Crown row raises questions of newspapers' editorial policy


The debate on health issues got even crazier this week. The coverage of the controversy about the dropping of oncologist Prof John Crown from last weekend's Late Late Show was particularly absurd. Seldom has so much nonsense been written about a non-story.

This tall tale began its life last Saturday morning on the front page of the Star newspaper which suggested that Crown had been dropped from the programme after director general of RTÉ Cathal Goan had received a call from or on behalf of Minister for Health Mary Harney.

Fine Gael health spokesman James O'Reilly then issued a hasty statement raising concerns about Government interference in RTÉ while Crown was busy fanning the controversy for various media organisations.

By lunchtime Crown and O'Reilly were on RTÉ's Saturday View. Crown said that the presenter and producer of the Late Late Show had told him that the instruction to drop him had come from "high up" in the organisation. Crown added that "multiple sources" had told him that the decision had been made at director general level.

The presenter of Saturday View, Rodney Rice, told listeners that before coming on air, he had telephoned Goan to check the story and had been told that he, Goan, had absolutely no involvement in the decision to drop Crown. Junior Health Minister Máire Hoctor also confirmed on the programme that no such phone call to Goan had been made by Harney or her office. O'Reilly and Crown, however, ploughed ahead and stoked up further suspicions of high level political interference in programming.

The story developed a life of its own the next day when it featured in headlines in almost all of the main Sunday newspapers.

Even though the suggestion that Harney had leaned on Goan had been denied on national radio by RTÉ and the Department of Health at lunchtime on Saturday, these newspapers hit the streets Saturday night or Sunday morning leading with Crown's claim.

Quotes from Crown suggesting that he was the victim of a McCarthyite campaign were featured on the front page of three newspapers. One was so sure of the accuracy of what subsequently proved to be an inaccurate story that it stated the accusation as fact in its main headline.

Another newspaper put large photographs of Crown and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern head to head on its front page under the headline "The cancer conspiracy". These were accompanied by two quotes from Crown in the form of questions suggesting that he had been dropped from the Late Late Show because of Government concerns and that Ahern was engaged in a trawl through his personal, financial and tax affairs.

If these claims were true they would have warranted the full front-page treatment but it quickly emerged that both were false. There was no conspiracy.

When answering Dáil questions a few days earlier Ahern had made intemperate and personal remarks about Crown's earnings and those of cardiac surgeon Maurice Neligan. Later in the same angry exchange Ahern went on to say something to the effect that he was not using all of the material he had in his briefing note. Crown assumed this later remark referred to material about himself.

Now, having already created a storm about censorship, he suggested that the Government must be keeping some Kremlin-like dossier on his financial affairs. Instead of establishing whether Crown's suspicions were true, the newspapers rushed to print, presumably feeling that putting a question mark after the suggestions absolved them of the obligation to establish the veracity of the professor's claims.

It turns out that the unused material to which Ahern was referring had nothing to do with Crown but instead concerned the Portlaoise hospital controversy.

Last Monday, RTÉ's director of television Noel Curran confirmed that it was he who had told the Late Late Show producers to change their proposed panel - not in response to any political pressure but because the panel as proposed would have been unbalanced (a conclusion obvious to anyone who knew the previously published views of Eamon Dunphy, Mary Rafferty, John Crown and Geoffrey Robinson).

Curran said that he had not suggested which of the panellists should be changed and it was the Late Late Show team who replaced Crown with another oncologist.

It did emerge that during contact with the Late Late Show about the possibility of Harney participating in the programme, her press officer had also observed that the line-up looked unbalanced but that is a very far cry from the suggestion that she had put direct pressure on the director general of RTÉ.

It is ironic that all of the above occurred the weekend after a number of newspapers were forced to pay substantial libel damages to Julia Kushnir, the translator who was travelling in the car with Liam Lawlor when he was killed in an accident in Moscow in October 2005.

The suggestion that Lawlor was in the company of a prostitute at the time of his death was untrue but it still made its way unchecked on to the front pages of several Irish newspapers.

The damage caused by last weekend's false story is not on the same scale as that done to Kushnir and to the Lawlor family. Nonetheless, a perception was created that RTÉ had bowed to Government pressure and that is damaging to the broadcaster.

The coverage of this controversy raises concerns not about RTÉ's editorial process but about editorial decision-making in some newspapers - especially on Saturday afternoon when the deadline for Sunday's paper is drawing near.