RTÉ chairman urged to step down
RTÉ’s chairman Tom Savage and director general Noel Curran have come under sustained attack from members of the Oireachtas communications committee over the libelling of Fr Kevin Reynolds.
Three members of the committee today called on Mr Savage to resign over his handling of the aftermath of the Prime Time Investigates programme into Fr Reynolds. Two members also called on Mr Curran to step down.
The most trenchant attack from Labour Senator John Whelan, a former journalist, who said it was farcical that the chairman of RTÉ was washing his hands “for the systematic failures, low morale and poor standards, and the group-think which is spawned by a cult of clique and cronyism, which you preside over”.
The Mission to Prey programme broadcast last year falsely accused Fr Reynolds of abusing a young girl while a missionary in Africa and fathering her child. The priest successfully sued RTE for libel after a paternity test disproved the allegation and the State broadcaster has been heavily criticised for the mistakes made in the programme.
Mr Whelan said journalists were subject to strict rules designed to avoid conflicts of interest yet the most glaring conflict of interest concerned Mr Savage, who is a director of PR firm the Communications Clinic along with his wife Terry Prone.
The Communications Clinic specialised in public affairs and “spindoctoring” for politicians. “I can’t see how you can serve both sides of the argument,” he said.
He said he couldn’t understand why Mr Savage wasn’t considering his position. When the controversy broke last year, RTÉ said it wouldn’t be commenting until internal inquiries were completed, he pointed out.
However, Mr Savage “broke ranks” and “got his retaliation in early” by giving a newspaper interview in which he placed the blame on director of news and current affairs Ed Mulhall who was made to “carry the can”.
Mr Savage’s position was not tenable if trust in RTÉ was to be restored, he said.
However, Mr Savage rejected Mr Whelan’s interpretation of his comments about Mr Mulhall, saying there were factually incorrect.
“You shafted him and hung him out to dry,” Mr Whelan interjected. He said Mr Savage had made a pre-emptive statement to the media while due process was underway and as a result Mr Mulhall “came a cropper”.
But Mr Savage said he had merely stated the facts, which was that Mr Mulhall had confirmed to the board that he ultimately had made the decision to broadcast the programme.
He said he wasn’t simply a spindoctor or “political hack”. As someone who spent eight years in the priesthood, no-one felt more “vanquished” by the programme’s false allegation about Fr Reynolds than he did. He denied that a clique was operating in RTE.
Responding to the allegation of a conflict of interest, Mr Savage said that in his 3.5 years as chairman, not a single issue had cropped up which required him to absent himself from the board.
He said he resented any allegation that he had not operated to the highest standards of probity in his work. He repudiated any insinuation that he ever acted against the canons of ethical behaviour.
Mr Whelan insisted it wasn’t tenable for the chairman to “play for the home team and the visiting team”. Mr Savage’s range of corporate clients was “another problem waiting to go wrong” in RTE, he claimed.
Mr Savage responded that he did not interfere in day-to-day operations and there was no conflict of interest.
After Mattie McGrath accused the chairman of receiving “PR spin” from his wife, Terry Prone, at the weekend, Mr Savage called on the independent TD to withdraw the remark.
Mr Whelan later apologised for his allegation about a clique, after the managing director of radio, Clare Duignan complained that it was grossly unfair.
Mr Curran said it was his decision not to inform the board about Mr Reynolds’ legal challenge in July 2011, two months after the programme was broadcast. His role was not to “drip-feed” information to the board, he said, but to inform it when serious legal issues arose.
At that time, the journalists involved in the programme were absolutely confident the paternity test would support their claims, he said. The board was informed of the case in September, after the test was carried out and the result was negative. Mr Savage was informed in the run-up to this board meeting.
Mr Curran said the board’s function was not to deal with the day-to-day running of the organisation. Choices had to be made in deciding the agenda of the board when RTE was facing a financial crisis, an imminent digital switchover and was dealing with outstanding 50 legal cases.
Mr Savage confirmed that he wasn’t informed of the Reynolds case until last September.
Fianna Fail Senator Paschal Mooney said he was taken aback by the level of hostility of committee members towards RTÉ. Speaking in defence of investigative journalism, he expressed the hope that “the baby will not be thrown out with the bathwater” following this controversy.
Fine Gael deputy Tom Barry said Mr Savage should take responsibility by stepping down. Mr Curran and the entire RTÉ board should also consider their positions, he said.
In response, Mr Savage said the last thing RTÉ with the horrendous financial challenges it was facing was the trauma of removing the director general. While a chairman was easier to replace, to walk away from his responsibilities would amount to cowardice, he averred.
Mr McGrath said both Mr Savage and Mr Curran should resign and let new people come in to run the station.