RTÉ's successes may have led to rise of groupthink


OPINION:FOR EDITORS, broadcast managers and journalists, the most insidious element identified in RTÉ’s series of failures must be what the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland investigator Anna Carragher describes as the emergence of “groupthink.”

Like the proverbial giraffe, it is difficult to define. But we can recognise it when we see it. The late Irving Janis, the American psychologist who is credited with first identifying the phenomenon, described it as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group . . . strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

It is an immensely powerful force. And, as in the debacle at Prime Time Investigates, it can subvert the faculty of critical thinking. It can neutralise the qualities of accuracy, verification and authentication that ought be central to the editorial process and replace them with assertion, supposition and assumption.

It is most likely to emerge as a problem in organisations with a strong sense of mission or moral purpose. Media organisations by definition are immensely fertile fields for it. Journalists, for the most part, have idealistic impulses. They believe in noble causes. They usually know – or think they know – a lot more than they can print or put on air. The newsroom is the perfect “in-group” identified by Janis.

Working in stressed conditions with colleagues, socialising with them over irregular hours, often being immersed in each others’ stories, journalists can be easy prey to “groupthink”. And because it is rare enough for them to be publicly proven wrong in what they write or broadcast, many will tend to develop qualities of excessive self-confidence in their own judgment.

This phenomenon is by no means confined to the media. It can emerge in institutions where people have a sense of having a special mission, such as in churches, advocacy groups or indeed in law-enforcement agencies.

In the Garda Síochána during the 1970s, a cohort of highly-motivated, mission-driven officers saw themselves as having a duty to get results in the fight against crime and subversion. They saw themselves – not wholly inaccurately – as an elite group, thrown into the firing line against wicked and violent people.

Encouraged by some superiors, they adopted a mode of investigation in which assumption, intuition and inside knowledge – groupthink – displaced the force’s customary caution and reliance on conventional methods. The result was a crisis in the credibility of the Garda and the courts.

Ms Carragher’s report does not tell us why or how groupthink took hold in RTÉ. How did it become so entrenched in the station’s editorial processes? Why was it not identified and checked?

I encountered it at intervals when I was a newspaper editor. It would tend to emerge in the aftermath of a period of success. Perhaps we would have landed a series of important news “exclusives”. It usually afflicted people who were very good at their jobs and influential with their peers.

A sense emerged on occasion that such-and-such a journalist or section editor could do no wrong. After all, he or she had been so right so many times before. People in support roles felt unable to challenge their judgment.

Moreover, people above them sometimes had confidence in them because on so many previous occasions they had hit the bullseye.

I suspect that something rather similar happened in RTÉ. The news and current affairs division had come through a golden era under Ed Mulhall’s leadership. His courage and intelligence were beyond question and his judgment had been vindicated time and again.

The station had fought off legal challenges from Beverley Flynn. Fine investigative reporting had uncovered scandals in nursing homes for the elderly, irregular practices in the Lourdes hospital in Drogheda and elsewhere and in the sexual abuse of children in State care.

RTÉ news and current affairs was performing, hitting the targets. It was a place where journalists, researchers, presenters and others were proud to work, knowing that they were the elite of the station, that they were doing work that was critically important and that their reputation and influence preceded them.

It is the responsibility of top management to be aware that when one is at one’s strongest one may also be at one’s most vulnerable. This is the time at which hubris is likely to emerge. And it is the time when senior management has to be vigilant of danger.

Key personnel must not be allowed to remain in critical, pressurised posts for too long. Their particular vision, their strengths and weaknesses, become institutionalised. Chains of command and lines of report need to be altered with regularity. Otherwise relationships become mechanical and routine. Teams of people working together must be regularly broken up and regrouped.

When individuals start to say they can work together, knowing almost intuitively how each other will react and what they are thinking, then it is time to throw all the pieces in the air and start again.

And the last man or woman down the line – call that individual editor, director or whatever – has to be the leader and sternest critic of the team’s work. He has to challenge material, to interrogate it and to test it to destruction, especially when it has been presented by personnel with whom he has worked and trusted and whom he may even see as friends.

A complaint sometimes voiced in my years of editorship was that I put in too many checks and challenges into the editorial processes at The Irish Times. Some journalists on occasion felt aggrieved that their word or their judgment alone was insufficient to allow a report go into print.

There is an adage, said to have originated in the Chicago City News Bureau: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” If journalists move away from that principle and if those supervising them allow it to happen, can anyone be surprised when disaster follows?

Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Times from 1986 to 2002

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