Analysis

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Bitter lesson for RTE in Reynolds' libel case

Alison O’Connor

Published 19/11/2011|05:00

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WE can only speculate on how much money Fr Kevin Reynolds received from RTE -- but whatever the amount, he was entitled to every cent.

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That's not something I say with any joy at all, given that I have significant respect for the reporter involved, Aoife Kavanagh, as well as for the programme she was reporting for, 'Prime Time'.

She is a very fine journalist who has carried out some excellent reporting work for the national broadcaster. 'Prime Time' has a superb track record in broadcasting programmes on issues which are of national importance. It's not just that the issues are exposed, either; such is the power and credibility of the brand that it means situations which are illegal or unjust often end up being changed. That gives it a powerful place in Irish society.

'Prime Time' and its flagship 'Prime Time Investigates' programmes have set a gold standard in terms of investigative journalism, an area which has slipped generally on the Irish media scene. They are excellent examples of the value of public-service broadcasting and of how our licence fee ends up being used.

But there can be no doubt that the brand has been seriously damaged by the events surrounding the defamation of the Ahascragh parish priest, as well as the RTE brand corporately.

On the night in May when the programme involving Fr Reynolds was broadcast, I remember the journalist in me thinking this was an incredible story to have 'landed', as it were. I also remember registering the fact that Fr Reynolds gave a very good account of himself when he was interviewed outside the local church in Ahascragh by the RTE camera crew.

But I found myself giving the benefit of that small doubt to the reporter and the programme, because they both had such excellent previous form.

For any journalist, particularly if you have ever been involved in investigative journalism, there is an element of "there but for the grace of God" when you hear of a defamation case.

Anyone can mess up at work but if you're a journalist and dealing in people's reputations the stakes are (rightly) high, and the punishment is very public and expensive.

There are some libels which are an open and shut case -- journalist Nell McCafferty's libelling of former Tanaiste Mary Harney on Newstalk, for instance -- while in other cases a journalist can be convinced of the "rightness" of a story and believe that it has been properly sourced, but the judge or jury doesn't always agree.

However, what seems incredible about this programme is the simple fact that it involved a man willing to undergo a scientific test to prove that the central allegation of the programme was false.

Fr Reynolds was being accused of being the father of a child which had been born as a result of the rape of a minor in Kenya. He told RTE he would undertake a paternity test to prove that this was not true.

This offer was ignored and the report that he had fathered this child was watched by 519,000 people. The following morning, 338,000 listened to the allegations being repeated on 'Morning Ireland'.

The station is conducting its own internal investigation and Press Ombudsman John Horgan is also carrying out an independent review of RTE's editorial processes.

However, you'd have to wonder how any lesson, apart from the most blatantly obvious, could be learned from this central and key part of this wretched tale.

After all, which part of "he is offering to take a paternity test" did not seem like a seriously compelling reason to delay the programme, at least until the results of the test were known.

THE puzzle is added to by the fact that this was not a split-second decision when a programme was live on air and there was no time for reflection. Indeed, the issue went on for weeks and involved correspondence from Fr Reynolds' solicitor, denying the allegations, his offering of the paternity test and the bishop of the diocese in Kenya where he had worked also denying the allegations and describing him as "an exemplary priest".

There is an irony in the fact that the Catholic Church did appear to fully follow procedures. Despite Fr Reynolds vehemently protesting his innocence and offering the paternity test, the priest was removed from his parish and his home.

Fr Reynolds is entitled to his privacy on the amount of money which he received, although there is always a natural curiosity to want to find out how much in such cases. But it is particularly so in this instance, since the money is basically coming out of all our pockets.

RTE's head of corporate communications, Kevin Dawson, went on Radio One's 'Drivetime' to discuss the case on Thursday evening. He was subject to a rigorous interview and did acknowledge that grave mistakes had been made.

Given the circumstances, however, I did think he could have put a little bit more heart into the personal-devastation aspect of this story, rather than a repeated message about 'Prime Time's' previously sterling reputation.

The media in general -- and RTE particularly so, because of being the recipient of the licence fee -- always have to be mindful that if they are seen to dish it out they must be able to take it themselves.

The station has indicated there will be no dismissals as a result of this case. This decision will be viewed with some bemusement, especially by those people who have, over the years, been hauled over the coals on 'Prime Time' and asked, under the glare of the television lights, why "no action has been taken" for whatever happened to be their transgression.

Irish Independent

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