Strong current affairs TV safeguards public interest

Fri, May 18, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:The re-establishment of a new investigative strand to programming should be a cornerstone of RTÉ policy

IRISH TIMES columnist Breda O’Brien, and now Éamon Ó Cuív TD, are seeking to have RTÉ programmes investigated in the light of the Prime Time Investigates: Mission to Prey episode. Ó Cuív wants all current affairs programmes over the past 12 months scrutinised for a range of failings including groupthink.

“Groupthink” is the phenomenon Anna Carragher reports in her examination of the Mission to Prey episode for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. O’Brien (Irish Times Saturday, May 12th), expands on this and considers it so endemic in RTÉ that previous programmes must be examined for evidence of the contagion.

Between 1980 and 2010, along with others, I produced programmes for Prime Time, Prime Time Investigates and, before these, Tuesday File and Today Tonight. The prevailing atmosphere in current affairs programme discussion was argument over content.

That is a far cry from the total agreement on issues which is implied in the concept of groupthink. Each Prime Time Investigates (and most regular Prime Time programmes) involves a team of at least one researcher, one reporter, a producer, an executive producer, a studio presenter and a series editor. Also involved are camera crew and a videotape editor. All these people will hold conflicting opinions on any subject.

The chances of them all succumbing simultaneously, without any challenge to the type of groupthink O’Brien suspects, is highly unlikely. The programme team, through debate, may reach a consensus. But consensus is not groupthink. In 38 years spent mostly in news and current affairs I never saw groupthink. I don’t say it was never there. But I never saw it.

The RTÉ legal affairs department would present a major challenge to groupthink because its role is to question all aspects of programme content and presentation. Several members of the production team are present at meetings, particularly at viewings. If the team manage to talk themselves into a suspension of the critical faculty implicit in groupthink, legal affairs would be swift to point this out.

Where there is a potential libel or contempt issue, a producer or reporter will often consult legal affairs very early in the production cycle, later providing the in-house solicitors with programme outlines and draft scripts while receiving advice during the process. There would be at least two screenings.

In my experience, the in-house solicitors always attended such screenings in pairs, sometimes accompanied by senior counsel. They questioned every part of the programme closely. Legal affairs’ task was to advise on how to reach transmission safely with regard to libel, contempt or issues of privacy.

Having fought several attempted injunctions in the High Court, I know they did their job thoroughly.

Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan, (Saturday May 12th), writes that there were complaints even within RTÉ as to the “manner in which Prime Time Investigates operated – in part due to resentment at the resources and profile applied to the investigative team”.

Over the years there has been resentment. There was resentment among other programme producers in 1980 when the

then controller, John Kelleher, reinvigorated current affairs after the hiatus following the 1969 Oireachtas inquiry into the 7 Days investigation into illegal moneylending.

He assigned staff and resources to Today Tonight at a time when the Northern troubles endangered the whole island, the first H-Blocks hunger strike was about to begin, the Irish economy was in recession and there was political instability. To apply scarce resources to current affairs was the responsible thing to do then, as it is now, because it was in the public interest.

That may have been cold comfort to other producers struggling elsewhere in the broadcast schedule. But the fact is that the viewing public both needs and wants a strong current affairs presence, especially in times of crisis. The viewing figures reinforce this argument. RTÉ is the only broadcaster in the European Broadcasting Union whose main news and current affairs programmes go out between 9 and 10pm.

It’s worth noting that the 7 Days programme on illegal moneylending was the first occasion on which RTÉ used hidden cameras. In my time at RTÉ there have

always been strict rules on covert filming and I had to write cogent public interest arguments to the director general via the head of news or current affairs executives seeking permission to use hidden cameras in programmes such as A National Emergency (hospital patients on trolleys) and Anti-Social Behaviour.

Whelan accuses programme personnel of “arrogance . . . merely seeking confirmation of their own presumptions or prejudices”. He is confusing the aggressive pursuit of stories with an arrogant demeanour for its own sake. A degree of properly focused vigour is demanded of programme staff if certain issues are to be fully explored.

However, Whelan extends his accusation of arrogance, asserting that Prime Time decides on a guilty party and then fits up a story to convict them.

Whelan seems to think Prime Time Investigates was a kind of star chamber or a gang of rogue journalistic vigilantes. That would be an outrageous state of affairs, and were it so the series would not have survived beyond 2003 when Noel Curran, now director general, established it.

None of this is to say that RTÉ need not guard against the dangers of arrogant behaviour or groupthink among staff. Nor are print journalists any different: Conor Brady describes encountering groupthink in this paper when he was editor, especially in the aftermath of high profile exclusives (Irish Times, May 7th).

RTÉ is taking punishment over the Mission to Prey episode. Individuals on both sides have suffered damage to their reputations and careers. But the country still needs a strong, independent news and current affairs division, especially now as the dangers of a concentration of media ownership become apparent. RTÉ has demonstrated that it can still provide this service as in the recent Prime Time revelations of shoddy home building and abuses in the private rental sector.

Programmes of this calibre are in the public interest and it is to be hoped that following the demise of Prime Time Investigates – on which so many worked to make a success over nine years – a strong new investigative strand may be re-established.

Paul Loughlin was an award-winning producer in news and current affairs TV in Canada and at RTÉ from 1972 to 2010, producing programmes for Prime Time, Prime Time Investigates, Marketplace, Tuesday File and Today Tonight