knows how things work. Was he surprised at the dysfunctional chain of command that existed on that programme? Was he aware that there was such a junior team working on it? RTE seems to be using the defence that there was a haphazard approach and dysfunctional operation in place. I shall have another question on bias later. The excuse given was that RTE was all over the place. The weather was also thrown in as an inconsequential factor but it played into the excuse.
With regard to the programme, people ran around in a haphazard and dysfunctional manner without an appropriate management structure in place. I imagine that there should have been a chain of command above that level that should have been aware. Ultimately, Mr. Curran should have been aware of the situation. If he was not, then the line of command between him and further down the tree is not effective. What has he done to address the matter?
I have a question on bias. One of the conclusions states: "The review team did not find evidence of bias or partiality from the presenter or production team, and said the mistakes made in the programme were not the result of bias". I ask Mr. Carson and Mr. Morrison to take us through how the review team reached that conclusion. In doing so, they might address the first question asked by Ms Siobhán Feely on the night. She asked: "lt's for the whole panel. What do they think it says about the country that just after eight months after we ejected Fianna Fáil from office, an exFianna Fáil businessman looks set to be our next President?". Perhaps there is still a defence of a haphazard approach, nobody knew what was going on and researchers were ringing around to get people to ask questions on the day.
I am a Fianna Fáil Deputy but I need help to understand. Please help me to conclude that there was not an effort to set a particular agenda. Let us not forget what the first question was. It was directed at the entire panel and not to one individual candidate. It effectively set the tone against one candidate and allowed each of the other candidates to take a pop at him from the outset. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I generally do not buy into some of the commentary that circulated in my own party that believes that every organ of the media is against it because I have a great respect for the media, and in particular for RTE in the role that it has played as a public broadcaster. Can somebody help me to understand how RTE can conclude that there was no bias in the way the first question was presented? It was the first question, so it set the tone and I think that it points to a bias.
I wish to return to what Deputy Moynihan asked at the start of the meeting. I have a simple question. My mind was not changed on the night in question and it was obvious for whom I was going to vote for. The committee must ask two questions. How many people changed their minds that night due to the programme? Did it have an impact on the election result? I believe the result of the election was changed in consequence. From a public service broadcast point of view it calls into question, as Deputy Moynihan has done, the management of elections, the relationship between the media and electioneering and how an election will be operated in the future.
Let us contrast the manner in which debates have been conducted for referenda commissions and how they convey information. The contrast could not be starker. If one contrasts the Irish presidential election broadcast ambit with its American counterpart the contrast could not be more obvious.
In the American situation one does not have the type of audience hijacking, as I would call it, as when somebody is standing for election in Ireland, be it in a general election, by-election or European election, where there would be a national interest. It certainly calls on us as legislators and the public service broadcaster, which is in receipt of the licence fee, to examine how to get fairness into the system and to restore trust. Those are the fundamental issues. What is in place now to ensure this does not happen again? If somebody is interviewed on "Prime Time" or some other programme on television or radio and there is a spurious tweet or text message from Mary from Dungloe, she could be one's constituency colleague and could do irreparable damage. It is a very pertinent question. What safeguards are in place to ensure that does not happen?
Mr. Noel Curran:
Deputy O'Donovan raised a very important question about the presidential election being called into question. That is possibly the most significant question anybody could raise today. A colleague was interviewed on the radio and gave a personal opinion about that. I feel it is really important. That colleague was asked a question and gave their opinion. They were not speaking for RTE but they gave their opinion. People are entitled to their opinion. I do not know how one can say that this programme decided the outcome of the election. It was watched by 700,000 people, but 1.8 million people voted in the election. That means 1.1 million people did not see the programme. Mr. Gallagher appeared on "Today with Pat Kenny" the following morning, which had an audience of 230,000 people. He appeared on the "Six One News" the following evening and while he was on air the audience was 600,000 people. I do not know if that had an influence. Matt Cooper of "The Last Word" covered this and Vincent Browne did a full programme on it. The newspapers gave it wall to wall coverage for days. Did that have an influence? I cannot say; I do not know.
