The price of RTÉ's catastrophic mistake

 

EVEN BY THE sorry standards of recent history, the past fortnight has marked another low for the media. In London, public figures troop in each day to the Leveson inquiry into media practices, delivering shocking stories of indefensible intrusion by newspaper journalists. Last week, in the High Court in Dublin, two newspapers admitted that they had no evidence for reports they had carried about the death of the schoolboy Robert Holohan at the hands of Wayne O’Donoghue.

However, it is the case of Fr Kevin Reynolds, whom RTÉ wrongly accused of raping a woman and fathering her child while he was a missionary in Africa 30 years ago, that could mean a profound change in the way journalism is practised in Ireland.

The case relates to a Prime Time Investigatesprogramme, featuring Fr Reynolds, that went ahead despite his offer to take a paternity test to disprove the allegations against him. The programme has prompted two independent investigations, and four senior journalists have stepped down or been temporarily transferred. As a result of the errors made in it, four programmes planned for broadcast next month have been held back and the future of the investigative strand must now be in doubt.

“The mistake has turned out to be catastrophic for RTÉ’s reputation,” says Patrick Kinsella, head of the communications school at Dublin City University.

“Whatever the outcome, there will be a huge difference in future,” says a member of RTÉ’s current-affairs staff. “We’ll have to raise the bar on everything we do.”

Another staffer likened the unfolding events of this week as “like seeing a plane crash. You watch in horrified fascination, and every time you want to turn away some awful new event happens.”

Much of the shock centres on the decision by Ed Mulhall, managing director of news and one of the six members of RTÉ’s executive board, to step down while inquiries are ongoing. “Ed has been at the absolute centre of everything we do in current affairs in RTÉ for quite some time,” says a staff member.

Kinsella agrees. “Through his leadership and his energy, Mulhall has transformed RTÉ news and current affairs. What had been staid was energised in the public interest, and he made sure resources were provided for robust investigative journalism.

He adds, however, that “as time went on and resources became constrained, inevitably that energy became less evident”.

A number of present and former RTÉ staff who talked to The Irish Timesthis week believe that the mistake was inevitable given the pressures on those working in current affairs.

“The only surprise is that it’s taken so long for this to happen,” says one. “With the growth of competition, editors have had to make compromises by becoming more tabloid.”

Others talk of the constant emphasis managers place on ratings. Prime Timeinherits a huge audience from the Nine O’Clock News, and the challenge is to hang on to it as the evening wears on. Advertisers prefer blockbuster movies to current-affairs programmes on dark themes. One way for current affairs to compete is to try to be more “entertaining”, according to one insider. The same person says that a rash of programmes on crime, drugs and easy targets, such as welfare spongers, can be blamed on the drive for more viewers. One of the programmes that was due to have been transmitted next month but has been deferred is on a subject, prostitution, that would be likely to attract a big audience regardless of journalistic content.

Kinsella is dismissive of this analysis, with its implicit yearning for supposedly serious programmes and distaste for populist themes. “RTÉ is far and away the most significant producer of investigative journalism,” he says. “ Prime Timehas done fabulous work over the years. It’s just that something went wrong on this one.”

But another person involved in investigative programmes blames hauteur and lax procedures for what happened. “We’ve probably allowed a bit of arrogance to creep in,” he says. “You can’t be listening to how wonderful Prime Timeis, and how many awards we’ve won over the past 10 years, and not be affected.” The increased use of reconstructions, hidden cameras and doorstepping has boosted ratings but also made for riskier ventures, he adds.

Slow motion and background music can be used to influence the opinions of viewers, arguably in an underhand way. The title of the programme about Fr Reynolds, Mission to Prey, seemed to invite them to reach a certain conclusion before they had viewed the evidence.

The way in which Prime Time Investigatesis scheduled can be problematic too. The strand runs every six months, when four programmes are shown on successive weeks. At the time of commissioning, those involved in the programmes would have no idea what material they might gather, but the pressure on them to produce a result is huge. “You’re constantly worrying about what happens if the investigation falls on its face,” says a journalist. “That leaves a hole in the schedule. It takes a lot of balls to put a movie on at that time instead.”

