RTÉ affair may tame media arrogance and aggression

 

AFTER AN initially lethargic and evasive response to the Fr Kevin Reynolds’s libel action, RTÉ moved rapidly and dramatically this week to catch up with the crisis in public confidence, writes NOEL WHELAN

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte and his Cabinet colleagues are to be complimented for their swift action on Tuesday in deciding to have the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland conduct an investigation “to determine the true facts and circumstances” that led to the broadcast of the libellous Prime Timeprogramme.

In doing so the Government did RTÉ a favour. The national broadcaster was about to dig itself deeper into a hole. Right up until the Government announced the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland inquiry, RTÉ continued to claim that the issues arising from the libel of Fr Reynolds could be addressed in a report generated internally and published at a pace of RTÉ’s choosing.

RTÉ was forced to abandon its defensive and delaying strategy on Tuesday and its approach changed completely. A series of dramatic steps in the following 24 hours has gone some way to redress the previous week’s errors.

For the first five days after the libel settlement RTÉ’s senior management refused to appear even on its own news programmes. On Tuesday evening the director general of RTÉ finally took the short but significant stroll to the studio to face questions about his and his organisation’s handling of the crisis.

On air Bryan Dobson subjected him to the type of rigorous cross-examination to which he should have consented four days earlier. Noel Curran announced the deferral of December’s Prime Time Investigatesseries pending an examination of the programme’s editorial procedures.

On Wednesday, the RTÉ Authority convened a special meeting and, belatedly, began to do its job. It issued a strong statement representing the first real sign that RTÉ appreciated the reasons for public concern. It was announced that the four key people involved in making and in editorial oversight of the programme had decided to step aside from their roles until the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland inquiry was completed.

The Government announcement of the broadcasting authority inquiry also had the effect of parking what would probably have been a contentious and cantankerous trawl through the events by a committee of politicians. In the new year when the broadcasting authority report is published, the political system will be perfectly entitled to debate its findings and assess its adequacy.

However, for all the reasons rehearsed during the recent referendum on Oireachtas inquiries it is best that the first detailed independent look at this matter is done by a non-political body.

It would be unfair to come to any fixed view on the respective responsibilities of the people involved in the making and oversight of the programme until the full details arising from these investigations are published. Irrespective of the outcomes, however, it is to be hoped that RTÉ and the media generally will learn some lessons from these events.

The first is the need for more moderation in tone and more understanding at a human level for those who are the focus of controversies. Listening and watching media coverage of this controversy, one is struck by the different tone adopted by journalists when they talk about media mistakes. There is none of the nastiness and vitriol that is now so often and so easily directed at mistakes by politicians or other public officials.

The media seldom discusses media mistakes or errors, but when it does it uses a different vocabulary. Criticism is first qualified with compliments about the particular journalist’s work or the wider reputation of the programme or publication concerned. This may happen because they know or have a professional affinity with those at the centre of the storm, or feel “there but for the grace of God go I”. That is not to suggest that setting an individual mistake or error in a wider context is not a good thing.

On the contrary, hopefully the same contextualisation and basic courtesy will now also be extended to other classes of persons pursued by media for similar breaches.

The outcome of these inquiries should also rebalance a little the relationship between those pursuing a story and those being pursued. There has in recent years been a de facto reversal of the burden of proof. Too often it seems the media only has to allege something and the subject of the allegation must then disprove it.

In this instance the allegation that Fr Reynolds had raped and fathered a child could have been scientifically disproved by means of a paternity test. Very few allegations can be as comprehensively disproved. More often than not they come down to a contest of credibility between both sides.

Where the allegation involves a suggestion of criminal misbehaviour, then the benefit of the doubt must go to the person being accused. Unless the media organ can prove the allegation and do so decisively, it should not be printed or aired.

Learning these lessons does not, as some might lazily suggest, mean that the media needs to be less assertive or effective in investigating or holding wrongdoers to account. It just means they should be less aggressive, more thorough, more civil and more careful.

It will also be positive if these events render some of those involved in media less arrogant and less aggressive in their approach. The media should now have a greater understanding of human and organisational frailty. A little less swagger can only be a good thing.

Tony Blair once famously spoke of how today’s media, more than ever, hunts in a pack. RTÉ and media generally usually play the role of hunt masters. This week they got some sense of how the fox feels. It should be a humbling experience and a learning exercise.