Colum Kenny: No matter how it spins the story, Government cannot probe media
The RTE inquiry may be a bid to dispel concern the Coalition has an axe to grind with Catholics, writes Colum Kenny
Published 04/12/2011 | 05:00
I agreed with my colleagues on the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to refer RTE's Mission To Prey programme to the BAI Compliance Committee for its consideration last week.
But I did so because of significant public concern about the programme and because RTE had already welcomed any possible BAI investigation, not just because the Government thought that there ought to be an investigation.
In fact the Government has no power to order the BAI to conduct such an investigation into a broadcaster. Widespread misreporting of the Government's decision failed to note this fact. The Government has as much power as Mrs Murphy of Tralee or Mr O'Neill of Letterkenny to trigger such an investigation or to set deadlines for it.
I cannot say if the Government deliberately spun its announcement or not, but the wording of the opening paragraph of Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte's statement about that decision was ambiguous to say the least.
Experienced journalists at RTE itself and in some national newspapers not only failed to correct the impression created by the Government that it could initiate an investigation, but reinforced that impression by speaking of a government "order" and by failing to explain the relevant sections of the Broadcasting Act 2009.
It would be undesirable for any government to have powers to launch potentially far-reaching investigations into the media whenever it felt like it, and the Broadcasting Act 2009 does not give it that power.
The present Government has already clashed with the institutional Catholic Church. It may have hoped to win back some favour with that constituency by announcing as it did on November 22: "It was decided by Cabinet that there should be an independent inquiry to determine the true facts and circumstances which led to the Prime Time programme on Fr Reynold's being broadcast."
There goes the bandwagon of public concern. Let's jump on it.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny caught the public mood last July when he criticised the Vatican's response to the Cloyne report. But while his speech won him praise at home and abroad, he himself was weak on some "true facts and circumstances" when he made certain specific allegations in that speech and quoted a statement by Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) out of context. There is no way of launching an independent investigation into Oireachtas speeches that contain untrue facts.
The subsequent closure of Ireland's embassy to the Vatican may be justified on economic grounds, but that announcement also seemed like pique. The Government was appearing to strike a confrontational pose. So its decision now relating to an independent inquiry into the Fr Reynolds programme may serve political purposes by dispelling concern that the Government has an axe to grind with Catholics.
A careful reading of the Government statement on an investigation reveals that it was acknowledging that the BAI is independent in respect of such matters. The word "requests" was used twice. Given RTE's decision to welcome the Government's announcement and given
the expression of significant public concern about the programme, it is not possible to say if the BAI would have parked or rejected the Government's request had no other factors been in play.
RTE has already acknowledged that the treatment and defamation of Fr Kevin Reynolds in the programme was a grave failure of judgement, and the station has publicly promised to make available to the BAI the results of two investigations that RTE itself set in train last month, one by the Director General Noel Curran and the other by Press Ombudsman John Horgan.
There is concern within RTE and outside it that this whole controversy might damage the capacity of that station to continue to produce investigative programmes. Journalism at RTE and elsewhere has played a significant role in revealing the extent of child abuse and other scandals in Irish life in recent decades, when institutions of Church and State have failed to do so.
There is no reason to believe that the two reviews initiated by RTE itself will not be as frank and transparent as possible, that they will not reveal clearly any errors in existing procedures that occurred and identify any necessary changes. RTE has a long history of ensuring that checks and balances are in place to protect the public and to protect its own editorial processes without unduly interfering with freedom of speech or professional journalism.
Ordinary complaints from members of the public about the fairness of specific programmes must be sent to the broadcaster and to the BAI within strict time limits. There is no time limit on the BAI launching its own special investigation into the affairs of a broadcaster under Section 53. It was not generally envisaged that this power would be used to look at a single programme rather than an ongoing broadcasting practice, but that is how it has now turned out.
The investigation into the affairs of RTE now being launched by the BAI Compliance Committee is the first of its kind under section 53 of the Broadcasting Act 2009. The committee has powers to define the scope of the investigation, "whether as respects the matters or the period to which it is to extend or otherwise, and in particular may limit the investigation to matters connected with particular circumstances".
Such investigations should be launched sparingly. Broadcasters in both the publicly owned and commercially owned sectors are already under fierce competitive pressures and are suffering from a decline in advertising revenue. They have obligations to make news and current affairs programmes and they ought not to be further discouraged from doing so by the imposition of unrealistic codes and conditions.
There are plenty of powerful people and organisations that greatly resent close attention from the media and they will be happy to kick RTE or any other media dog when it is down. Unfortunately, media organisations that let their standards slip give such people an opportunity to harm them.
Prof Colum Kenny of DCU is a member of the BAI. This article expresses his personal opinions