Also, consider what happened in the days just before the election. The last opinion polls were on 22 and 23 October, the ReDC poll for the Sunday Business Post and the MRBI poll for The Irish Times. Mr. Gallagher was at 40% and Mr. Higgins, as he was then, was at 25% and 26%. There was a swing of 12% away from Mr. Gallagher and a swing of 14% to Mr. Higgins, but that 14% swing could have gone 3% to another candidate, 2% to another and 1% to somebody else. It did not, and that cannot be attributed to a single programme. Frankly, people inside and outside the media sometimes exaggerate the influence we have. I am not saying the programme did not have an impact and did not impact on the election at that time, but it is difficult to say that everything else that was happening in those two days and the amount of media coverage elsewhere could be attributed to that single programme. I cannot say that because I do not know, and I do not think we will ever know.
As regards the other issues raised, our goal is to get fairness and trust. I have already answered Deputy Moynihan. His suggestion of having debates about how we handle presidential debates in future is timely. We will engage positively and constructively in that. Personally, I have misgivings about the American commission system, where two political parties control an organisation that negotiates a 32 page contract with the two political parties. That would be a difficulty for me. However, there are different ways of looking at and doing this and we will engage in whatever debate takes place.
On the Deputy's question about how we can ensure that this does not happen again, we have already implemented the recommendations from Rob Morrison and Steve Carson. Following on from them, I have had discussions with the new managing editor of current affairs as part of that structure and accept his recommendations. He is already of the opinion that we will use a polling company for the selection of the audience at the next election. The Morrison-Carson recommendations suggested that as an option, but he is already inclined to do that. He will see that the audience is as democratically and politically representative as possible, and he will have three people on a panel, one of whom will be external, which will decide the questions. He intends to introduce a range of changes. We will be far more open about the format in advance of future elections so the public will know what has been agreed between the broadcaster and the political parties.
Another important question was asked by Deputy Dooley. He asked if I had any misgivings. I have absolutely no misgivings about appointing somebody such as Rob Morrison to this. I approached Rob Morrison to do this report. The next time I spoke to him was when he presented it to the board. It is important that people know that.
I wish to clarify that. I do not have any misgivings about Mr. Morrison or Mr. Carson in any shape or form, but I am referring to public perception. In the Halappanavar case, Mr. Curran's news department quite correctly interrogated that decision to the greatest extent possible, so will he speak to the perception-----
RTE has a huge way to go in terms of rebuilding public confidence. We want to help Mr. Curran in every way we can. This is not a big issue but to ensure that RTE regains the primary role it had previously, a great deal more must be done. In my view Mr. Curran must go above and beyond the call of duty. The party that I represent must do the same and is trying to do it.
Mr. Noel Curran:
That was asked by several members. It was not that there was no chain of command and that there were no editorial figures there on the night, but that there was confusion with the roles. The Deputy asked if that was usual. In my experience it is not. In terms of election debates, when I was editor of current affairs I would not have been in the box or the gallery but in my office watching the programme and ringing the gallery. That is just a personal matter. Other people do it in different ways. There was an unusual confusion that should not have happened and, frankly, will not happen again.
Mr. Rob Morrison:
The committee has selected one question. We were unhappy with the format of "The Frontline". We were unhappy with the questions being more like comments than questions. Reading through the questions, many of them are comments with a question mark at the end. This includes the one from Siobhán Feeley about Seán Gallagher. That is a format problem and we were equally unhappy about it. We criticised this.
With regard to bias, we went through it in great depth and detail. Our antennae were razor sharp looking for any evidence. We asked the same questions. Was this down to personal bias and was there a campaign to get Seán Gallagher? Was there a campaign to promote Michael D Higgins? Was there an anti-Sinn Féin campaign? We did not find any evidence.
I recall watching it and I remember the lead-in, to the effect that the programme could be a game changer. Following the breadcrumbs, it is difficult to conclude there was not an agenda. To prove bias, one must go a considerable way and find much evidence.
Mr. Morrison is very determined in his conclusion when he says the mistakes made in the programme were not the result of bias. That is a major statement. I would have accepted it more readily if Mr. Morrison had qualified the position in respect of his ability to determine bias.
