Saturday 21 October 2017

Absence of 'evidence, scrutiny and challenge' in high-risk programme

A scene from the RTE 'Prime Time Investigates' programme, in which reporter Aoife Kavanagh confronts Fr Kevin Reynolds
A scene from the RTE 'Prime Time Investigates' programme, in which reporter Aoife Kavanagh confronts Fr Kevin Reynolds
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

THE PROBE into the failings of the 'Mission to Prey' broadcast criticised an "almost complete absence" of documentary evidence behind the high-risk programme. Former BBC controller in Northern Ireland, Anna Carragher, was highly critical of a lack of "scrutiny and challenge" within RTE's current affairs department. The following are the key areas where RTE fell down:

Note Taking

Ms Carragher found fault with the standards of the production team on the ground -- Aoife Kavanagh and Mark Lappin -- describing these as falling short of what should be expected. Among the failures highlighted was an "almost complete absence of documentary evidence" and a failure to document interviews with significant sources.

There were no notes or minutes kept of key editorial meetings between executive editor Brian Pairceir, head of current affairs Ken O'Shea and director of news Ed Mulhall, the probe found.

Ms Carragher said that at "all stages of the production of the programme note taking was either non-existent or grossly inadequate".

It featured among her key recommendations for RTE, that all key editorial decisions should be recorded and production teams should also keep contemporaneous notes as they make programmes.

Ms Carragher also raised some concerns over the credibility of key sources who were not sufficiently interrogated either by the production team or the editorial chain. She said "weight" appeared to have been given to the repetition of some allegations by people who were not then personally questioned by the production team.

She found there was no documentation of conversations which took place in January 2011, when Ms Kavanagh undertook a research trip to Africa -- during which she met a person who told her about an allegation that Fr Reynolds had fathered a child in the early 1980s. She found the reporter should have been more "rigorous" in exploring the source's credibility.

She recommended high-risk programmes should be identified as far as possible in advance of airing and scrutinised at a senior level.

Interviewing

Aoife Kavanagh engaged Fr Reynolds in a "doorstep" interview -- the practice of approaching a person without forewarning and hitting them with questions.

Ms Kavanagh's opening gambit after identifying herself as a journalist, was the statement: "Thirty years ago, Father . . . you had a daughter who was born in Kenya."

The report said Ms Kavanagh made statements which assumed guilt -- and the editorial team did not afford Fr Reynolds the opportunity to agree or disagree to an interview.

When Ms Kavanagh interviewed Veneranda in Kenya, her first question again assumed the truth of the allegations. Through a translator, Veneranda was asked: "She wants to know how did it happen that you were pregnant with Fr Reynolds' child?"

The BAI report said: "I have considerable concerns that despite the sensitivities the interview did not probe Veneranda's story -- for example, how certain was she that the footage she was shown was the man she said had attacked her."

It also added that the interview did not probe several discrepancies in the stories. Ms Kavanagh was asked about these omissions during the BAI investigation, and said she had probed these issues before recording and made notes -- but she could not find them.

Culture and editorial

Ms Carragher said a 'group think' mentality appeared to have evolved between the team from their past experience of making investigative programmes.

She said all the evidence had been interpreted as pointing only in one direction, and the report was critical of a lack of "scrutiny and challenge" within the department.

The investigator said she believed this led them into a team-wide approach where they became convinced the 'facts' verified their assumption.

This led them to interpret the paternity test offer by Father Reynolds as not genuine and as a tactic to derail the programme, the report found.

Ms Carragher said the team made "highly subjective assumptions" which then reinforced their certainty, such as some members believing there was a striking likeness between Fr Reynolds and the young woman, Sheila Mudi. His demeanour during the doorstep interview was also deemed to endorse the team's view of his guilt.

Ms Carragher said that "despite the obvious high risks for RTE" in the transmission of the programme there was no procedure within RTE for the broadcast of highly sensitive programmes to be sent to the Director General, as editor-in-chief, to give the green light. She said this "gap" in procedure must be urgently addressed.

Lawyers

The BAI report stated it was "a source of regret" that RTE did not waive its claim to privilege between solicitor and client in relation to its in-house legal team.

Ms Carragher said this would have provided a better understanding of the extent of the advice provided to the production team and the role the advice played in RTE's decision to air the programme.

She found it would be "highly desirable" that the in-house legal affairs team would have an earlier input into programmes that are likely to be contentious or high risk.

There was some legal correspondence but only in the fortnight before broadcast, the report found.

On the morning of broadcast, May 23, Fr Reynolds' solicitors sent another letter to Ms Kavanagh's email address, offering to provide individuals in Kenya to testify for him. It also repeated the offer of a paternity test.

The report found Ms Kavanagh opened the email four hours later. While copies were distributed to the producer, executive producer and head of current affairs, the legal affairs department say they were unaware of the letter.

"It was also highly undesirable that the reporter was the sole point of contact between Father Reynolds' solicitors and RTE," said the report. This appeared to have happened as Ms Kavanagh was the person Fr Reynolds identified as the contact for the programme and his solicitors directed their correspondence to her.

Ms Carragher recommended all communications from solicitors related to programmes were immediately forwarded to legal affairs.

Irish Independent

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