Investigating 'Prime Time'

 

WHEN JOURNALISTS and their employers get it wrong, they should come out with their hands up. Their privileged position in society, as purveyors of reliable and sometimes disturbing information, demands no less. That is why decision-making within RTÉ, both before and after the broadcast of a Prime Time Investigatesprogramme in which Fr Kevin Reynolds was defamed, has become a source of public concern.

That the Catholic priest at the heart of this controversy was vindicated by the High Court and awarded substantial damages only addresses part of the issue. The editorial decision-making and production standards that led to this flawed programme being broadcast in the first place, along with RTE’s initial reaction to that serious misjudgment, require close examination and fundamental change.

The title given to the programme, A Mission to Prey,has prompted allegations of bias from some quarters. RTÉ’s delayed apologies, legal actions and defensive managerial responses did nothing to allay those suspicions. That was unfortunate because of the damage it caused to RTÉ as an institution and to the reputation of Prime Time Investigates, a programme that focused the public’s awareness on the physical and sexual abuse of children and brought about the establishment of four statutory inquiries. Yesterday’s decision by those managers who authorised the broadcast to step aside, pending the outcome of the inquiry, reflects the seriousness of the situation and the responsibilities of the State broadcaster. The journalist and the executive producer directly involved have also stepped back from day-to-day current affairs.

A pattern has developed within the public and civil service whereby mistakes and mismanagement are generally attributed to “systemic failure”. Such a response seeks to evade responsibility and the consequences have been deeply damaging. It is refreshing that the RTÉ board has adopted a more rigorous approach. Accountability, as Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly declared, is the mark of a healthy democracy, while transparency is a cornerstone of accountability. In that regard, the appointment of Press Ombudsman John Horgan by RTÉ to make recommendations concerning the editorial oversight of programmes could be regarded as damage limitation while the extent of its own review was seriously inadequate.

Because of those shortcomings, the Government found it necessary to institute an independent inquiry into the matter by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The inquiry should examine why RTÉ broadcast damning material, though the accused man had offered to undertake a DNA paternity test to prove his innocence; why it delayed issuing an apology and who was responsible for these decisions. Using the inquiry in an attempt to identify journalistic sources would be a mistake and have an entirely predictable outcome. Issues of integrity and responsibility should take centre stage. Consequences may follow later.