Sunday 22 September 2019

RTE's Claire Byrne: I stand by my call not to shut down item on live radio show

Claire Byrne pictured arriving at the Four Courts during the High Court action taken by Nicky Kehoe Picture: Collins Courts
Claire Byrne pictured arriving at the Four Courts during the High Court action taken by Nicky Kehoe Picture: Collins Courts

Tim Healy

RTE broadcaster Claire Byrne stands by the judgment call she made when she allowed a Sinn Féin representative on a live broadcast to defend a man who had been named as a former chief-of-staff of the IRA rather than shut down the conversation.

Ms Byrne told the High Court she was about to intervene after former TD Joe Costello made an allegation on her radio show that a former IRA chief-of-staff was directing SF Dublin City Councillors how to vote at meetings.

She said before she could do so the SF representative on the programme,  Eoin Ó'Broin, intervened and named SF political manager Nicky Kehoe.

Mr Kehoe says he was defamed when he was referred to as that former IRA chief-of-staff on the Saturday with Claire Byrne show in October 2015. 

Mr Kehoe, who served two prison terms for weapons and explosives offences, says Ms Byrne should have shut the conversation down when he was named and says the work he has done to rebuild his reputation for 26 years since coming out of prison was undone "in one swipe".

RTE denies his claims. 

Nicky Kehoe pictured at the Four Courts
Photo: Collins Courts
Nicky Kehoe pictured at the Four Courts Photo: Collins Courts

Ms Byrne was the only witness for RTE and evidence in the case has ended. Speeches to the jury and the judge's charge are expected to begin on Wednesday. 

Earlier, Thomas Hogan SC, for Mr Kehoe, put it to Ms Byrne that when Mr Costello made his chief-of-staff comment, he had thrown a curved ball and "still you do not see the danger". 

Ms Byrne replied that was not factual. "You don't know what was in my head and what my judgment call was".

She said she was about to intervene and she thought it unfair of counsel to present to the jury "what I did or didn't do where I have been very clear on my judgment call on that day".

She didn't accept Mr Hogan suggestion her judgment was "fundamentally flawed" that day.  

She gave Eoin O'Broin the space and time to defend Nicky Kehoe which is what Mr O'Broin wanted to do. "That is the call I made, the call I stand by as I sit here today".

Counsel suggested what she should have done, as she had said she had done on other occasions where there was a risk somebody would be identified, was shut down the debate.  She replied they had not got to that point at that stage.

Mr Hogan put it to her she had already decided Mr Costello, who she described on Friday as having gone "doolally" by making that comment, had thrown the curved ball and she didn't stop the conversation. 

She said Mr Hogan was presenting it as though it happened over a long period of time when it was a matter of seconds.  Eoin O'Broin had turned to face Joe Costello in the studio and gave him "both barrels" where he defends Mr Kehoe and dismantled Mr Costello's argument, she said.

"My decision was Eoin O'Broin, you have got the ball, run with it".

She rejected counsel's suggestion that she "did nothing but stoke the fire".

She also said she was not going to be scared to ask certain questions because that was her job as a public service broadcaster.

She did not ask Mr Costello to withdraw the allegation because it was Mr O'Broin, not Costello, who named Mr Kehoe and she did not wish to disenfranchise Mr O'Broin in his defence of Mr Kehoe. 

She disagreed with counsel she let Mr Kehoe down very badly or that she let his name be "kicked around like a football".

Ms Byrne also said while RTE guidelines provide errors should be corrected as soon as practicable, as well as as following consultation with management and legal advisors, those guidelines have to be interpreted in the context of the programme at the time.  It would not be realistic to have stopped a live show and put out silence on air while someone checked with a lawyer about what had been occurred, she said.

She did not agree that a 30-second delayed broadcast system would have made any difference in a situation like this. She also believed live discussions on radio were a very important part of Irish life. 

If what was being said now was that should not be allowed, then "that takes us into a very dangerous place".

She believed a live show should not stopped every time something was said that somebody did not like because that would be dishonest.  She said there was a "need to be brave".

The case continues.

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