Mr. Steve Carson:
The committee should bear in mind that we examined people's private communications with each other, their notebooks, their e-mails and we spoke to them at great length and, on some occasions, twice. We looked for a personal animus and political beliefs for or against any candidate. We did not find evidence of it and it was incumbent on us to put it on the record in the report. We share many of the criticisms of Deputy Colreavy that this was a minefield. It seemed that much more attention should have been paid to the mechanics of the programme at management level in current affairs. While it was editorially justified that the leading candidates should have more questions than others, it is extraordinary that a direct challenge question to Michael D. Higgins was not broadcast. We drilled into that and we see that it was not that they were not looking for it. They had questions but there was an issue with someone who did not arrive. There was a knock-on issue with someone who was asked to put the question. We thought it was wrong that they decided, halfway through the programme, not to do it. Even allowing for that, it does not matter and they should have taken steps to ensure it was done. The threshold for political bias is high we did not see evidence of it. We had to put that on the record.
I welcome the delegation from RTE. I am declaring an interest because for most of my working life, I have earned an income from RTE, although I am not at present. That is no reflection on RTE or on myself, it is just the nature of freelance broadcasting, as my titular head in radio, Clare Duignan, would testify. I say that because it pains me that these people are colleagues and this is an institution for which I have enormous respect. That respect is not is always conveyed by the general public, but they vote with their feet in that they watch and listen to RTE more than any other channel. It is obviously doing something right and has been doing so for a long time so it pains me that when something like "The Frontline" programme comes up, no more than "A Mission to Prey", RTE finds itself under this spotlight and seems to be squirming because of failures in processes. I compliment Noel Curran in particular in outlining all that has happened since the debate on "The Frontline" programme, and the report by Steve Carson and Bob Morrison suggests strongly that whatever failings there were in "The Frontline" programme, they will not be repeated.
Mr. Curran has to a degree underestimated the impact of RTE. That edition of "The Frontline" was the start of a sequence that was a game changer. The impact on the night certainly influenced the outcome of the election. I must also say, and again this is painful because no one has talked about the elephant in the room, that Seán Gallagher was probably the greatest victim. He was ahead in the polls by 15% but when we look at the content and the manner in which the questions were responded to, he caused himself enormous difficulties, no matter what was the programme format. The public perception following the programme and the subsequent interviews saw him create a lot of difficulties for himself. That is a purely subjective point of view. In that context, should a debate of this importance, about electing the President, be held so close to an election where there is little time to recover ground if it is lost? I am not sure if debates so close to an election happen in other democracies.
There is currently a television series on BBC called "The Hour". One of the interesting things about it is that there is nearly always someone in the gallery to oversee the line producer. I am sure it must have been a surprise that there was not someone in a position of editorial control that night in RTE. What steps have been taken to ensure this does not happen again?
The public service obligation is core issue for RTE. Unless it is seen to be impartial on current affairs and news in particular, people's trust in RTE will diluted to some degree. The essence of public service broadcasting, of which I am a firm and strong supporter, is constantly being challenged. Are the witnesses happy the processes that have been put in place for training, particularly for those who are coming in and out of the station, who are not necessarily part of the public service culture, to which both I and the witnesses all subscribe and which we understand, will make people more aware of the public service obligation?
I welcome Mr. Curran and the other witnesses from RTE. On the night, if that tweet had not been part of the programme, would we be here at all? Would we have said everything was fine and there is no problem with the editorial oversight of and production of this format? I know the tweet has been dealt with but has it uncovered an even greater underlying problem? Is there a role in future presidential election campaigns for audience participation in programmes like this? The impact of social media was mentioned. Who is to say in seven years' time, social media will have to changed so that its format and input cannot be verified when forming opinion in RTE and, through RTE, public opinion?
I also thank the RTE team for coming in to address this. We are not here to rerun the presidential debate or the campaign. That horse has bolted and people can make up their own minds. Neither are we here to have a go at RTE; we are trying to draw a line under the saga, which is in everyone's interests, and ensure it does not recur.
I accept the findings of the report that there was no orchestrated or premeditated unfairness or bias but a perfect storm occurred on the evening which ultimately conspired to the programme being biased.
I accept the Director General's point that RTE has on a number of occasions apologised, particularly to Mr. Seán Gallagher, but there is a perception that it was more of a grudging apology rather than a gracious and generous apology. It was not forthcoming until six months after the programme. Most people who saw the programme or who were involved in it accepted, if not on the night then within the week, that there were serious misgivings. RTE did not do itself much credit in not being more forthcoming earlier to address an apology to Mr. Gallagher.
