Mission to Prey report criticised
The key error in RTÉ's decision to broadcast the Mission to Prey programme, which defamed Fr Kevin Reynolds, was "not fundamentally bad journalism, but a case of hubris...misguided arrogance and over confidence", a former director and producer with the broadcaster has said.
Speaking at the MacGill summer school in Glenties, Michael Heney, who worked as a journalist for 43 years, said the report commissioned by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland on the "debacle" was "a poor document".
It had also been "terribly poorly reported in the media".
RTÉ was fined €200,000 following the BAI report published in May, which found that the Mission to Prey programme was unfair and a breach of Fr Kevin Reynolds’s privacy.
Former BBC Northern Ireland controller Anna Carragher also carried out an independent report into the programme. The broadcast had falsely claimed that Fr Reynolds sexually abused a young girl and fathered her child while a missionary in Kenya.
Mr Heney said the Carragher report was "really a non-report" in that the key element to be decided - whether RTÉ was in breach of the Broadcasting Act in two respects - had already been decided and conceded by RTÉ before work began on it.
It had "failed to give a fully accurate, or indeed, fully coherent view of how this disaster unfolded", he claimed.
"This is a serious matter. If I am further right that it misjudged the journalism and criticised it unfairly, then we have another difficulty, as we look forward."
Mr Heney said that if there "was not a danger of compounding the damage done to Fr Reynolds" he would try to explain the issue further.
"The programme was a disaster, Fr Reynolds was treated abominably, but it is not such a mystery how it got on air."
He said the aftermath of the affair found RTÉ at a watershed. "Today it is searching for the correct way to get over this car crash of an event. Knowing exactly what just happened, and why it happened, is basic to formulating the next step. I do not believe Ms Carragher and BAI Compliance Committee have helped greatly."
Mr Heney noted a committee chaired by Maurice Hayes was currently investigating two of the programme makers.
"Effectively the inquiry against them is to determine whether there has been gross incompetence," he said. "There has been loose, uninformed talk of dismissals. I do not believe there are grounds for any dismissal, nor do I expect there will be such."
The former broadcaster said there was a contradiction in RTÉ director general Noel Curran's statement that he was committed to strong investigative programming and that a situation such as had occurred with Mission to Prey could not be allowed to happen again.
He said risk was inherent in investigative programming. "There is only one way to ensure things can't go seriously wrong, and that’s not to do it at all.
"Do these programmes, and you are at risk. You are especially at risk if you take on a powerful person or group, anyone with a professional reputation."
The session was moderated by Miriam O'Callaghan, a presenter of Prime Time. Mr Heney said that whatever happened, it was "essential" Ms O'Callaghan continue in her "peerless" role at the centre of RTÉ's current affairs output.
Referring to journalists and media as "hucksters" selling their products, Mr Heney said those who denied that "ratings chasing" had not impacted on Prime Time were not seeing clearly. He did not connect this with the Mission to Prey "shambles", which was "a serious, well-intentioned, but utterly mishandled affair".
But ratings had "certainly influenced what Prime Time has been choosing to do, and how it has done it".