RTÉ needs more openness if it is to rebuild trust


OPINION:The ‘Frontline’ inquiry report should have been made public long ago, writes HELEN SHAW

At a time when concern is being expressed about a three-month time scale for an inquiry into the tragic death of a young woman in Galway, it seems incredible that an internal RTÉ inquiry into its journalism has taken a year to appear in public.

In fairness, the RTÉ inquiry into its Frontline presidential debate was prompted only last March when the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) found against the programme after public complaints about the use of an unverified tweet and the treatment of candidate Seán Gallagher.

The authority found against RTÉ for the use of unverified information but said there was no evidence this was based on a failure of objectivity.

RTÉ apologised and committed to reviewing its editorial processes. The internal report conducted by RTÉ executive Steve Carson and ex-UTV executive Rob Morrison was apparently completed in June and formed the basis of editorial changes.

RTÉ says it gave the report to the BAI for review and decided not to publish it until after that review. But that is still five months ago and it seems the only reason it emerged this week is because a newspaper published details.

The RTÉ report identifies weak and sloppy practices but finds no evidence of bias. It is low on facts and specifics. Little detail is given of the Frontline programme team, its roles and resources, and the report lacks any direct quoted input from the team. It lists a range of people interviewed, internal and external, but no names or titles are given.

There is no assessment of the editorial reporting commands in place in RTÉ news and current affairs at the time, nor the processes operating to ensure balance around the presidential election. While the programme had an editor and was reporting to an overall current affairs editor, it is not clear what their specific roles were in relation to the programme. The report recommends clear editorial report lines, an investment in training and a separation of editorial and production functions in such programmes.

RTÉ has traditionally had a very tight editorial policy during elections, and in my experience as a former current affairs producer and division head there is normally daily high-level assessment of how programming is minutely meeting balance demands.

The breakdown described in the report is not put within the context of such senior managerial control and accountability.

The focus of the report is solely editorial: to assess the programme and its operation of panel discussions, to compare that with similar programmes run by other broadcasters and to look at ways to improve processes.

The report distances itself from the specific issue of the tweet, saying the BAI had ruled on it, and a human resources inquiry was looking at the implications of that ruling. It is presumably this inquiry that has led to what is being called disciplinary action. We are not told if this involved solely the programme team or senior management.

While this makes internal sense to RTÉ, it makes less sense externally that one can separate people from actions or indeed consequences. In any inquiry into mistakes in other public bodies it is unlikely RTÉ or any other media organisation would be satisfied with this rationale.

For RTÉ its report would be a lot stronger and more useful if it had included all aspects of the programme that night, including the use of social media, and how the programme fitted into overall editorial structures relating to the presidential campaign.

RTÉ news and current affairs has changed significantly since the events involved and deserves praise and support for that. As a society we need a strong and trusted public broadcasting news division that leads as well as reacts. But RTÉ must continue to recognise the need to engage the public openly in rebuilding trust over this and the Prime Time Investigates Fr Kevin Reynolds case. This report should have been public long ago.

It is not about the public looking for heads, as it was described by RTÉ; it is about accountability, transparency and the need to recognise there is a valid public interest in public institutions.

In the end the RTÉ Frontline report shows the power of the public voice to challenge and assert accountability. It was prompted by public complaints to the BAI which, when upheld, initiated change.

The complaints process and little-used public right to reply are essential tools in empowering the public voice and in making broadcasting work better. RTÉ should say thanks.

Helen Shaw is managing director of Athena Media. She was head of RTÉ radio from 1997 to 2002.

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