I might have missed something, although I have tried to follow the issue closely. As a practising journalist for more than 30 years, one of the basic rules is fairness and putting the record straight as soon as possible to mitigate any potential damage.
I am still at a loss to understand how the record was not put straight on the game changing tweet, even though the programme had another 30 minutes to run which would allow RTE time to raise in the public domain whether the authenticity of the tweet was questionable. The delay in doing that compounded the damage.
As Deputy Dooley has pointed out, I fully respect the integrity, independence and impartiality of the two authors of the report. I ask Mr. Morrison to clarify whether he, as reported in some newspapers, has initiated defamation proceedings against the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, on the publishing of the report. That would concern me as I believe the BAI was acting in good faith in the public interest.
I welcome the RTE management. Like most people I have always had the height of respect for RTE. Nobody is perfect but we have always looked up to RTE as the national broadcasting company. My confidence in RTE has been greatly shaken in the past 12 months. I do not believe I am alone and in spite of the publication of the reports on this programme, there remains a lingering suspicion or fear that there was an "agenda" at work on the night of the broadcast of that programme. There may have been a bias, intentional or not. I do not think it was correct for the reporters to conclude there was no bias, because as my colleague, Deputy Dooley, has said that is a very strong statement. I think that statement was premature.
People are concerned about a number of aspects of the programme. Clearly, the softness of the approach to Michael D. Higgins, who is now the President, was remarkable. He has held left wing views during a long career and none was challenged. There was no mention of his views on abortion. This was in stark contrast to the grilling of the leading candidate.
I will. I have just two brief questions. The presenter of the show, Pat Kenny, is an eminent broadcaster, one of the best we have ever had and a man for whom I have great respect. I would imagine the role he would play in the programme would be similar to that of a conductor of an orchestra, conducting a symphony. Once the music starts, the conductor is in charge. All the preparation and the people in the background are out of the equation. A conductor will always know at some stage of the show whether the fiddle is out of tune or the brass section is coming in late. It surprises me that Pat Kenny did not sense that something very wrong was going on and attempt to rectify it. I want to know whether the presenter had the latitude to make up for the lacunae, which was visible to the viewing public?
I disagree with Mr. Curran, but I think the tweet was a serious game-changer. We are in politics long enough to know that one does not get swings of that magnitude overnight. Something must cause the swing. It was quite clear to most people that Mr. Gallagher was on course to win that election. Bearing in mind the importance and significance of the role of the President and that his election must be above suspicion or reproach, not casting any aspersions on the winner, it would be important that nobody could have an input that would be catastrophic to one candidate and kind to another. However, that happened. Has it occurred to anybody at senior or board level or to the chairman of the board that there should be resignations? The people would welcome that. That is a question that should be addressed.
I welcome the delegation from RTE. I do not have a question but I wish to comment. There seems to have been at the very least a lack of professionalism on the night. It is most unfortunate that contained in the report is the admission that a significant omission was that certain questions were not posed to Michael D. Higgins, who I think would have risen to the challenge. To assert that there was an agenda or collusion with the makers of the programme is using the national broadcasting service to try to make it seem that Michael D. Higgins won the election by cheating. That is most unfair. We cannot rerun the election.
I welcome the point made by Mr. Curran that 1.1 million people did not watch this programme. While I accept there were difficulties on the night, to question the winning of the election by Michael D. Higgins is beneath the committee.
On a point of order, I have sat through the entire debate and I do not think anybody questioned Michael D. Higgins's winning of the election. That is a completely separate matter. Members of the Labour Party contributed.
Michael D. Higgins is a good friend of mine and he would have had my support. Let us be clear this is about the failures in RTE and not about - - - - -
The two Deputies, other than Labour Party Members, who were in the Dáil for the last speech that the then Deputy Michael D. Higgins made, were Deputy Dooley and me.
We were told that RTE does not have a report into the tweet, that the BAI has it. Has the management of RTE investigated the tweet and, if so, where is that report? There is the question of tracing the tweet to the IP address of the computer from which it was sent. I was involved ten years ago in tracing e-mails coming from a false account. We were able to trace them back within 24 hours. Technology has moved greatly forward since then. It is shoddy if the officials are telling me they have not traced the false tweet at this late stage, 12 or 13 months after the event.
It is amazing that the director general of RTE is able to sit here and tell us that he did not think it was a game-changer when the dogs in the street know and accept that it was, and that it directed the outcome of the election. His comments are questionable, because everybody accepts that night was a game-changer.
