Claire Byrne tells High Court she stands by her judgment call during broadcast

SF political manager Nicky Kehoe claims he was defamed during live radio debate

RTÉ broadcaster Claire Byrne has told the High Court she stands by her judgment call to allow a Sinn Féin representative defend a man named in a live broadcast as a former chief-of-staff of the IRA.

Ms Byrne said she was about to intervene after former Labour TD Joe Costello made an allegation on her radio show that a former IRA chief-of-staff was directing Sinn Féin Dublin City Councillors how to vote at meetings.

Before she could do so, a Sinn Féin representative on the programme, Eoin Ó Broin, intervened and named Sinn Féin political manager Nicky Kehoe, she said.

Mr Kehoe says he was defamed when he was referred to as that former IRA chief-of-staff on the Saturday with Claire Byrne show in October 2015.

Mr Kehoe, who served two prison terms for weapons and explosives offences, says Ms Byrne should have shut down the conversation when he was named.

He alleges his work over 26 years to rebuild his reputation since coming out of prison was undone “in one swipe”.

RTÉ denies his claims.

Ms Byrne was the only witness called by RTÉ and evidence in the case ended on Tuesday.

Speeches to the jury and the judge’s charge are expected to begin on Wednesday.

Curve ball

In cross-examination of Ms Byrne on Tuesday, Thomas Hogan SC, for Mr Kehoe, put it to her that when Mr Costello made his comment, he had thrown a “curve ball” and “still you do not see the danger”.

Ms Byrne denied the claim. “You don’t know what was in my head and what my judgment call was.”

She said she was about to intervene and thought it unfair of counsel to present to the jury “what I did or didn’t do where I have been very clear on my judgment call on that day”.

She didn’t accept the suggestion her judgment was “fundamentally flawed” that day.

She said she gave Mr Ó Broin the space and time to defend Nicky Kehoe, which is what he wanted to do. “That is the call I made, the call I stand by as I sit here today.”

Counsel suggested what she should have done, as she had said she had done on other occasions where there was a risk somebody would be identified, was shut down the debate.

She replied they had not got to that point at that stage.

Mr Hogan put to her she had already decided Mr Costello, whom she described on Friday as having gone “doolally”, had thrown the curve ball and she did not stop the conversation.

She said Mr Hogan was presenting it as though it happened over a long period of time when it was a matter of seconds.

Mr Ó Broin had turned to face Mr Costello in the studio and gave him “both barrels”, she said.

“My decision was Eoin Ó Broin, you have got the ball, run with it”.

‘Stoke the fire’

She rejected counsel’s suggestion she “did nothing but stoke the fire”. She was not going to be scared to ask certain questions because that was her job as a public service broadcaster.

She did not ask Mr Costello to withdraw the allegation because it was Mr Ó Broin who named Mr Kehoe. She said she did not wish to disenfranchise Mr Ó Broin in his defence of Mr Kehoe.

She disagreed she let Mr Kehoe down very badly or let his name be “kicked around like a football”.

Ms Byrne also said, while RTÉ guidelines provide errors should be corrected as soon as practicable, as well as following consultation with management and legal advisors, those guidelines have to be interpreted in the context of the programme at the time.

It would not be realistic to have stopped a live show and put out silence on air while someone checked with a lawyer about what had been occurred, she said.

She disagreed a 30-second delayed broadcast system would have made any difference in the situation and believed live discussions on radio were a very important part of Irish life. If what was being said now was that should not be allowed, “that takes us into a very dangerous place”.

A live show should not be stopped every time something was said that somebody did not like because that would be dishonest, she said. There was a “need to be brave”.

The case continues.