Report cites a groupthink atmosphere of unchallenged assumptions

Tue, Apr 10, 2012, 01:00

Anna Carragher found a failure in RTÉ to recognise the potential for a grave injustice

A REPORT commissioned by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland into the Prime Time Investigates programme that libelled Fr Kevin Reynolds has heavily criticised the standards of journalism involved in the broadcast.

The report by former BBC Northern Ireland controller Anna Carragher was submitted to RTÉ last week.

According to briefing documents prepared for the board of the Broadcasting Authority, Ms Carragher’s report found that RTÉ failed to comply with its statutory obligations under the Broadcasting Act relating to fairness and breach of privacy.

Overall, it concluded there was a significant failure of RTÉ’s editorial and managerial controls in advance of the broadcast. This in turn led to a failure to anticipate or recognise the potential for grave injustice against Fr Reynolds and the reputational damage which could be done to RTÉ’s journalism.

In its own submission to Ms Carragher’s report, RTÉ accepted that its broadcast was seriously defamatory and expressed its deep regret at what had happened.

Following consideration of the report, RTÉ documentation and other submissions, the Broadcasting Authority’s compliance committee found the station “seriously breached” its duties relating to fairness and breach of privacy. On foot of these breaches, the authority’s board is understood to consider that a fine against RTÉ of around €200,000 is appropriate. This is close to the maximum allowable under legislation.

While Ms Carragher’s report has yet to be published, briefing documents prepared for the authority’s board provide extensive references to its contents and findings.

LEGAL ISSUES

Given the high risks inherent in the programme, the report found it was surprising that RTÉ’s legal affairs department became involved very late in the process, less than two weeks before transmission. In her report, Ms Carragher believed earlier input would, at the very least, have given the team more time for reflection. It also states that it was highly undesirable that reporter Aoife Kavanagh was the sole point of contact between Fr Reynolds’s solicitors and RTÉ. An item of correspondence was not forwarded to RTÉ’s legal department by the production team on the day of transmission. If this had been done, the report notes, there may well have been a different outcome to the case, though it is impossible to say for sure.

RTÉ GUIDELINES

There was an assumption that members of staff working on the programme were familiar with the guidelines, but RTÉ had no way of verifying this was the case. In particular, the report notes that guidelines that applied to investigative programmes were scattered throughout the document. There was no evidence in the documentation supplied by RTÉ that the station’s editorial programme standards and guidelines had been referred to by the production team.

Despite the fact that the programme was Ms Kavanagh’s first Prime Time Investigates report, no training was provided about the particular issues surrounding the making of investigative journalism. While there appeared to be an assumption that an experienced reporter would be familiar with the guidelines, this was not supported by any objective evidence that staff had read or understood the actual guidelines.

The report also highlights Ms Kavanagh’s conduct of the interview with Fr Reynolds, which raised questions about compliance with the guidelines given that she made statements which assumed guilt on the part of the priest.

DOORSTEP INTERVIEW

The report focuses on two pieces of footage: the surreptitious filming of Fr Reynolds on two occasions at his parish church, and a doorstep interview carried out with him after the second instance of filming.

The report accepts the production and editorial staff believed that their actions were compliant with the guidelines on both surreptitious filming and doorstep interviews.

However, Ms Carragher’s report took the view that the guidelines in this very important area were ambiguous.

She believed the production team acted in good faith in deciding on a doorstep interview. However, the fact remained that they did not afford Fr Reynolds the opportunity to agree or not to agree to an interview. Indeed, it is arguable that had he refused or “disappeared” the viewer might have drawn some inference from that, according to BAI documents.

NOTE-TAKING

The report highlighted that meticulous and well-documented research should be at the heart of the production process. However, Ms Carragher found that the standards of the production team on the ground fell short of what should have been expected. Interviews with significant sources were not documented and there was an almost complete absence of documentary evidence.

At all stages of the production of the programme, note-taking was either nonexistent or grossly inadequate.

There was no written documentation about any aspect of the programme – including the allegation under investigation – until February 2011, apart from a single hand-written sheet containing names and dates dating from the research trip in January 2011. The report expresses considerable concern that apart from the emails, which all date from February 2011, there was no documentation of the conversations which took place during the trip in January 2011.

CHALLENGING VIEWS

Ms Carragher believed there was a lack of scrutiny and challenge within the department and an over-reliance on subjective issues, such as the demeanour of individuals and the team’s experience of making investigative programmes.

This, she believed, led the production team into a groupthink mentality where they were convinced that the facts verified their assumption. This, in turn, led them to interpret the offer made by Fr Reynolds to take a paternity test as not genuine and a tactic to derail the programme.

Ms Carragher said a spirit of review and challenge needed to be part of the culture of programme-makers – especially at executive producer and editor level.

CREDIBILITY OF SOURCES

The report raises concerns that the credibility of key sources was not sufficiently interrogated by the production team or by the editorial chain.

In addition, weight was given to repetition of some allegations by individuals who were not personally questioned by the team.

Given the serious nature of the allegation, Ms Carragher’s report states she would have expected the reporter in the case to have been more rigorous in her exploration of her source’s credibility, trustworthiness and motivation. The report highlights that Ms Kavanagh did not appear to have met or questioned the colleagues who, according to the primary source, were all aware of the allegation. Therefore it appeared that second-hand repetition of gossip was treated as corroboration. In these circumstances, the report says good journalistic practice would have been that a more detailed and objective examination of the claim and its provenance would have taken place.

The report also expresses concern that neither Ms Kavanagh’s producer nor her editor interrogated this aspect more closely.

REPORTER’S APPROACH

The report expresses unease about the tone of the emails between Ms Kavanagh and the source. The tone brooked no other view than that of Fr Reynolds’s culpability and made some sweeping assumptions about the behaviours of various orders with which Ms Kavanagh seemed to concur.

Ms Carragher’s report expresses considerable concerns that, despite the sensitivities of the interview, the reporter did not adequately probe the story of the woman who claimed she had been raped as a minor.

The report was unable to find any evidence in the documentation that either a Kenyan journalist – who was involved in the production – or the production team made any real effort to track down any documentary evidence of the claim about school fees being paid by Fr Reynolds. It may well have been the case that the child’s fees had been paid but no attempt seems to have been made to find receipts. Ms Carragher was surprised that more diligent efforts were not made to obtain any documentation or an “on the record” statement from the teacher.

This was considered to be critically important as it relied on a single witness in a situation which it is notoriously hard to prove as it, by necessity, relies on one person’s word against another’s. Concern was raised that the editor did not interrogate this more closely.