Thursday 21 September 2017

Jody Corcoran: RTE must end piecemeal approach to controversies

The opportunity now exists to ensure our national broadcaster is truly independent, writes Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

THE approach of RTE to the controversies which have dogged News and Current Affairs in recent months has been one of pre-emptive containment.



Each step of the way, the broadcaster has shown itself to do just about enough to meet the obvious requirement for action in the face of damning evidence.

This approach was again evident on Friday upon publication of the Broadcasting Association of Ireland (BAI) findings, and the report of the investigator, Anna Carragher, into the Prime Time Investigates: A Mission to Prey programme.

The timing of that publication, at the start of a bank holiday weekend, at a time when the media, and the public in general, were focussed on another significant issue, is a curious aspect in itself.

If the hope in RTE, or elsewhere, was that this controversy would now go away, then the intervention of the Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, has ensured that it will not.

There is nothing to indicate that the incremental approach of RTE will change when an internal report into the Frontline presidential debate programme is published, a draft of which has been completed to be sent to the board of RTE before it too is dispatched to the BAI.

Mr Rabbitte is to meet with the board of RTE on Tuesday before a meeting of the Cabinet takes place, at which point we will discover whether the piecemeal RTE approach to these controversies is to be endorsed by government.

The tentative indication is that Mr Rabbitte may, indeed, use the opportunity to replace the RTE board, the governing authority at the public service broadcaster, although that still remains to be seen.

Replacing a board appointed by a Fianna Fail/ Green government by a board appointed by a Fine Gael/Labour government will do little or nothing to restore public confidence in RTE, however.

Much more needs to be done to meet that most basic need.

An opportunity now exists to ensure that RTE is "scrupulously independent", as the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, put it yesterday, to be, as he said, "scrupulously fair to all sides".

It has been evident for some time that RTE News and Current Affairs is not so scrupulous in this regard, as it is required to be, under statute, as a public service broadcaster, financed in large part by the taxpayer.

On RTE radio yesterday, the solicitor who represents Fr Kevin Reynolds, the victim of the appalling Mission to Prey programme, highlighted a quote in Ms Carragher's report which he felt went to the heart of the matter.

According to Robert Dore, the stand-out quote from the journalist concerned to her unknown source was this: "We may have to take a leap of faith on this and simply approach him."

Insofar as it showed the extent to which RTE was flying by the seat of its pants, certainly that quote encapsulates it nicely.

In broader terms, however, the stand-out quote for me was contained in another email from the journalist to her source: "It drives me crazy to think of him preaching, literally, in Galway while all of this mess is tucked away in Kenya."

In recent months, I have reported extensively on the Frontline presidential debate programme, to a

point that RTE has been forced to implement some procedural changes and to carry out an internal review of the making of that programme.

Whatever your opinion of the independent candidate, Sean Gallagher, who was so wrongly treated by the programme, ask yourself if it is possible to imagine an RTE groupthink mentality to the effect: 'It drives me crazy to think of Sean Gallagher in the Aras after the mess Fianna Fail has made on this country.'

Remember, RTE has a requirement to be scrupulously fair, to be scrupulously independent. We await with interest the publication of the station's internal report into the Frontline programme.

It may be that an entirely new RTE board will come to consider that report. If that is his intention, Mr Rabbitte will do well to ensure that such a board is itself scrupulously independent.

RTE faces more fundamental issues.

Director general Noel Curran has shown himself to be aware of the scale of these issues.

Mr Curran has, by and large, escaped much of the criticism which has dogged the News and Current Affairs department. The report of Ms Carragher, which dealt with A Mission to Prey up to broadcast, also absolves him of much of the blame.

But RTE did not cover itself in glory immediately after that broadcast, at a time when Mr Curran was centrally involved; nor did it generously meet the concerns of Sean Gallagher when it became clear to him that he had been wronged.

The greatest challenge now facing Mr Curran is to bring an end to the piecemeal approach to these controversies and to grasp the opportunity which now exists to put in place the most unalterable change in RTE News and Current Affairs since the station was founded.

Sunday Independent

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