RTE Releases Report into Presidential Debate Standards, Irish Broadcasting

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After the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Compliance Committee called for Irish public broadcaster RTE to publish its “internal report” about its handling of the 2011 Irish presidential debate, one of the two co-authors of that internal report threatened a libel lawsuit, the Irish Times reported.

As iMediaEthics wrote previously, the Broadcasting Authority ruled earlier this year that RTE was unfair to air a tweet that later turned out to be fake during the debate. The authority’s ruling came after former presidential candidate Seán Gallagher complained that he lost the election over the incident. RTE noted that the review in question didn’t address that tweet.

On Nov. 22, the Broadcasting Authority issued a statement about the review of the debate, in which the committee reminded that the 2011 program in question “fell significantly short of the standards expected by the public of Irish broadcasters.”  The committee added:

“The report, the working document and the earlier findings of the BAI’s Compliance Committee highlight the serious and significant editorial failings that took place during a television debate of utmost public importance and interest. It is the view of the Committee that these failings related to the fundamentals of journalistic practice and could, in its opinion, have been avoided had the broadcaster applied established good practice in the conduct of a news and current affairs debate to the standard required for a presidential election.”

Overall, the authority’s committee noted that it is “satisfied that RTÉ has taken significant steps to address the issues” prompting complaints to the authority, including RTE’s “Mission to Prey” reporting that prompted a hefty libel payout and more to Father Kevin Reynolds.

Further, the committee called for RTE to “release the working document upon which the report was based and which includes the comments from those who were interviewed as part of the review, as well as other additional information,” because the committee noted it made its decision based on the “working document, together with the published report.”   The committee added:

“For this reason, it is the Committee’s opinion that the publication of the working document would provide greater understanding of these failings, would support the principle of transparency and would be in the public interest.”  The report noted that it “interviewed all members of The Frontline production team” and reviewed any documents, research or emails.  The reviewers noted that “mistakes made in the programme were not the result of bias or partiality.”

But, as the Irish Times explained, the internal report’s co-author Rob Morrison called the Broadcasting Authority’s claims “extremely serious defamation” because it “suggested a cover-up … a watering down” when the already published report is “absolutely accurate.”

The Irish Times suggested that the full report wasn’t published because RTE didn’t get confidentiality waivers.  A separate Irish Times report said RTE said it “wants to publish the working document and is contacting each individual concerned.”  RTE’s Carolyn Fisher confirmed with iMediaEthics that RTE will release the full report if it gets the waivers.

The released report was “just eight double-spaced pages” and “effectively no more than a set of conclusions or findings, some of them very cautiously worded,” the Irish Times reported.

The report, titled “Report of the Editorial Review of the Frontline,” is published on RTE’s website and notes the review “was established” in March, “following the decision of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to uphold a number of complaints against the programme.”  Some issues the report considered included the questions, the audience and the program in comparison with others.

One “significant omission” the reviewers highlighted was not asking one candidate any “direct audience questions.”  According to the report, the two-fold explanation amounted to “a small number of questions” and an absent audience member.  Moving forward, two of the review’s recommendations called for RTE to ensure:

  • “A senior editorial figure must view the programme as broadcast with the sole function of ensuring editorial compliance with RTÉ policy and BAI Codes.
  • “Clear lines of editorial responsibility for the broadcast must be established in the new management structures.”

RTE noted in its own report on the authority’s request for the full report that RTE again apologized “to Seán Gallagher, to all the candidates, and to our audience.” In a separate report, RTE added that its Head of News and Current Affairs, Kevin Bakhurst, commented that “the production was less rigorous than it should have been.” Further, he added

“RTÉ now has in place best-practice rules, procedures and protocols to reduce the risk of any recurrence of the mistakes that were made. Recent debates on the Fiscal and Children’s referenda have seen these new rules in action.”

iMediaEthics asked RTE’s Fisher for more information about changes at RTE and Bakhurst’s comments. She wrote:

“RTÉ has put in place all the recommendations outlined by the independent Report into The Frontline Presidential Debate programme. Our full statement is here:http://www.rte.ie/about/en/press-office/press-releases/2012/1118/346132-rte-accepts-findings-of-the-report-on-the-frontline/”

In that press release, RTE said it “accepts [the] findings of the Report” and quoted Bakhurst said “RTE regrets the mistakes made in the preparation and in the broadcast of the programme,” but defending them as not because of “bias or partiality.”

Further, the press release notes RTE’s new set of journalism guidelines (which were announced this spring), a “revised” set of social media standards, the development of “an internal Editorial Standards Board,” and more.

iMediaEthics asked the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland about Morrison’s claims, if the BAI has any response to the defamation claims, and what prompted the Compliance Committee’s recent comments. Catherine Heaney, on behalf of the BAI, told iMediaEthics by email:

“I can confirm that a ‘correspondence’ was received from Mr Morrison’s legal representative, and the BAI is not making any comment presently in respect of the contents of this correspondence.

“The BAI compliance committee issued a statement further to its review of the RTE report, which it had requested back in the spring.  You should be able to secure a better context by referring to the BAI website: http://www.bai.ie/?p=2905

“Beyond the statement which I just directed you to, the BAI’s Compliance Committee is not making any further comment on the matter.  This is normal practice for the Committee once it has made a final determination on a matter.”

RTE’s Carolyn Fisher told iMediaEthics by email that RTE has no comment in response to the BAI statement or Morrison’s claims.

UPDATE: 11/30/2012 9:59 AM EST: Updated with info from RTE.

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RTE Releases Report into Presidential Debate Standards, Irish Broadcasting Authority Calls for Full Report’s Publication

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