I have a question, but there is a comment before it. We have reached a conclusion on this sad episode in RTE. I want to be assured that the structure will be in place to ensure this never happens again. I have two questions, the first to Ms Duignan.
Ms Duignan referred to a tweet by a subcontractor to a contractor, and said that the company had a contract at present. Will there be a clause in the contracts in the future that will allow for an event such as this to be a breach of contract and therefore such a contract would be effectively terminated by similar activities by an individual? Please do not take my remarks as a reflection on Ms Duignan. I do not think it is enough to say that because a person is not a member of staff, we cannot do a great deal about it. They are still contributing, participating and have a role in terms of programming. Can Ms Duignan do something in terms of programming? My second question is addressed to the neutral observer. I welcome Mr. Bakhurst and congratulate him on his role. He comes with a very fine pedigree as do all persons in this room involved in public service broadcasting.
There is no point in asking Mr. Bakhurst to review the historic aspect, that has happened. Will he outline the future so that we can have confidence that RTE is on the road to recovery and coming back to the position it once held?
Mr. Noel Curran:
Before Senator Mooney speaks, I wish to clarify a matter arising from a comment made by Deputy Michael Moynihan. I did not say "The Frontline" programme did not have an impact. What I said was that given the range of other media commentary and appearances over the two days in question, I do not know how anyone can make the judgment that the direct quotations which were attributed to a senior editorial figure in RTE effectively decided the outcome, regardless of whether that was what he intended.
To address Senator Mooney's questions, he first asked about the late timing of the debate. The debate was originally scheduled for 17 October but the date was changed to 24 October because so many debates were taking place. This issue crops up when one is negotiating debates. All Government parties traditionally want debates to be held later, certainly where they involve party leaders. The reason becomes clear when one considers what happened in the debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama that took place early in the presidential campaign. The contender did better than the incumbent in that debate and his campaign gained momentum. All such dates must be agreed but, as I stated, it is traditional that Government parties will seek to have debates held later in a campaign. As a result of what occurred, we will have to examine when we hold debates, particularly complicated ones. There were other reasons at work as there were so many debates during the election in question. Timing is an issue we will have to consider, particularly in respect of complicated debates.
I should have specifically asked whether it would have been preferable to hold the debate on the Friday preceding the presidential election, which is traditionally held on a Friday. This would have allowed sufficient time for a reflective discussion subsequent to "The Frontline" broadcast. This was the reason I asked the question on the timing of the debate. Holding it on Monday allowed for only one full day of political discussion about the programme before the moratorium commenced the following Wednesday.
Mr. Noel Curran:
We will have to consider that issue, including in negotiations with parties on leaders' debates. In terms of the surprise about the confusion in the gallery, I have indicated that this was a surprise. If there are two senior editorial figures in this key and terribly intense area when decisions are being made, it must be absolutely clear who is calling all the shots. We have introduced an extensive system of training. An important development to emerge from this incident is the introduction by RTE of training. It is not done for one month or six weeks but is systematic and will continue. It is also important that we engage with those outside the organisation. Independent producers are a very important part of RTE production and it is important that we engage with them.
Deputy Noel Harrington asked an interesting, pertinent and serious question on whether we would be here if the tweet had not been sent. While I believe the timing would have been different in respect of where issues would have surfaced, issues surrounding the programme surfaced in other places, including the Sunday Independent. It would be difficult to say that if the tweet had not have been sent, nothing else would have surfaced. The reason we established the new editorial standards board is in order that it will, as an external body, go into programmes, particularly where there have been elements of controversy, and engage in spot checking of editorial procedures and aspects of decision making for programmes. From our point of view, I cannot give the Deputy an answer other than to note that we are aware of this issue and are putting in place procedures to try to tighten up the relevant regulations.
In terms of audience participation, most broadcasters in most countries have audience participation, although they may do it differently. If, during a general election where the public votes in the democratic process, one were to decide to have debates without audience participation, it would be difficult to put this proposition to the electorate. Audience participation is a vital element of debates. We need to learn the lessons from this case in terms of how we manage audience participation.
