After the libel: How RTÉ investigations must change
OPINIONThere’s no indication that, before RTÉ defamed Fr Kevin Reynolds, anyone at the station was unhappy with how it conducted its investigative journalism. But the investigative unit’s targets and its methods need to change, writes former RTÉ journalist MIKE MILOTTE
AS THE DUST SETTLES at RTÉ after Anna Carragher’s damning report for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland on how Prime Time Investigates came to libel Fr Kevin Reynolds, senior management at the station now face the task of re-establishing a strong investigative strand of programming, as promised by the broadcaster’s director general, Noel Curran.
Those who wish them well in their endeavours will be thankful that Curran is still in the driving seat. As editor of Prime Time in the days when its investigative wing was launched, his commitment to probing journalism has never been in doubt.
This, however, is not a reason for complacency, for, despite its acknowledgment of serious mistakes in the Reynolds case, corporate RTÉ still appears to be somewhat in denial about what went wrong. Unless wider lessons are learned, the investigative strand that emerges from the ashes may well fall short of what the public has a right to expect.
The official line coming from RTÉ is that the Reynolds debacle was a one-off mistake and an exception to otherwise fine programming from the Prime Time Investigates stable. In this scenario, the failure is to be explained, by and large, in terms of editorial lapses and lax executive controls, and the solution is to be found in better training and more rigorously defined managerial procedures.
Indeed, this is the gist of the Carragher report as well.
The only vocal challenge to the corporate view has come from the resurgent Catholic right, which is keen to depict the Reynolds case as the result of a deep-seated anti-Catholic culture within RTÉ, a culture that, it says, RTÉ is trying to conceal with its claims that the flawed programme was unique. One doesn’t have to agree with the Catholic right to express the view that the Reynolds programme must be seen in a wider context. I would contend that the context is very different from the one it imagines, however.
In the foreword to her report, Carragher talks of the role of journalism in “holding government and institutions to account”, something Prime Time Investigates did in spades down the years. But in more recent times the programme appears to have become increasingly concerned with the peccadilloes of petty criminals and the misdeeds of the marginalised.
The reasons for this shift in focus, as well as its consequences, are issues RTÉ will need to address if worthwhile investigative journalism is to regain its pre-eminence.
One reason for the shift might certainly be guessed at.
Traditionally, current-affairs programming in Ireland has attracted exceptionally large audiences, but relatively few of the viewers have been in the 20-35 age group, the ones who apparently fork out most on advertised products. So, in an increasingly competitive commercial environment, it would appear that RTÉ’s current-affairs department was required to attract more, and younger, viewers to justify its prime slot on the schedule.
In the mid- to late 2000s, regular viewers of Prime Time proper might have noticed a significant increase in the number of crime-related stories featured in the programme. It’s not a subject commonly associated with analytical current affairs, but it’s certainly one that helps sell mass-circulation newspapers to a younger age group. This has current relevance because one specific crime story carried by Prime Time has recognisable echoes today.
The programme in question named and accused an individual, who had never been charged or convicted of any serious offence, of being a powerful gang leader, responsible for widespread mayhem and murder. Common currency perhaps for the red-top newspapers, where this style of reportage is usually based on an assumption that the accused won’t sue rather than on the existence of evidence that would stand up in court.
But the naming of an individual who had never been charged or convicted was a radical departure for Prime Time. It was also a high-risk strategy, setting a dangerous precedent that has obvious resonance in the Reynolds case, where an allegation that could not stand up in court was made against the priest. The accusations made against Fr Reynolds were, of course, completely baseless.
Hand in hand with these developments in Prime Time proper, viewers may have noticed a recasting of the Prime Time Investigates strand in a more populist guise, with greater elements of drama and tension, telling more stories that were less analytical but that yielded to a simple black-and-white treatment in which the “baddies” got their comeuppance in the end.
This, to my mind, is the context in which the programme’s growing reliance on doorstepping and secret filming – key issues in the Reynolds case – has to be understood.
Carragher criticised the use of both practices in the pursuit of Reynolds because they encroached unreasonably on his privacy – a criticism RTÉ fully accepted. Yet violating privacy is just one aspect of the problem, for secret filming and doorstepping had become so prevalent in the Prime Time Investigates programmes that they revealed a growing editorial preference for subjects that lent themselves to such populist techniques.
With subjects for investigation increasingly chosen because of the opportunities they presented for doorstepping and clandestine filming, in my view the audience was being short-changed and the art of journalism compromised while subjects that merited investigation, but didn’t lend themselves to these techniques, might have gone unexposed.
It used to be an essential part of the investigative journalist’s skill set to persuade reluctant subjects to face the camera and answer tough questions. I would rather watch the subject squirm in the interview chair than see them run for cover before the first question is asked, pursued by a journalist mouthing banalities such as, “Why are you running away?” If their flight, rather than their clearly observed failure to answer “killer” questions, is taken as the measure of their “guilt”, this amounts to a journalistic cop-out (disguised as pluckiness).
In the short term, audiences might have been drawn in by the promise of high drama as the doughty reporter confronted the bad guy, but if a new investigative unit persists with the overuse of these techniques, the result will be an unstoppable race to the bottom in which the viewers will be the greatest losers.
And there is an even more critical point. When doorstepping and surreptitious filming become the preferred ingredients for mass-appeal investigative programmes, the next logical step is to select people for investigation who, for whatever reason, would never agree to be interviewed and who, therefore, could “justifiably” be doorstepped and filmed secretly, because they wouldn’t submit to an interview. The whole process becomes little more than a self-fulfilling prophesy.
For Prime Time Investigates, the result was frequently riveting television, as in programmes on dodgy taxi drivers, social-welfare fraudsters, home helps who abuse their charges, sleazy pimps and so on. But should we not be concerned that so many of these “targets” were little more than small-time crooks, a concern underscored by the fact that a high percentage have also been black immigrants?
By comparison, the elite, who have so much to answer for in contemporary Ireland, do not lend themselves so easily to secret filming and doorstepping precisely because they are rich and powerful. Unlike those targeted by many recent Prime Time Investigates programmes, those who brought the country to its knees are well protected by lawyers and high walls. This is not to downplay superb exposés by Prime Time Investigates of bankers (Meet the Bankers) and developers (Carry on Regardless), but when it comes to holding individuals to account, smaller fry who are unable to evade unwanted journalistic attention clearly predominate.
All of which brings us back to the question of what the primary function of investigative current affairs should be. To satisfy corporate-commercial demands by gaining the largest possible audience through a process of simplification, dramatisation and even victimisation? Or to hold governments, institutions and powerful interests to account? These are not questions that have been posed by any of the investigations into the Reynolds fiasco. But are there any grounds to hope they will inform the relaunch of an investigative strand within RTÉ? The omens are not particularly good.
The commercial pressures that demanded more populist output are, if anything, stronger in these straitened times, and there is no indication that anyone in the upper echelons of the station was unhappy at the way things were going before the libelling of Reynolds. And if erring on the side of caution is to be the way of the future, as some fear, then it is unlikely that the focus will shift from those at the bottom of the pile to those with the biggest questions of all to answer.
But there is still time for reflection and, one might hope, for a shift of emphasis at a time when the need for hard-hitting analytical investigative journalism has never been greater.
Mike Milotte was Prime Time’s longest-serving journalist when he took early retirement from RTÉ, in 2009, after 17 years as a senior current-affairs presenter. He made several award-winning documentaries for Prime Time Investigates and before joining RTÉ was investigations editor at the Sunday Tribune