RTÉ has no remit to be blinkered by liberal bias

Sat, Apr 14, 2012, 01:00

Journalists who think they know the best ‘way forward’ run the risk of flouting standards

THE PRIME Time discussion of the leaked briefing document on the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland investigation into Mission to Prey was revealing, not least because of what was not addressed.

Valid points were made in the “package” preceding the studio discussion, such as when commentator David Quinn said Fr Reynolds was “fortunate” to have been accused of a crime which could be scientifically disproved, that is, of fathering a child. Had it been “merely” rape, there would have been no chance of reclaiming his good name.

However, Conor Brady, former editor of The Irish Times, was cut off mid-sentence when he began to speak about “groupthink”. In the discussion which followed, groupthink was a waving and pirouetting elephant in the room that never got acknowledged. Why was Prime Time Investigates so willing to believe Fr Reynolds was guilty, despite vehement denials and an offer to take a paternity test?

Irish Times Religious Affairs Correspondent Patsy McGarry, editor of the Star Ger Colleran and Stephen Price of the BBC condemned unequivocally the harm done to Fr Reynolds. However, there was a distinct “line” from all three – that RTÉ’s output is normally of a very high standard, and this “mistake” was even more regrettable because it tarnished all that wonderful work.

Colleran, a ferocious critic of the amount of public money given to RTÉ, but not of its editorial line, went so far as to say the problem could have been sorted out in two hours if RTÉ had been operating in the way a “normal” business would. I think not.

The British call it “noble cause corruption”, coined to describe when police officers violate legal ethical standards in pursuit of what they perceive to be the benefit of society.

There is a strong sense of mission in RTÉ, a desire to hold institutions and individuals to account, and to effect positive change. However, if a team becomes convinced they know the best “way forward” and are doing society a service by nudging it in that direction, the danger is that fundamental journalistic standards will be flouted.

For Fr Kevin Reynolds, the results were catastrophic. How likely is it that if one programme relied on “second-hand gossip”, others did not? How will we ever know? This affects far more than the coverage of religion.

People will say nothing RTÉ has done matches the horror of sexual abuse of children by clergy, and they are absolutely right. But to imply that poor broadcasting standards are excusable because they are less bad than sexual abuse of children provides a perfect example of “noble cause” corruption.

I believe there is a “liberal bias” in RTÉ, although I prefer to call it an “illiberal bias”. True liberalism defends the expression of ideas with which it does not agree.

There is also a liberal bias in this paper. The difference is The Irish Times makes this clear, and people who buy it know what they are getting. RTÉ, as a public service broadcaster, has a very different remit. I would like to think people also buy this paper because it does its job well, and by and large, reports events fairly and accurately. RTÉ also does a very fine job with limited resources.

However, the medium of television lends itself to invisible editorialising, particularly in film packages. The use of emotive imagery, music and other techniques often, though not always, mean there is an implicit editorial line. These techniques prime the viewer emotionally, and it is virtually impossible to overcome that initial priming.

Even when potential problems are pointed out, RTÉ does not change. On a recent Prime Time programme on surrogacy, I said I would not appear as someone opposing surrogacy after a package full of beautiful babies, and grieving mothers who could not regularise their children’s situation, unless the package also tackled the serious ethical and moral dilemmas of surrogacy.

My request was ignored. Miriam O’Callaghan referred on air to the package as “positive towards surrogacy”. I was given four uncontested minutes to redress the emotional priming of the nine-minute package, followed by an interview with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, who intends to legislate for surrogacy. This was considered balance. Not so much Prime Time, as “priming time”.

The new RTÉ guidelines for journalists acknowledge this danger of priming: “ . . . due impartiality . . . may require packages to be balanced internally and not rely on a subsequent interview.”

In a September 2011 Irish Catholic interview, Fintan O’Toole acknowledged problems with coverage of Catholicism, which have led him to be careful to distinguish between the institution and people of faith.

He says there is “a sort of ignorance, a ‘throw it all out’ attitude to Catholicism abroad in the Irish media”. Not because of a conspiracy, but because of the demographics of most members of the media, who by and large are less religious than the rest of the population “which absolutely has to have an effect”.

What about recruitment of broadcasters and management? Would a conservative ever be trusted to be objective, or is the liberal worldview so patently right that its followers are the only ones who could possibly take the role of interrogator of the rest of society?

Groupthink will often develop where people who think alike are in powerful positions for too long and where the capacity for critical self-examination and “peer review” is lost. It happens in the church. Acknowledging its presence is often the hardest step.

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