Groupthink that lurks in every corner of RTÉ

Fri, May 11, 2012, 01:00

THE DOWNSTREAM benefits of the Carragher report into the Prime Time Investigates libel of Fr Kevin Reynolds, I downheartedly predict, will be close to nil, because new procedures and protocols will not heal the culture that assaulted the cleric.

The reasons have to do with what Anna Carragher called “groupthink” – the formidable and singular form of thought that emanates from Montrose, defined by attitudes and prejudices arising from a particular social milieu, hardened into ideology and elevated to the level of fact.

Sometimes, this is shorthanded as a “liberal agenda”, but it is not liberal by any definition you care to name. Its main characteristic is not a coherent schema but the supercilious certainty that the Irish people are in need of constant re-education so as to become freed from superstition, traditionalism and other eccentric dispositions.

Contrary to the impression given by the resignation of Aoife Kavanagh, groupthink does not grow from the bottom. On the contrary, it arises from the action of a hierarchy, bearing down on the individual journalist – rarely by means of formal direction, more usually by nods, winks, nudges and occasional snorts of derision.

Many of those who become infected were not ideologically motivated to begin with, but simply wanted to succeed in their jobs and be admired by their colleagues. Groupthink is a kind of ideological sick building syndrome, infecting the rooms in which editorial decisions come to be made.

It is not that people in RTÉ get up every morning determined to impose self-evidently undemocratic, mistaken, arrogant or blinkered views on their audiences. Far more insidious is that what they present is, for them, an axiomatic view of reality. Groupthink is capable of recognising only one form of truth, and to regard other interpretations of reality as ipso facto mistaken or insane.

Although I was on the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland committees that appointed Carragher, I was pessimistic about her chances of nailing the culture that incubated such certainty in Kavanagh. But, actually, in a remarkably subtle report, she went well beyond her literal brief, enabling us to understand not just what happened, but precisely why.

The groupthink culture is skilfully exposed in one graphic passage from an email sent by Kavanagh to the source of her story: “it drives me crazy to think of him preaching, literally, in Galway while all of this mess is tucked away in Kenya”.

It would be disingenuous of any journalist to pretend the tone here does not reflect the way many stories are approached. The best journalism often happens when the journalist has a personal interest, even an agenda, which causes her or him relentlessly to pursue a story when a less “committed” journalist might give up.

The tone of Kavanagh’s email is not unusual, and in a sense its publication is somewhat unfair. But it is also instructive because it provides, in two lines, an encapsulation of RTÉ groupthink in respect of matters pertaining to religion in general and Catholicism in particular.

At the back of this mindset is a neurotic rage, arising from bad experiences of Irish Catholicism, and provoking a retaliatory reduction of religion to the imposition by powerful clerics of an arbitrary morality on pitiable dupes. Catholicism, from this perspective, is little more than an attack on freedom, and inevitably therefore a front for hypocrisy. This view nowadays infects almost all of RTÉ’s treatment of the subject, to the point where you would sometimes wonder whether there were any Catholics left in Ireland at all.

But there is no point in blaming Kavanagh, who was clearly so confident of being involved in an approved and virtuous crusade as to be oblivious to any possibility she might be wrong. She did not exist in a vacuum, and did not come to practise the brand of journalism to which she subjected Fr Reynolds without conforming to a culture that pre-existed her arrival. It is therefore ludicrous to regard her resignation as representing any part of a genuine and comprehending contrition by RTÉ. Indeed, if RTÉ was serious about dealing with its sick culture, her resignation would have been refused.

Equally pointless was the early retirement of the RTÉ director of news, Ed Mulhall. I know Ed – a fine man and superb editor, who possessed, in my estimation, an unequalled sense within RTÉ of the nuances of his country. I recall an essay he wrote 20 years ago about two of our greatest journalists, John Healy and Breandán Ó hEithir, a superb piece, almost equal to its subjects, in which Mulhall demonstrated his grasp of the drumbeat of Irish life. The most alarming thing about the Reynolds saga is that someone of Mulhall’s calibre could have missed seeing what was happening.

But, while allowing Kavanagh and Mulhall to leave RTÉ may satisfy our latter-day lust for resignations and retirements, their departures do nothing to make RTÉ better. On the contrary, these ritualistic sacrifices amount to a distraction.

My own proposal for a serious initiative would have been to place Mulhall – his natural disposition reawakened by this recent disaster on his watch – in charge of rooting out the groupthink that lurks in every corner of RTÉ.

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