Senior RTE figure accepts flawed 'Frontline' programme changed election outcome - National News - Independent.ie
According to Independent Newspapers: "David Nally, RTE’s news and current affairs editor, said he accepted the debate had “changed the outcome” of the Presidential election"
This follows on from report issued by RTE and prepared by
Rob Morrison (Former Head of News & Current Affairs, UTV) and Steve Carson (Miriam O'Callaghan's Husband)
Director of Programmes
I have copied their report here, as it is not clear that it will be available via link from RTE.
OF THE EDITORIAL REVIEW OF
An editorial review of The Frontline 2012 Presidential Election Debate was established on
12th March 2012.
This overall review of the editorial processes of The Frontline programme was conducted
following the decision of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to uphold a number of
complaints against the programme. The review did not consider the specific issue of the
tweet that was included in the programme. This was the subject of a separate personnel
investigation following RTÉ’s acceptance of the BAI’s ruling.
2. Terms of Reference
How were questions in this programme devised?
How were audience members selected?
To what extent did question and audience selection for the Presidential Debate
differ from regular practice?
How does RTÉ The Frontline practice compare to similar programmes produced by
The review team interviewed all members of The Frontline production team (including the
presenter), the then-Editor of Current Affairs, and the previous Editor of The Frontline.
Contemporaneous programme files, notebooks and emails were examined.
Ten of the eleven on-air questioners were interviewed during the review, with one questioner
declining to respond to our calls. Interviews were also carried out with ten other audience
members who had been considered as potential questioners, as well as the father of a
member of the production team who knew one of the on-air questioners.
Finally, senior editorial figures from BBC Northern Ireland, UTV and the BBC’s network
Question Time programme were interviewed as part of the review.
The conclusions of the editorial review are outlined below. The review team also produced
recommendations for future audience-based election programmes, which are included in this
While the review identified a number of mistakes in the preparation and in the broadcast of
the programme, we noted that the production team had worked conscientiously to deliver a
robust but fair debate. The mistakes made in the programme were not the result of bias or
3. Origination of questions
A key issue for the editorial review was whether questions broadcast in the programme had
been devised by the production team and not the audience members who asked them.
Detailed interviews and examination of programme files, emails and notes led the review
team to conclude that, with one exception, all questions broadcast were founded on the
views of the questioners gathered during the research process.
The exception occurred as a result of one questioner being unable to attend the studio due
to flash flooding on the night of transmission. Another audience member was approached to
ask the same question. While the question used on air had been devised by a member of
the public and not the production team, the review concluded that it was wrong for it to have
been ‘transferred’ in this way.
The review established that this practice occurred in three other occasions on the day of
transmission, all due to fears that designated questioners would not arrive. In one case, the
audience member was not made aware that he was being prepared as a back-up questioner
for someone else. None of these ‘understudy’ or back-up questions was put to air.
4. Written Questions
On the night of broadcast, The Frontline team provided most questioners with cue-cards
containing written summaries of the questions that had been discussed with them.
Broadcasters of similar programmes acknowledge that they regularly work with audience
members to redraft questions for clarity and legal safety, and for the most part print them out
on cue-cards for the benefit of the questioners.
The Frontline team, at times, stretched the definition of redrafting to a point closer to writing
out exactly how the question should be delivered. The review found no evidence that this
was done intentionally to influence the outcome of the debate, but to ensure that questions
However, in an election debate programme, particular care is needed to avoid any
appearance of a question being ‘given’ to a questioner.
Although most questioners expressed their happiness with their experience on the
programme, the practise of printing questions confused and concerned some questioners on
It was noted that the standard The Frontline format involves audience members’ opinions
being researched with a view to them making comments rather than asking formal
questions. The standard The Frontline format did not prepare the team for the difficulties of
producing a debate driven by audience questions rather than comments.
5. Number of Questions
It was clear to the review team that too many questions had been prepared for the debate.
The Presidential Debate programme team had researched and considered as many as 50
questions in the immediate run up to the debate, with 33 questions shortlisted for potential
broadcast. This was well in excess of other similar programmes driven by audience
The creation of a high number of potential questions was meant to ensure that all key issues
could be addressed in the debate in a number of scenarios. It involved a lot of work for the
production team. However, it greatly complicated the primary task of ensuring that a fair
range of questions was put to all candidates on air.
6. Range of Questions
The format of the Presidential Election debate relied on at least one challenging question
being put to each candidate, which could then be opened up to the rest of the panel.
In the programme as broadcast, this format was not strictly followed. Of the total of 11
questions asked by the audience, Sean Gallagher was asked 3 direct questions; Martin
McGuinness 2; Gay Mitchell, David Norris, Mary Davis 1 each; Dana Scanlon and Michael
D. Higgins were asked no direct audience questions and 3 were asked to the panel as a
The review team concluded that it was editorially justified to have additional questions to
probe the track record and positions of some candidates, including the apparent frontrunner
Sean Gallagher. The number of questions to Sean Gallagher and Martin McGuinness
reflected public interest as expressed through the proportion of questions about them raised
during the production team’s research.
