In March the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland upheld a complaint against the state broadcaster, RTE, regarding a Tweet read out on a current affairs programme. The problem was that the programme’s producers had not verified the provenance of the Tweet – which purported to come from political party Sinn Fein. But the bigger problem was that this Tweet was believed to have assisted in the downfall of then presidential candidate, Sean Gallagher.
The circumstances: a televised debate involving the five six candidates for Ireland’s presidency was held in October 2011. Sean Gallagher, a businessman and ‘dragon’ on the Irish version of Dragons’ Den, had healthy figures in the polls and was a likely winner. His rivals included the Sinn Fein politician, and deputy first minister in the North of Ireland, Martin McGuinness. During the programme, the host, Pat Kenny, said that a Tweet had been received from Martin McGuinness’s campaign office. This claimed Gallagher had received money from a Fianna Fail supporter some years previously ( a claim which brought up the recent spectre of political corruption, bribery, and ‘brown paper envelopes’). The Tweet, Kenny declared, also said a press conference giving full details would be held the next day.
Slight as it might seem, this was enough to seriously damage Gallagher, and in the event he polled poorly in the vote (which saw Labour Party candidate Michael D. Higgins elected).
Afterwards, Gallagher complained to the BAI about the use of the Tweet, citing unfairness and irresponsible journalism. He also complained of an interview Kenny did with him on radio the following day. Both contained unfair and partial material, it was claimed.
The BAI found in his favor.
This brings up the issues of sources, verification and the competition traditional (legacy, if you like) media faces from the immediate, informal social media channels such as Twitter. Pressure is immense on legacy media workers to adopt and master Twitter. In the ongoing alarm and dilemma over how to switch the legacy business model to viability in the digital environment, media bosses are insisting that Twitter and Facebook be used – but often without thinking hard about the limitations of these.
As Ireland’s communications minister said, commenting on the BAI ruling, the national broadcaster is supposed to be the ‘gold standard’ for journalistic practice. Hence the mistake was a serious error, as the leader for ethical and professional journalism had been caught out in rushing to broadcast without any serious attempt at checking the facts.
Fact-checking is a fundamental of all journalism. Where did this information come from, why was it released, and who might benefit?
Indeed, the Tweet looked like it came from a Sinn Fein source – but a child of 10 could tell you that fake Twitter accounts abound, and in Ireland there are plenty of well-known examples (such as the account attributed to Geraldine Kennedy, former editor of The Irish Times, and first woman to hold that position).
RTE’s defence, according to the BAI adjudication, rested largely on the ‘but it was true anyway’ (that Gallagher had received money on behalf of FF interests.) This sounds a bit like ‘the dog DID eat my homework’.
As of today, Tweets are still unregulated, constant, opaque – and often break news. News organisations – in fact anyone using Tweets as a source – have to decide which is more important to them: to be first; or to be right.