Friday 6 December 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: This fiasco is the result of RTE's smug, self-serving narcissism

It is shocking to see the detail of how the most basic practices of journalism were so casually cast aside, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Lawyers are the bane of a journalist's life. Sometimes it seems as if their only function is to stop us saying what we really want to say. They even quibble over commas.

Theirs may be one of the most important jobs in journalism -- saving us all from making fools of ourselves and paupering the organs for which we work -- but oh, the frustration.

In that respect, the most alarming finding from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) report into the defaming of Fr Kevin Reynolds, published on Friday, has to be that the RTE legal department only became involved in that fateful edition of Prime Time Investigates a mere two weeks before the programme was due to broadcast false allegations that he had fathered a child with a minor whilst on a mission in Africa.

Evidently, sparing the national broadcaster from disaster was an afterthought to the people behind Mission To Prey, not the first thought. That they apparently expected to get away with it sums up the culture of complacency and arrogance which has set into the State broadcaster and which has now been laid bare in all its gruesome detail.

Failing to check sources. Not keeping proper corroborating notes. Interviews unrecorded. An almost complete absence of documentary evidence. No hint that the team were even aware of the station's existing guidelines. The entire research trip to Africa passing without anything being written down.

The report compiled for the BAI by the appointed investigating officer, former BBC executive Anna Carragher, lists one catastrophe after another, making the final judgement that RTE failed to comply with its statutory obligations a grimly inevitable conclusion.

Even so, the details of what went wrong, whilst forensically compelling, are not the most damning aspect of the report. Nor is it the €200,000 fine imposed on RTE in punishment; though at the upper end of the scale of possible sanctions, the broadcaster surely couldn't have been anticipating leniency.

It's the tone which matters, because the tone is blistering.

RTE has rarely been spoken to or about like this before by another public body. The BAI report gives RTE nowhere to hide and Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, in an impressive response on Six One News, wasn't in the mood to provide an escape route either.

The report, he said, showed the offending programme to be "shoddy, unprofessional, cavalier". It was "beyond belief" that "uncorroborated gossip" had been broadcast as fact and the findings were "more serious than I had expected".

Most dramatically, the minister refused a number of invitations to express support for the RTE board, whose members he has called in for a meeting on Tuesday morning.

Aside from the National Union of Journalists, which found something to quibble about in the report, no one seems to have much appetite for picking through the entrails for signs of hope. That would only delay what Rabbitte rightly identified as the central task of renewing the bond of trust between RTE and its audience.

Where to start is another puzzle. On his first American visit as President last week, Michael D declared his belief in "the public broadcaster (as) the people talking to itself".

The BAI's exposure of a culture of "groupthink" shows what happens when, by contrast, a small coterie of like-minded media folk, more interested in pleasing each other than the country, come to think of the station as their own private possession, to do with as they will; who are so immersed in that narrow narcissistic culture that they don't even notice their own prejudices anymore and access to broadcasting becomes a gift to be shared out amongst friends like fine wine at a dinner party.

It's not as if they weren't warned. There have been other findings, other complaints. RTE's response was always to either sneer at its critics (over longstanding claims of undue left-wing bias in the newsroom, for example) or to deal with them on a piecemeal basis (as with the maltreatment of presidential candidate Sean Gallagher), fobbing off regulators with the odd bone here and there, without tackling the main problem.

Other media organisations can have what is lazily called an "agenda". If they're privately owned, they only have to answer to their shareholders. RTE is different. It has a privileged and protected position within Irish life; some might even call it an unfair advantage. It shouldn't be open to them to treat the station as a private club for people who all think alike.

RTE belongs to every taxpayer in the country; it's certainly paid for by them. Even if they don't like the way a sizeable portion of its audience sees the world, it's not RTE's job to use its dominant position to pursue ideological vendettas.

Compelling every household to hand over €160 a year to RTE, whatever they think of the service they get in return, has been compared to demanding that every person in the country buys a particular newspaper on Sunday.

Somewhere along the way RTE seems to have forgotten what an extraordinary situation that is. It has been showered with other people's money for so long that it started to believe that it was its own, rather than a donation generously given under very specific conditions which can be changed at any time if the public grow tired of watching the license fee being wasted.

What RTE did was rather like being paid to keep a man's garden tidy, then inviting all your mates round to loll about on the lawn with the radio on at full blast, drinking cans and flicking V signs at him as he peeps in horror round the curtains. It's this loss of respect which Pat Rabbitte chose to highlight.

All jaded near-monopolies in Ireland, church and State alike, have suffered the same reputational hit and, like them, RTE simply didn't notice as affection turned to contempt and it went from elder statesman to running joke to national disgrace. Stopping the rot will be hard enough; reversing it in economically straitened times will be even more tricky.

The BAI report into the appalling treatment of Fr Reynolds is a wake-up call to Irish broadcasting in the same way that the Mahon and Moriarty Tribunals were a klaxon to Irish politics. The difference is that, unlike Enda Kenny, RTE will not be able to quietly shelve the report and carry on as if nothing happened. Nor, to give it credit, would RTE surely want to do so. The station knows that its viability and credibility depend on restoring trust. Governments come and go, but good broadcasting is forever.

Sunday Independent

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