However, it was wrong that no direct, challenging question from an audience member was
posed to the other frontrunner Michael D Higgins. This was a significant omission.
We were told that this omission arose from two factors. Firstly, only a small number of
questions about Mr. Higgins were received by the production team. Secondly, an audience
member, whose question on ‘abortion’ was felt to be challenging for Mr. Higgins, failed to
turn up on the night due to the floods.
It was also believed by the production team that the question on the ‘Abbeylara amendment’
would be a challenging one for Mr. Higgins to answer. However, this was not put to Mr
Higgins first as was the practice with other challenging questions, and did not seem to the
review team to be addressed to him in particular.
The absence of a direct audience question did not mean that Mr. Higgins was unchallenged
during the debate. The presenter did put questions directly to him and followed up his
answers. Two of the general ‘panel’ questions were put to Mr Higgins first.
Circumstances on the night – including the extreme weather and the unexpected
introduction by one candidate of a dispute over political fundraising – created an unusually
challenging environment for the production team. Nonetheless, the lack of a direct audience
question for Michael D. Higgins should have been identified and rectified during the live
transmission. Some questions more pertinent to Mr Higgins had been prepared for the
programme and could have been put to him.
A significant contributory factor to this omission was the lack of a senior editorial figure
whose sole responsibility on the night was to view the programme during transmission and
identify editorial and compliance issues as they arose.
The audience for the Presidential Election debate was selected partly through an open
application process for tickets, but in large part through direct approaches by the production
team. The Election Steering Group was aware of and approved this broad approach.
The two main sources of audience members were people who had contacted the Today with
Pat Kenny radio programme during one-to-one interviews with Presidential candidates, and
individuals who had previously appeared on The Frontline programmes.
Part of the rationale given for turning to these previous contributors was that it would limit the
potential for undeclared campaign activists to gain entry to the audience. It was also felt that
prior knowledge of audience members’ background and views would help the team ensure a
representative mix in the studio.
The review team concluded that directly approaching potential audience members was not
appropriate for an election programme. It left the production vulnerable to the perception that
opinions and questions were being sought out, rather than editorially sifted from those
applying to be in the audience of the programme.
The review looked at the audience selection process used in The Frontline General Election
Leaders’ Debate earlier in 2011. This used a market research company and a panel of
experts to select the audience and the questions.
The market research approach ensured that audience selection was systematic, but it had
its own drawbacks. Apart from expense, it also relied on direct approaches to members of
the public who may be demographically representative but have no real interest in taking
part in a debate.
The review team concluded that audience selection in future election programmes should be
founded on open applications from interested members of the public, with a transparent,
systematic and clearly recorded method of ensuring those selected are representative.
This model is compatible with those used by other broadcasters in devising audience
Finally, the review team noted that one of the questioners was a personal friend of a
member of the production team, and had been a member of a party that was running a
candidate in the election. We concluded that in this case his political background and
personal friendship had had no impact on the programme as broadcast, but recommended
that in future election programmes friends of the team should not be included as audience
members, and that questioners should not have connections to political parties or
The review team noted that formal training procedures were limited in the Current Affairs
department at that time, and that awareness of Programme-Makers Guidelines, and in
particular Social Media Guidelines, was low.
The review team recommended the following for future audience-based election
- A detailed breakdown of the programme format, covering audience and question selection,
should be presented to and approved by the Steering Group.
- The programme format should be founded on open applications to the programme from
members of the public.
- The format should specify how the audience members selected will represent a balance of
gender, region and viewpoints, and how campaign workers will be identified and treated.
- Third-party methods of sifting applications to achieve that balance should be considered
but are not mandatory, nor are they replacements for sound editorial judgement.
- Personal friends of the production team should not be selected as audience members for
- The range of questions selected must cover all representatives in the debate, but editorial
judgment can be used to ensure key issues in the election are properly addressed through
use of additional questions and presenter supplementaries.
- Potential questions should be submitted to the production team in writing. The team may
discuss amendments with the potential questioner to ensure clarity or legal safety, but the
final wording must be left to the questioner.
- Questions devised by contributors must not be given to other audience members to read.
- Questioners should not be connected to political parties or candidates’ campaigns in an
- 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
Staffing and Training
- One member of the production team should be dedicated to the production of the debate
in the weeks preceding it.
- Gaps in experience and training for existing staff in editorial, legal and compliance issues
should be identified and addressed. Training sessions should be regularly updated with
latest guidance and best practice.
- All new staff, including those on short term contracts, should receive induction training in
RTÉ policies and procedures.
Well worth the licence fee then..........but at least Michael D can smile in Aras.
Following on from the treatment of Fr Reynolds, (who was defamed by RTE a few months back), RTE seems destined to be on the syllabus of media training courses around the world as examples of how not to do things.