First steps to rebuilding trust being taken by RTÉ
SENIOR CRIMINAL investigators say the greatest danger to any inquiry is detectives falling into the trap of making assumptions at the outset about what happened and “who dunnit”.
They describe the function of senior investigators and supervisors as being to repeatedly challenge those on the ground, force them to consider alternative scenarios, second guess presumptions and have them check and double check their information.
Above all else the function of oversight is to ensure those on the front line are not merely finding and focusing on facts which they interpret as supporting their initial view.
For the national broadcaster to brand a citizen a rapist in a television programme broadcast into a million homes is dramatic. To think they could do this and be inaccurate in that allegation is disturbing. To have it later revealed that the basis for their assertion was thin and their investigation seriously flawed is terrifying.
Fr Kevin Reynolds was branded a rapist by RTÉ a year ago on its leading current affairs programme, then enjoying an unquestioned reputation for veracity. It even staged a dramatic reconstruction of the alleged encounter between Fr Reynolds and his alleged victim.
For five months he was seen as a rapist by anyone who watched that programme. It was not until several weeks after he initiated legal proceedings, thereby compelling RTÉ to facilitate the paternity test he had offered to take before the broadcast, that RTÉ accepted publicly that its allegation was untrue.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s (BAI) investigator’s report has now revealed that the Fr Reynolds story was broadcast without any vigorous examination of the source’s credibility.
The BAI report expresses unease at the tone of emails between the source and the reporter, saying it “brooks no other view than that of Fr Reynolds’s culpability” and “makes sweeping assumptions about the behaviour of certain orders with which the reporter concurred”.
All of this, the report suggests, raises serious concerns about the objectivity with which the reporter approached the programme and assembled the evidence.
The report also points out that the interview with the alleged victim assumed the truth of the allegation: the first question was to the effect, “How did it happen that you were pregnant with Fr Reynolds’s child?”
The report expresses particular concern that neither the producer nor editor interrogated the reporter’s assumptions.
Among the report’s most important revelations is that, contrary to some media reports, the key decision to proceed with the broadcast was not made on the hoof. A formal, although undocumented, meeting took place the previous Friday, including the producer and reporter of the programme, the executive producer of Prime Time Investigates, the editor of RTÉ current affairs and the director of RTÉ news, together with legal department representatives.
There was unanimous agreement to proceed among production and editorial staff despite awareness of Fr Reynolds’s willingness to do a paternity test. They were convinced their story was accurate, and made a series of “highly subjective assumptions, which served to reinforce their certainty”.
They were, for example, convinced that Fr Reynolds and the alleged victim’s daughter bore a striking resemblance to each other. They even convinced themselves that Fr Reynolds’s demeanour when door-stepped in Galway after a Holy Communion service made him look guilty. The BAI investigator concludes that at this meeting the programme team and their senior managers “got into a position of ‘groupthink’ where all evidence was interpreted as pointing only in one direction. There was a distinctive lack of challenge.”
It would be naive to assume that this damning revelation of dangerous groupthink at the heart of RTÉ current affairs on the Fr Reynolds story was confined only to this Fr Reynolds story.
For years, even within RTÉ, there were private complaints about the manner in which Prime Time Investigates operated. In part this flowed from resentment on the part of other programme makers at the resources and profile given to the investigative stream. However, it was as often a reaction to swagger from many of those working on Prime Time Investigates.
Some have commented on how a dangerous hubris can sometimes arise from success of the type enjoyed by Prime Time Investigates. Arrogance is a more appropriate word for the air of many in Prime Time Investigates. They could do no wrong. They were winning awards. They and their achievements were lauded extensively not just in other RTÉ news, current affairs and radio talk shows but even in other media outlets.
That internal silent criticism found a quiet echo outside RTÉ from those who found themselves regularly crossing paths with Prime Time Investigates reporters. There was a sense that Prime Time Investigates approached programme research with a thesis and was only interested in information supporting that thesis. It was not investigation at all in the true sense. They simply sought confirmation of their own presumptions or prejudices.
An aggressive “gotcha” culture has developed in much of the Irish media, including parts of RTÉ. Once they targeted a person, group or institution as the subject of a programme, they were going to find the evidence to suggest wrongdoing.
If the arrogance from the programme makers was in some ways inevitable given the success of the genre, the failure to contain or challenge it was symptomatic of a wider organisational malaise. RTÉ could do no wrong and any errors made were only minor ones. Even when forced to admit the massive error that was the libel of Fr Reynolds, their initial response was self-serving.
The extent of the malaise was all too evident in the days immediately after the settlement of the libel case when senior RTÉ managers sat silent and spokespeople suggested RTÉ itself could investigate the matter. Thankfully that attitude changed.
There has now been a real investigation which has delivered substantial personal and organisational accountability. It is the first step to rebuilding trust.