Broadcasters need to rethink how they are run
There are significant contrasts between what has happened at the BBC in the wake of the Savile and Newsnight disasters and RTÉ’s handling of its own recent difficulties. There are also some interesting common points in what has emerged and from which lessons might be drawn – if the political will exists.
The defamation of Tory party grandee Lord McAlpine and the misrepresentation of aspects of Seán Gallagher’s fundraising for Fianna Fáil both came about through the ingestion of web-based rumour into mainstream news media.
It is difficult to believe there are still media practitioners who do not appreciate or care that this mixture is unstable and potentially combustible.
The BBC’s director general, George Entwistle, resigned, acknowledging failure in his role as “editor in chief”. He simply did not know what was happening at Newsnight when he should have.
In similar circumstances at RTÉ, director general Noel Curran stayed on.
Under the Broadcasting Act, he too is “editor in chief”. The Carragher report makes it clear that he did not know what was going on at Primetime Investigates when the programme defamed Fr Kevin Reynolds.
The contrast appears to confirm the adage that while the British are given to resigning when something goes wrong on their watch, the Irish do not. But Curran did offer to resign.
In refusing to accept his offer, the RTÉ board no doubt took into account that Curran had established a track record as a businesslike director general, whereas people at the BBC had already begun to question the suitability of Entwistle, just a few weeks in the job. He was already knee-deep and sinking in the Savile crisis.
With the ever-expanding influence of web-based news sources and with the increasing economic pressure on traditional media, it is certain that cases like these are going to occur with more frequency.
Broadcasting and print media have to seek to retain their traditional authority and reliability. But they cannot be oblivious to the reality that in the parallel cyber world, information – some correct and much of it incorrect – is being churned out in unimaginable volumes. The two worlds must, of necessity, interact.
When they do, the web-based media face little or no risk. The stakes are set up against the broadcaster or the newspaper. There is some irony in the fact that it is the established and accountable BBC that now pays the penalty for defaming Lord McAlpine and not the anonymous tweeters and bloggers who misidentified him in the first place.
Entwistle hardly made an effort to defend himself in his resignation statement. But he did make the point that the director general cannot be expected to be familiar with the entire news output of the BBC. Curran has not said anything similar in public. But it would be surprising if he were not to entertain similar sentiments in private.
It is time for broadcasting organisations like the BBC and RTÉ – and the political establishment that ultimately controls them – to rethink their fundamental structures, notwithstanding the important changes already made by RTÉ in response to the Fr Reynolds debacle. In particular, the combining of the role of director general with that of editor in chief ought to be examined.
The concept of having a single, identifiable and accountable individual at the top of an organisation became the norm in the 19th and 20th centuries as society became more complex and as the numbers and variety of its institutions expanded.
It was an appropriate model for national broadcasters at a time when they effectively held a market monopoly, when there were one or two broadcast channels, when the business model was simple and when technical innovation was slow. It is questionable, however, if any one person can reasonably be expected to run the business of a modern national broadcaster, fight off the endless competition, keep pace with technical development, balance the books and at the same time – as editor in chief – be up to speed with everything going on in the newsroom.
It could be argued that the traditional structure that operates in newspapers is more suitable for news media organisations. There is an editor who is responsible solely for content and a manager for running the business. Each carries end responsibility to the board or the proprietor.
There must be the closest co-operation between them. But the structure is clear. There is full accountability.
It is a model that governments should consider when looking to the future of national broadcasters.
To pretend that the job of editor in chief is being done – when in practice this it not necessarily so – is a recipe for disaster.
Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Times from 1986 to 2002