Statement by the BAI Compliance Committee: The Frontline Presidential Debate

The Compliance Committee of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (“BAI”) met on Tuesday, 20th November. At its meeting, the Committee considered a report and other related material provided to it by RTÉ which dealt with the broadcaster’s editorial review of The Frontline Presidential debate, broadcast in October 2011.

From its review of the report already made public by RTÉ and a review of a working document upon which the report is based, and taking into account the complaints upheld by the BAI in respect of the use during this programme of an unverified tweet, it is evident to the Compliance Committee that the production of this programme fell significantly short of the standards expected by the public of Irish broadcasters.

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.

The Compliance Committee has noted that the broadcaster has publicly acknowledged that significant mistakes were made in the production of the programme, has apologised for these errors and has taken significant steps to ensure that such failings do not reoccur.

The Committee also welcomes the decision of RTÉ, following a request from the Committee, to publish its report into this programme. Notwithstanding this, the Compliance Committee now asks that RTÉ 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. It was this working document, together with the published report, that the Committee considered. It is the Committee’s view that comments contained in the working document would provide additional insights into the editorial failings.  It is also the Committee’s view that its review of the working document indicates that the editorial failings of the programme were more significant than has been identified by RTÉ in the published report. 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.

At its meeting on Tuesday, November 20th, the Compliance Committee considered the necessity and desirability of instigating a statutory investigation into The Frontline Presidential debate (as provided for under Section 53 of the Broadcasting Act 2009). The Committee has decided that such an investigation is not warranted in respect of this programme.

In reaching this decision the Compliance Committee had regard to a number of factors, including the following: –

The Frontline Presidential debate programme has already been the subject of an examination by the Committee, further to the statutory complaints process. Six complaints in relation to the use of an unverified tweet were upheld and the broadcaster has announced on-air the findings of the Committee. The decisions of the Compliance Committee have also been published and arising from this RTÉ has instigated and completed a review of this programme.

Elements of RTÉ’s approach to news and current affairs were also examined in the context of the statutory investigation instigated earlier this year by the Committee into the Prime Time Investigates programme – Mission to Prey. This resulted in the publication of the report by the Investigating Officer appointed by the Compliance Committee, Anna Carragher.

On foot of both reports, RTÉ has reviewed and revised its approach to the management and production of news and current affairs programming. This includes changes in key staff, management processes, and journalism guidelines, including policies in respect of the use of social media during programming. A number of recommendations have also been made in respect of the production of any future election debates to be scheduled on RTÉ, including the introduction of greater editorial oversight and measures to ensure that the selection and use of audiences in such debates is fair, objective and impartial.

The 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 of The Frontline Presidential debate.

The information included in the report published by RTÉ last weekend has provided a certain level of insight into how the Frontline Presidential debate programme was produced and why it fell short of acceptable standards. This information is now available to the public.

    Having taken all of these factors into account, and notwithstanding the seriousness with which the Committee views the failings that have been identified, the Compliance Committee has determined that an investigation under Section 53 of the Broadcasting Act would not add sufficiently to what has been learned to date so as to justify its instigation.

    Media Queries to:

    Catherine Heaney

    DHR Communications

    087 2309835 / 01 4200580