Senator John Whelan referred to the grudging apology, which is a matter on which I have reflected. I did not have any hesitation in apologising to Mr. Gallagher when the ruling came through. We were involved in a process with the regulator, with legal teams working on both sides. This probably complicates issues around either side coming forward and apologising because one is in the legal realm, rather than a head to head dispute. RTE has set up a new complaints procedure, under which we will put up our hands and apologise quickly if we make a mistake, while defending our position if we believe we have not made a mistake. Once such a procedure is in place, one can make a stronger defence of one's position because one has already considered whether to quickly raise one's hands and apologise. These are ongoing debates in RTE.
Senator Ned O'Sullivan raised the role of the presenter. Presenters do not run programmes. There is a misconception outside RTE that the presenter is effectively the editor of the programme. Presenters who are dealing with a show as complicated as "The Frontline" cannot also be the editors of the programme. There is a separate editorial structure. The presenter conducts the orchestra in the sense that he or she is centre stage, on camera and dealing with the audience. However, presenters do not drive the editorial output of the programme. This would be impossible as there is too much happening, with people speaking into the presenter's ear piece and set formats being transmitted through ear pieces from the editorial process.
The Senator asked a direct question on the resignation issue. I will address this issue at a general and specific level. People talk about accountability in RTE. The organisation is accountable to the laws of libel, as are all other media organisations. We are also accountable to a board which has an editorial sub-committee. It is highly unusual for a media company to have an editorial sub-committee that can question executives on editorial issues. RTE is now subject to regulation from the regulator. Britain is debating the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry and there is a strong argument that the recommendations go too far, with senior politicians describing them as a threat to democracy. Leveson recommended the establishment of a statutory regulator without members from the industry and the setting of fines, all of which applies to RTE under section 53 of the Broadcasting Act. We also have a normal complaints procedure in place and an audience council, which was established under section 96 of the Act. The council met the board and senior management and expressed its views in no uncertain terms on the "Prime Time Investigates" programme.
RTE has undergone wholesale changes in management. People have left the organisation and disciplinary procedures have been used. It has shown accountability and, as an organisation, it is accountable to many external bodies.
This is another example. This is our third time before the committee. We have faced open interrogation, which is absolutely part of the democratic process. That is another form of accountability.
As I understand it, the programme makers became aware, with 30 minutes still remaining in the programme, that the authenticity of the game-changing tweet was questionable and that was not put into the mix so that viewers could judge the veracity of what was happening.
Mr. Rob Morrison:
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, responded to the issuing of the report. In the response, there were two sentences that are roughly the same. The first sentence refers to the fact that the working document gives additional insights into the failings of the programme's production team. I completely agree with that. The second sentence is more mysterious. It says there were much more significant things. When I read it I thought, "What do they mean by that?". It looked as if they were saying something had been left out of the working document, as published. That sounded like an allegation that we had intentionally left something out. As soon as that report hit the stands there was a media frenzy suggesting exactly that. We both got calls from a huge number of journalists asking things such as, "What have you covered up, what have you left out, what have you watered down and what have you omitted?". I had to go on an RTE news programme that night and be interviewed by Tommie Gorman to say I resented the suggestion that we had intentionally left something out, presumably at the behest of RTE. This was how the statement was being interpreted. The following morning, I had to go on "Morning Ireland" at 7.15 a.m. I am sure members of the committee are used to doing that. I am not. One does not get a great night's sleep when one has to be on "Morning Ireland" defending one's reputation.
Mr. Rob Morrison:
Cathal Mac Coille, acceptably to me, said three times, "This is a very serious matter. What have you left out?" I regarded that as a serious issue.
The BAI knew instantly there was a problem with its statement. It could have clarified it. As Senator Whelan said, this is about timing. The BAI did nothing to clarify its statement or to retract what most people saw as a fairly defamatory statement.
The BAI prepared an advisory note for any journalist who rang to check its position, which is unusual in my experience. To my knowledge, no journalist, other than an RTE journalist, did so. The statement was prepared to be used in reply to inquiries. The last sentence of the note read, "The BAI has cast no question over those who prepared the report and associated working document.". That note has never been made public. I called on the BAI to clarify its position and retract its insinuation. I would have liked some kind of apology because we were put through 24 hours of very difficult cross-examination, quite rightly, by the press. On that Friday morning, every newspaper in Ireland carried it as a front page story, with the insinuation that we had covered something up. It was at that stage that I asked for legal advice, and got it, and submitted a letter to the BAI asking for clarification and a retraction. That is where things stand. The BAI has not clarified or retracted.
