Seán Gallagher has called for an enquiry into the Frontline debate. He made this statement outside the offices of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Apart from the allegations in the Sunday Independent which prompted this statement, it is worth documenting what the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland actually established in relation to the debate.
Seán Gallagher feels like he has been vindicated by the ruling, however the substance of the allegation that damaged him was discredited the following day. His complaint to the Broadcasting Authority contended that telling him the Tweet came from an official source was unfair, and this was upheld in the judgment.
During the Frontline debate, Martin McGuinness introduces the accusation during the debate that Gallagher had accepted a cheque, which Gallagher denies. The conversation then continues:
“[Gallagher] says it’s not true…he’s begging…he’s begging for someone to come forward and say that it was true and I would caution you Seán at this stage that you’re in very murky waters because one thing is for absolutely certain: if I’m elected for President of Ireland, I will stand against cronyism, I will stand against greed and selfishness and I will stand against the brown envelope culture which effectively destroyed our economy.”
“I have never been involved in that culture, let me explain to you, and let me ask Martin: perhaps he might identify the name and background of the individual he’s referring to.”
The inclusion of the phrase “and background” is important later, because it indicates that Gallagher already knows who McGuinness is referring to although this may well not have been obvious to most viewers at the time.
Later in the debate, Pat Kenny introduces the tweet in this exchange with Gallagher:
A development, which I want to put to Seán Gallagher: on the Martin McGuinness for President Twitter account, Sinn Féin are saying they are going to produce the man who gave you the cheque for five grand. Now, do you want to change what you said or are you still staying that it just simply didn’t happen? Are they up to dirty tricks or what?
Well, you know, I’ve always tried to stay above any negative campaigning and I understand from a query during the week in one of the newspapers…and when my campaign team sent back information on the said character…I don’t want to cast any aspersions on him but…
So you know who it is?
…he’s a convicted criminal, a fuel smuggler, investigated by the Criminal Assets Bureau and rented the office out to Gerry Adams, Martin’s colleague, in the last general election…
Gallagher continues, now drawing derision from some parts of the audience:
I don’t want to get involved in this, I don’t believe…
[inaudible] you can put to rest now: did you get a cheque from this guy or not?
Well I have no recollection of getting a cheque from this guy. (drawing more derision from parts of the audience, which now continues for virtually every exchange)…I can tell you…I can tell you…let me explain this very simply…
The man said you went to his house, Seán.
I explained that there were two or three people that I asked, invited, I don’t know the man very well that’s in question…
Kenny cuts in:
No but hang on a second: you’re saying that you went around to a fuel smuggler (and all sorts of things) and invited him to a Fianna Fáil do?
I’m saying quite simply, Pat, I was asked…
You’ve labelled him one thing and you asked him so which is it? Or are you happy with both?
I’m not aware…or I wasn’t aware at the time, three years ago, I’m just making the point that I was asked to pass the information on to local business communities, which I did. I just want to say one thing: this should not be what the presidential election should be about (this draws some applause from the audience.)
Kenny brings McGuinness back into the conversation but gives him an open invitation to comment, rather than test the allegation made on what Kenny presumably thought came from his account. This is where Gallagher made the remark:
If he gave me an envelope…if he gave me the cheque, it was made out to Fianna Fáil headquarters.
McGuinness ended the exchange:
Well that’s a clear admission of what I said earlier.
The following day, Morgan issued a press release establishing his side of the allegation. Gallagher had since categorically denied the allegation, stating that Fianna Fáil’s records showed that the money was already lodged before his visit to Morgan to deliver a photograph.
The story about the impact on the campaign is well described elsewhere and is not worth restating here.
The complaint Gallagher made to the Broadcasting Authority is as follows:
The Complainant argues that the broadcast, during the Frontline Presidential Programme, of a tweet from a Twitter account erroneously described by the programme presenter as that of the official Martin McGuinness for President Campaign was unfair to the Complainant and was indicative of a lack of objectivity and of partiality towards the candidate on the part of the presenter of the programme. The complainant argues that his programme coupled with subsequent interview with Mr Seán Gallagher during the Today with Pat Kenny programme on RTÉ Radio One were accordingly in breach of Section 39(1)(b) of the Broadcasting Act 2009 (Fairness, Objectivity and Impartiality).
The Broadcasting Authority argument was that the character and policies of the candidates was at issue given that this was a debate involving candidates for the office of President of Ireland and that this was a reasonable focus for determining the fairness or otherwise of RTÉ’s actions. This meant that Gallagher’s Fianna Fáil past was a legitimate topic for the debate and they commented at the topic had already been the subject of press interest. They also essentially stated that the candidates could expect robust questioning and that it was reasonable for them to prepare accordingly.
The basis for upholding the complaint was as follows:
- Verification of information is important for broadcasters, particularly so close to polling day.
- Although Gallagher was given a chance to respond, the BAI determined that this didn’t excuse RTÉ from the need to verify the tweet. They also pointed out that Martin McGuinness was never asked to comment on it and that enough information was available during the course of the broadcast for them to do the required verification.
- The accuracy of the content of the tweet did not constitute a valid reason not to verify its source.
- The radio show the following morning made the situation worse since the veracity of the source had still not been checked, even though the “provenance of the tweet was already under question.”
It is important here to note that the tweet predicted that the person involved would go public the next day and that it was happened. It seems self-evident that injecting false information into a debate is unfair, however it is important to note that the Broadcasting Authority support the view that the content of the tweet was accurate and in no way comment on the veracity or otherwise of the allegation made by Martin McGuinness.