Thursday 29 September 2016

Licence fee payers have every right to be furious with this ludicrously soft-focus interview

Published 05/04/2016 | 02:30

Michaella McCollum's bun hairstyle attracted its own fan base
Michaella McCollum's bun hairstyle attracted its own fan base

If Dee Forbes, the newly announced director general of RTÉ, thought she had a big job on her hands, her new employer's decision to air a ridiculously soft-focus interview with convicted drug smuggler Michaella McCollum shows just how large a task awaits her.

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Ms Forbes won't officially take the reins at the national broadcaster until later this year, but it's likely that one of her first jobs will be to clean up the mess created by 'Prison In Peru: Michaella's First Interview,' which aired on Sunday night to national bemusement and no small amount of fury.

It would be fair to say that McCollum has captivated the public attention since she was first arrested in a blaze of global publicity two and-a-half years ago.

On that occasion, it was the combination of her outlandish, ever-changing story and the fact that her bun hairstyle had attracted its own fan base which made her such popular fodder for the media.

Since that first blush of publicity, things had gone rather quiet from the Tyrone woman, but her early, conditional release from a Peruvian jail sparked an old-fashioned journalistic race to secure the first interview.

RTÉ should be congratulated on getting the scoop, but seasoned reporters in Montrose will worry about the damage such a catastrophically botched interview will cause to the broadcaster's reputation.

There are some important questions which RTÉ needs to answer and the most important of these is simple - did it pay this convicted drug smuggler for her time?

The fact that newly coiffed McCollum and her family went to great lengths to avoid being interviewed by other media outlets would strongly imply that this is the case, as would RTÉ's admission that there were confidentiality agreements signed before the interview took place.

RTÉ has denied that any "direct payment" was made, but, interestingly, it has refused to comment on whether the McCollum family received some sort of fee or expenses or if money was paid to the Michaella McCollum fund.

If it emerges that money did indeed change hands - regardless of whatever convoluted way they may have done it - then licence fee payers have every right to be furious that their money has been used to conduct an interview which was so ludicrously soft ball that it made Oprah look like Jeremy Paxman.

This would have been more forgiveable from a commercial rival, such as TV3, which answers only to its shareholders. In the case of the national broadcaster, however, we are forced, on penalty of jail, to pay the licence fee.

At a time when a vicious war is under way between the two biggest drugs gangs in this country, the decision to air such a feeble interview, which lacked even the most basic tenets of journalistic inquiry, remains genuinely inexplicable and is the latest blow to RTÉ's credibility as a news organisation.

Also, another question which deserves to be answered is a simple one - would it have conducted such a delicate interview if the subject had been a man? After all, there is no shortage of equally 'naive' young men in our nation's jails who have similar, or worse, stories to McCollum.

There is no sympathy for them, so why should there be any for her?

Even the use of only her first name in the programme title was a clumsily designed attempt to portray her as a victim, rather than someone who took a chance to make a quick buck and then got caught.

Depressingly, but not surprisingly, several literary agents have now come forward to claim that they could make McCollum a fortune with a book deal.

Crime, it would appear, does pay after all.

Irish Independent

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