Third own goal for RTÉ 'would be a . . . disaster'
There was “a strong sense of disappointment amongst a lot of programme makers” in RTÉ at what were “two largely self-inflicted own goals, two instances where our reputation was damaged”, said Peter Feeney, its head of broadcast compliance. He was referring to the Prime Time Investigates programme of May 2011, which libelled Fr Kevin Reynolds, and The Frontline presidential candidates’ debate of October 2011.
“Within a year we made two significant errors both of which damaged our reputation and damaged the public trust in us,” he said. “If we don’t have a good reputation we have nothing, because public trust in all journalism, but in public service broadcasting in particular, is so central.”
He acknowledged that there may have been arrogance involved. “I think you’d have to say that part of the reason the Prime Time Investigates and Frontline mistakes happened is that programme makers had become somewhat cocky. And cockiness and arrogance often go hand in hand.”
Mr Feeney, who retires this month, said, “I know the people involved and they are good, working, jobbing journalists and they are committed etc, but some of the practices they fell into would be – if you were in a journalism school – would be regarded as quite weak.”
It had led to “a sense of disappointment certainly and therefore it affected morale”.
The organisation has learned from its experiences, however. “We have learned lessons. We’ve put in place quite a lot of measures to try to address what we ourselves accepted were errors. What I’m hoping is now we’re over those two faults. We’ve learned from them and RTÉ is actually a better organisation” and “will be a better organisation in the coming years”.
He acknowledged that there was now a certain caution at RTÉ. “Of course there is because people have said, within RTÉ, a third own goal would be a complete disaster and, therefore, we are more cautious than we were before.
“Being cautious may mean going back to basic journalism like checking your facts, seeking corroborative evidence, seeking second witnesses, etc, checking everything, asking what people’s motives are in telling you things.So some of the caution is absolutely necessary and perhaps, if I’m being critical of some of my colleagues, one of the failures was that we were getting slipshod about our basic journalism.”
The many inquiries into the Prime Time Investigates and Frontline candidates’ debate programmes underlined the fact that the “era of self-regulation is over,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether it is for doctors, or lawyers or journalists. Self-regulation doesn’t work anymore. The idea of a good, strong regulator is highly to be approved of.”
The problem is “that there is such a level of regulation that what it can lead to is engaging in a sort of exercise of box ticking rather than real examination of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it”. It can also make “a high demand on resources”.
The Frontline debate was, in his opinion, “pivotal in that presidential election and undoubtedly Seán Gallagher’s vote, from the opinion polls to the actual vote, went down by about 50 per cent”.
While arguing that the Frontline “was central”, he said it was Mr Gallagher’s performance that did the damage. “What happened there was a tweet, which came from a false provenance, [but] contained essentially accurate information and it was Seán Gallagher’s weakness in dealing with what was essentially accurate information,” that led to his fall in the popularity.
In his 37 years at RTÉ, Mr Feeney produced such shows as 7 Days, The Age of DeValera, The Late Late Show, Questions and Answers, and was editor of current affairs from 1990 to 1997. “If you look back at the Ireland of the ’70s and ’80s . . . the fourth estate wasn’t terribly successful in investigating – and I would accept criticism of that myself as well as for everybody else. . .we weren’t very good at investigating developers, politicians involved in deals which were shoddy to say the least”.
In 2000 he became RTÉ’s first freedom of information officer and has dealt with requests and complaints since. He has also had responsibility for RTÉ’s election and referenda steering groups. On retirement he intends to do consultancy work.