Mr. Noel Curran:
I will talk personally in that regard. At the previous meeting, I said I believe that when one is in a leadership position one has to be accountable and responsible. Everyone in RTE knows I was very prepared to be accountable at that time. There was confidence at board level that I could lead the organisation through editorial, financial and other crises. The rest of the organisation and I have put every ounce of our effort into that over the last 12 months. In that time, RTE has had editorial crises, absent management figures, a financial crisis, the switch-over to digital terrestrial television from analogue and a whole range of other structural changes. We have reacted to that over the past 12 months and tried to manage it during that time. I hope we have managed that successfully.
I accept that a line has been drawn and the team have given a good account of themselves. They have presented the information, although maybe not everything we would like. We are drawing to a conclusion, however, and I would like to get some assurance about the future. Could Mr. Bakhurst give a general overview of where things are and where he intends to take the news and current affairs division of RTE?
I welcome our guests from RTE. I apologise for having had to leave the meeting for a time and also if some of my questions have already been answered.
We have heard there was inappropriate audience selection and a series of mistakes. We are not playing a blame game here. When Deputy Moynihan asked a question about the weather I was glad to be reassured that the roof was not leaking, or anything like that. The staff of RTE have always been courteous to me and given me cups of tea and a friendly welcome. I thank them for that.
I never got my hair or my toes wet, even when there were floods.
Why was the programme so highly advertised as a game-changer? Why was not one question put to the candidate who was second highest in the opinion polls at the time? It is inconceivable that Mr. Seán Gallagher was asked three direct questions, plus an extra question from a member of the audience. Why, furthermore, was a question to Mr. Martin McGuinness formulated to attack Mr. Gallagher?
No senior official was in charge on the night of the programme. It appears a senior official was in the building but in a different place.
Was Mr. Curran not in the reception area of the studio and in the so-called green room with Mr. Savage where he greeted Mr. Gallagher on the night? There were enough people around to call the shots in this regard. I believe the buck stops with the director general. I was not there but I am told Mr. Curran was in the studio. There is a pecking order in all organisations and the buck must stop somewhere. I am asking Mr. Curran if he was there and did he not welcome and shake hands with Mr. Gallagher.
Mr. Noel Curran:
I will take Deputy McGrath's question and let Mr. Bakhurst look to the future. As to whether I was there on the night, I greeted all of the candidates coming in on the night. Given the confusion around roles, the last thing any programme would need is a director general standing around the gallery or a studio area when a programme is on air. There are clearly defined roles in terms of what a director general does and what the layers of management and editorial management below that do.
In terms of it being billed as the game changer and the specific questions asked by the review team, I will ask Mr. Carson and Mr. Morrison to answer Deputy McGrath's specific questions on that.
Mr. Steve Carson:
If so, its veracity will be checked. Deputy McGrath has hit the key finding of the report which is that a direct challenging question was not put to Michael D. Higgins who was the second front runner. We say in the report and in our analysis that it is editorially justifiable for the leading candidates to have more than one question. That is reflected in the balance of questions submitted to the production team. There were a lot of questions about Seán Gallagher. There were a lot of questions about Martin McGuinness. There were a significant number of questions about Michael D. Higgins.
The production team on air began the programme believing they would have a question on abortion, which for them would have been a direct challenging question that would have been particularly difficult for Michael D. Higgins to deal with, but it was applicable to all candidates. That questioner did not arrive. They then asked somebody else to ask that question, which we concluded was wrong, who agreed to do so. As the programme began they thought they had the abortion question but half way through the programme that person changed their mind, which they were perfectly entitled to do. They then felt, and we did not accept this, that a question on the Abbeylara amendment legislation would be asked and they felt that was their difficult question for Michael D. Higgins. Looking at it, Mr. Morrison and I did not believe that was a particularly difficult or challenging question. We also noted they did not put it to Michael D. Higgins first. They gave a number of reasons and contexts and in the end we did not accept them. We said that, come what may, there were other questioners in the audience and they could have called on them.
To clarify, there were senior editorial figures closely involved in the production of this programme, but Mr. Rob Morrison and I felt there was not one figure, as Mr. Curran suggested, who was stepping back watching the programme air. Everybody was involved in a variety of production roles and we conclude that is wrong. In every debate that has been held since, and there have been two this year, that has not happened. I hope that answers the question.
