Savage gets off to a bad start but role of RTÉ director general also criticised
ANALYSIS:IF NOTHING else, Tom Savage needs a new scriptwriter. He arrived at yesterday’s meeting of the Oireachtas communications committee needing to make up for lost ground after the pummelling he took at last week’s session.
However, he got off to a bad start with an opening that looked like – but turned out not to be – smart-aleckery.
Referring to a previous question about whether there were other victims of the Mission to Prey programme than Fr Kevin Reynolds, he said there were. The committee members held their breath, expecting him to refer to other clerics named in the programme and who are disputing the allegations made about them.
Instead, Savage identified the other “victims” who had suffered collateral damage as the 1,800 staff in RTÉ who were not connected with the programme but who had seen their reputations suffer grievously.
He might have had a point – and, it was later clarified, he was in fact responding to a question about RTÉ staff – but the crass equation of Fr Reynolds’ suffering with that of RTÉ staff went down like a lead balloon with the politicians queuing up to take potshots at an easy target.
It was a strange misjudgement to make, all the more so since Savage’s day job is as founder of PR company the Communications Clinic.
From then on, it was downhill all the way with TDs and Senators from all sides attacking his and RTÉ’s performance since the programme was broadcast in May 2011.
There were also personal attacks alleging a conflict of interest between his post as chairman and his and that of his wife Terry Prone’s roles as political coaches.
In a way, though, it was indicative of the disjointed, unfocused approach taken by Savage in dealing with the PR calamity that has befallen RTÉ since Fr Reynolds took his successful libel case last autumn.
The broadcaster first said it wouldn’t be commenting on the affair while official inquiries were under way but then Savage gave a newspaper interview in which he appeared to blame head of news and current affairs Ed Mulhall for the mistake which led to the programme being broadcast.
Savage swore a hole in a pot yesterday that he hadn’t blamed Mulhall, saying he was only stating the facts, but committee members weren’t convinced.
At times, Savage doesn’t seem to be in command of the full facts of the situation, as when he told journalists earlier this month that Mulhall had resigned (he retired).
The RTÉ chairman has also been quick to point out that the board received assurances from the Prime Time Investigates team, a year before the programme about Fr Reynolds went on air, that policies on secret filming and doorstepping were being adhered to.
The implication is that he and the rest of the board were misled. However, the report by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland into the affair says the guidelines under which journalists operated were ambiguous, so the matter isn’t quite as clear-cut as presented.
The pressure on Savage yesterday diminished only when it emerged that director general Noel Curran didn’t inform him and the rest of the board about the Reynolds case until four months after it had happened.
The programme was broadcast in May 2011 and Savage and the board learned of the legal issues only in September.
Curran, who sits on the board, could have passed on the information at the July meeting but didn’t because arrangements were still in train for the paternity test which, the programme-makers were convinced, would prove that Fr Reynolds had fathered a child.
In fact, the test result was negative.
This revelation led some of the politicians to refocus their anger on Curran, but it also raises questions about Savage’s level of engagement with the job of chairman.
Whatever about full board discussions about legal cases – up to 50 exist at any one time, the committee heard – one would imagine the chairman would keep himself briefed not only on current firefighting but also on issues on the horizon.
The one consolation RTÉ can take from current events is that Pat Rabbitte seems determined not to join the witch-hunt against the station. The Minister for Communications will seek further changes if there is sufficient public and political demand but on yesterday’s evidence this controversy may have peaked.