Wednesday 17 January 2018

Revamp of Smyth slot raised back in March

Today FM denies court action link


THE need to revamp the presentation and production of The Sunday Supplement programme on Today FM was raised as long ago as last March with the anchor journalist Sam Smyth -- who has recently been dropped -- by the station's chief executive Willie O'Reilly.

Mr O'Reilly, who spoke then of "future-proofing" the schedule to ensure its appeal to listeners, and who was conducting a review of programming across the station, said it was time to consider the programme's relevance and its ability to remain so over the coming decade.

The station has denied that the decision to drop Mr Smyth after 14 years was linked to a court action taken against the journalist by the station's owner, businessman Denis O'Brien.

Mr O'Brien is also pursuing legal action against the journalist, who has reported extensively on the Moriarty tribunal, over comments he made on the TV3 show Tonight with Vincent Browne, and in an article in the Irish Independent earlier this month. Mr Smyth was awarded legal costs against former minister Michael Lowry following his successful defence of a defamation action against him by the Tipperary North TD arising from reports linked to the Moriarty tribunal.

The tribunal's second and final report, which was published in March, found that Mr Lowry had assisted Mr O'Brien in his bid to secure a mobile phone contract for Esat Digifone. Mr O'Brien disputes the tribunal's findings.

The board of Today FM, which includes Mr O'Reilly, issued a statement saying that Mr Smyth was removed because of declining listenership figures. Mr O'Reilly and the station have denied that Mr Smyth's "difficult relationship" with Mr O'Brien was behind him being dropped.

In March, Mr O'Reilly wrote to Mr Smyth and said the programme needed to be revamped but that it had, since 1997, met with considerable success and was a tribute to Mr Smyth and his team, and he said he wanted to mark Mr Smyth's contribution to the station in a suitable way.

Earlier this month, Mr Smyth told Mr O'Reilly that, before the March letter, they had discussed the influence of Denis O'Brien, his problems with the Moriarty tribunal and his broadcasting interests.

He wrote: "I did point out that owning more of the media then any other person should, in theory at least, make him more sympathetic to airing the views of those who may disagree with him. But you decided it would be in both of our best interests to avoid discussing any matter relating to Mr O'Brien without first clearing it with you.

"This was constricting because he is among the wealthiest and most powerful men in the State, as well as owning more of its media then any other individual. It was you who raised the matter of the anger from Mr O'Brien's people when I invited James Morrissey [Mr O'Brien's public relations adviser] on to the programme and he lost an argument about tribunals with another panellist [the late Colm Allen SC]."

He said he received Mr O'Reilly's first letter questioning the relevance of The Sunday Supplement on March 22, the day the report of the Moriarty tribunal was published. Mr Smyth said Mr O'Reilly had agreed with an independent analysis that the listening figures for the programme had held up, that he had no complaints about the presentation of the programme, but claimed he did mention Mr Smyth's age as a problem.

However, Mr O'Reilly, in a reply, said he was shocked at the underlying allegation that he was not in control of the schedule and it was for other reasons that he was finishing Mr Smyth's contract.

He wrote: "Let's get this straight. At every meeting we have had, it is you that brings up the subject of our owner. Can I point out that Denis O'Brien has been the owner now for over three years? This period has seen the publication of the Moriarty report and commentary on it across all media including contributions from yourself in your capacity as a journalist and tribunal attendee. At no time have I or anyone else attempted to interfere with your views.

"The only time I contacted you on the matter was in relation to the appearance of James Morrissey to which you refer in your note."

He said he was dissatisfied with the way Mr Smyth handled the programme.

Later he wrote: "The fact that you and our owner have a "difficult relationship" cannot be used to protect your show from the scrutiny I give to all our programming. The fact that your programme figures are 'good' is not a defence from scrutiny either.

"Today FM has lost share over the past couple of years and I need to make changes to invigorate the schedule. These changes are not confined to your programme."

Saying he had always highly valued Mr Smyth's professionalism and integrity as a journalist and radio presenter, he refuted the claim that Mr Smyth's age had anything to do with the changes.

Meanwhile, the Irish Independent chapel of the National Union of Journalists has expressed support for Mr Smyth. It shares the concern of NUJ secretary Seamus Dooley, who said the issue raised fundamental questions about the editorial independence of the media in Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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