Mr. Kevin Bakhurst:
I will answer Deputy Dooley's question. I thank the Deputy for his comments. As to the future and the road to recovery, I believe we have embarked on the road to recovery. There are several key factors that are important in my experience. One of them is that we have the right people in the right jobs. I have been extremely impressed with many of the staff in RTE news and current affairs that I have come across so far. We have made some new senior appointments since I started this role - the managing editor of current affairs, the new editor of "Prime Time" and the new editor of our investigative unit - who are all people with a great deal of journalistic experience and credibility, and I am very confident in their abilities. The right leadership in the organisation is very important. When I came to this job, the director general and his board had made substantial changes to training and to making the values of the organisation very clear. A clarity about values and what we stand for is very important. People need to understand that and have it in their DNA. We need fairness, accuracy and impartiality. We will be judged by our audiences and by all of the members, and rightly so, and that is very clear to our teams.
There are other issues we have touched on in this discussion. The training of the teams is very important. There has been a substantial amount of training. People need to know the journalism guidelines back to front and they need to be refreshed in their knowledge. All new people who come into the organisation in whatever role need to be familiar with those, and we need to know they are familiar with them. There is more training going on.
The question of social media has come up a few times and, as I said, it is an important and current part of what we do. It is also fraught with all manner of dangers, as we know, and trying to get a balance right between use of social media and having the guidelines in place on how we use it is very important.
It is very important that we are open. I have met representatives of many of the political parties so far and there are more to come. I have made it clear that I come to this job with no political baggage in this country, which is an advantage in some ways. I am working on my knowledge of politics here, and I think I am doing okay, but I have made it clear that we will listen to political parties. If we get things wrong, we will say so and we will change them. If I do not think we have got things wrong, I will also say so. I think we have made that clear. I agree with the director general that it is very important that we apologise in a timely and proper manner when we do get things wrong. We have done that a few times and if we can do it within a programme, on the day or whatever, I would take a view about these things, but it is important we get that right.
I am very honoured to have this job. I take my personal responsibility for the job quite seriously. When we have future general election or presidential debates it will be my personal responsibility to make sure we handle them in the correct way.
I thank Mr. Bakhurst but on a point of clarification, he said he would listen to all political parties but I hope he will listen to the Independents also who have considerable representation in this Oireachtas. We met Mr. Curran in the past.
In terms of the financial difficulties and the efforts Mr. Curran was making to address those, from the answers I have got it appears there were all chiefs present that night and no Indians. From what I can see there are too many layers of management. That is blatantly obvious to me. The witnesses have said they were all there but no one was in charge. That is disquieting. There is too much management and too many cuts at the bottom.
I will be brief. I thank the RTE management for their frank answers. I respect that. I want to make an observation. People would be surprised to learn that presenters of high profile programmes such as this one are so bound by the editors behind the scenes and the voices in their ear pieces that they do not have the flexibility to counterbalance a problem that might arise. I recommend to the management in RTE that people like Pat Kenny and other presenters should be told that in a situation where they believe something has gone wrong, and everybody watching the programme knew something was wrong, they should have the flexibility to ask an extra question or make a comment to balance it out. From the answers we have received I am surprised to learn they are so robotic.
Mr. Noel Curran:
The question I took from the Senator was whether they control the programme editorially. There are editorial controls. They are not robotic. They can make adjustments and follow through with supplementary questions. It is not that every question a presenter asks is given to them. They make all of those judgments. They do the research and the part of the planning. They are not the editors of the programme.
In terms of the conductor of the orchestra analogy, that is not the role but they have a key role in terms of the editorial output of programmes.
Votes have been called in both Houses. I thank Mr. Curran and his colleagues for engaging with the joint committee today. It is important that they appear before this committee and today they have shown they try to be fair. There are lessons for them in it and it is important to hear the perspective of public representatives in particular, who hear the views of their constituents and wish to air them. We share much in common in respect of what we must do and the message we must get out. Having listened to the witnesses today, I respect the fact they are quite committed and are taking this seriously, which I appreciate. I again thank the witnesses for their attendance and look forward to meeting the them next January or February, at the earliest possible convenience, in respect of RTE's future strategy. Finally, I thank all members.