Failure of editorial controls allowed programme to freewheel to disaster

Tue, Apr 10, 2012, 01:00

Report is unequivocal in finding significant editorial and managerial lapses and oversights

IT IS clear, from the findings of an independent investigation into the Prime Time Investigates: Mission to Prey programme, where direct responsibility for that debacle lay. The fault was with management or, rather, the lack of it. The programme was allowed to freewheel to disaster with little or no management “interference”.

Former BBC Northern Ireland executive Anna Carragher investigated the programme for the Broadcast Authority of Ireland’s compliance committee. Her findings, as outlined in a briefing document presented to the BAI board, were unequivocal. “There was a significant failure of editorial and managerial controls within the organisation,” the document states, paraphrasing from Ms Carragher’s report.

Repeatedly, she makes comments along such lines as “concern was raised that the editor did not interrogate this more closely” or that neither the reporter’s “producer nor her editor interrogated this aspect more closely”. There was also the assumption “that members of staff working on the programme were familiar with the guidelines but RTÉ had no way of verifying that this was the case”.

It gets worse. It was the first Prime Time Investigates that reporter Aoife Kavanagh had worked on, yet “no training was provided about the particular issues surrounding the making of investigative journalism; there appeared to be an assumption that an experienced reporter would be familiar with the guidelines but this was not supported by any objective evidence that staff had read and understood the guidelines”.

Even those guidelines Ms Carragher found inadequate. When it came to secret filming and doorstep interviews, for instance, she said that in “this very important area” the guidelines were “ambiguous and capable of varying interpretation”. It meant, she believed, “the means employed to make the programmes, including secret filming and a doorstep interview, unreasonably encroached upon Father Reynolds’s privacy”.

Then there was the legal end of things. Given “the high risks inherent in the programme”, she commented that it was very surprising that the legal affairs department [at RTÉ] became involved very late in the process, less than two weeks before transmission. She believed earlier input would, at the very least, have given the team “more time for reflection and consideration”.

In this latter context her report “highlights that it was highly undesirable that the reporter was the sole point of contact between Father Reynolds’s solicitors and RTÉ. A piece of correspondence was not forwarded to the legal department by the production team on the day of transmission; while it is impossible to say definitively that if it had been there might have been a different outcome, it may be that this would have been the case”.

She also found that “standards of the production team on the ground . . . fell short of what should be expected with interviews with significant sources not documented and an almost complete absence of documentary evidence”. Again there was “a lack of scrutiny and challenge within the department and an over-reliance on subjective issues – for example, the demeanour of individuals . . .”

She believed a “groupthink” mentality on the part of the programme team convinced them “that the ‘facts’ verified their assumption and which led them to interpret the offer made by Father Reynolds to take a paternity test as not genuine and a tactic to derail the programme”.

Sources for the programme were “not sufficiently interrogated by the production team or by the editorial chain”, she concluded and, “given the seriousness of the allegation, good journalistic practice would have been that a more detailed and objective examination of the claim and its provenance would have taken place”.

She was concerned that neither the programme producer nor its editor “interrogated this aspect more closely”.

There are even indications that an announcement by RTÉ last week that it was setting up an editorial board to evaluate programmes similar to the Prime Time Investigates: Mission to Prey, at least seven days in advance of being broadcast, would not find favour with Ms Carragher.

Despite her highly critical findings, she did not think the Mission to Prey fallout “necessitates the creation of a post specifically to challenge programme makers, more that the spirit of review and challenge needs to be part of the culture of programme makers (particularly at executive producer and editor level)”.

Where Mission to Prey was concerned, Ms Carragher concluded that “there was a significant failure of editorial and managerial controls within the organisation which failed to anticipate, monitor or control the possibility of such a breach occurring, which failed to recognise the grave injustice which could be done to Father Reynolds and the reputational damage which could be done to RTÉ’s journalism”.