Even if the material for a programme is assembled, the pressure to deliver a story continues right up to the final draft screening before programme editors. “The last thing you want is for a big chunk to be taken out. You dread any big changes,” says the same journalist.

The Fr Reynolds fiasco has prompted allegations of an anti-Catholic bias in the media. It’s a claim that the above journalist takes seriously. “All the bad stuff we’ve been reporting about in the Catholic Church, it’s impossible for it not to leak into our judgments,” he says. “If that happens, you’re not the judge, you’re the prosecutor.”

Internally, some RTÉ staff are critical of the failure to commission more programmes than are needed, so as to have something in reserve.

The case itself raises many questions, among them whether the journalists involved followed the legal advice they got. This has been presented as a simple yes/no legal ruling on whether to broadcast, but in journalism the decision is seldom so straightforward.

“Legal and editorial perspectives can diverge, and that’s okay. The lawyer advises, but the editors take the ultimate decision on what to broadcast,” says Andrea Martin, a media lawyer at Eugene F Collins solicitors.

Martin, who formerly worked in RTÉ’s legal department, talks about finding the right balance between the journalists’ desire to go “close to the edge” so as to deliver incisive programming and the lawyers’ emphasis on avoiding risk. “If you allowed lawyers to decide on the content of programmes, then they’d all be dull as dishwater,” she says.

What is important is that accountability is clear and that everyone involved in the process understands their role. However, in Martin’s view, it is precisely this line of accountability that appears to have been “woolly” in the case of the Reynolds programme.

Although some comment has focused on the cost to the taxpayer of RTÉ’s settlement to Reynolds, RTÉ is insured for such calamities. However, there is likely to be an excess of up to €100,000 on such a policy, and this case will send the cost of future premiums soaring.

The silence of the RTÉ board until this week has also attracted criticism. Board members weren’t informed of the problems developing around the programme until the autumn, after the results of Reynolds’s paternity test were received.

One source says that the board immediately sought answers about the programme but felt it couldn’t make a public statement because of the confidentiality agreements relating to the court case. By the time it made a statement this week, after the Government had ordered an inquiry, it seemed to be closing a stable door after a horse had bolted.

Who knew what? The making of a documentary

What exactly happened in the run-up to the broadcast of the Mission to Preyprogramme, and in its aftermath, remains a closely guarded secret within the normally gossipy walls of Montrose.

The journalists and producers who work on Prime Time Investigatesare given at least three months to develop ideas and bring them to fruition in the form of a completed programme.

The core working team partners a journalist, who will appear before the camera, with a producer, responsible for the visual elements.

Although the journalist is usually responsible for developing the story, the producer will also have editorial input.

At any one time, at least four projects would be in development, with teams reporting regularly to their managers. Consultations with managers and RTÉ’s in-house lawyers are a feature of this legally difficult work.

The final format of a programme may remain in the balance until screening, as decisions are made about which elements to include and discard.

Section managers view the finished product before broadcast.

Aoife Kavanagh, who fronted Mission to Prey, is an experienced journalist with extensive reporting experience in Africa.

Kavanagh worked with the producer Mark Lappin, who has since moved on to work for CNN in London.

Both journalists gave regular updates to Brian Páircéir, the executive producer of Prime Time Investigates, while the editor of current affairs, Ken O’Shea, was also kept informed.

Páircéir and O’Shea have offices next to each other, and most of the other staff work in an open-plan office nearby.

A number of legal consultations also took place. When the programme was ready, it was shown to Páircéir and O’Shea and also viewed by in-house lawyers.

The managing director of RTÉ News, Ed Mulhall, whose office is in a different building in Montrose, would not have been involved up to this stage, but he did view the programme before it was broadcast, according to RTÉ.

The RTÉ director general, Noel Curran, established the Prime Time Investigatesseries when he was editor of current affairs.

He wasn’t involved in the decisions prior to the broadcast of the programme on Fr Reynolds in May, but he was briefed fully sometime afterwards.

The priest’s solicitor, Robert Dore, says that RTÉ behaved “quite appallingly up until they realised they were wrong”.

Once the results of the paternity test taken by Fr Reynolds became clear, however, “they behaved very responsibly”.