Friday 18 October 2019

Elaine Byrne: Time to sharpen canines on media conflicts of interest

Tom Savage's role as chairman of the state broadcaster seems at odds with his job as PR guru, writes Elaine Byrne

There is a saying within Irish media circles, 'dog does not eat dog'. Well, I have a very big appetite today, dear readers.

Tom Savage is a public official. He is the chairman of the RTE Board, the governing authority of Ireland's public broadcaster. The 2009 Broadcasting Act states that his official duties are to "safeguard the independence of the corporation. . . from State, political and commercial influences".

He is also the founding director, chairman and owner of the Communications Clinic. The purpose of this PR company, according to its website, is to "persuade, influence, convince, befriend, sell, assure, impart and connect". In particular, it specialises in aiding "government departments" and "some politicians" to communicate effectively and to "minimise [the] public impact" of a crisis.

These two objectives of a public organisation and a private company seem rather at odds with one another.

Terry Prone is married to Tom Savage, and is not only a director of the Communications Clinic but a ubiquitous broadcaster, commentator and columnist. A Freedom of Information request by Fianna Fail TD Eamon O Cuiv recently revealed that she was one of RTE's top 10 outside contributors on current affairs. Their son is Anton Savage, a director at the same company and a presenter of a weekend current affairs programme on Newstalk.

In every aspect of their professional lives, Tom, Terry and Anton work on both sides of the radio, television and print media divide. They are both practitioners and PR advisers. The poacher and the gamekeeper.

So, given this family's prominence within the media industry, the tone of the press release issued last week by the representative body of Irish journalists was quite simply extraordinary.

It emerged that Tom Savage's company advised the Irish Missionary Union in April 2011, in advance of the Prime Time Investigates: A Mission to Prey programme broadcast in May 2011. They were advised by Ms Prone. This programme has rocked the reputation of RTE news and current affairs and incurred a €200,000 fine from the BAI.

Seamus Dooley of the National Union of Journalists described this "revelation" as "deeply uncomfortable" and now "raises questions" which Savage must deal with "as a matter of urgency".

To date Savage, the chair of the biggest media organisation in this State, has not responded to a query from the representative organ of Irish journalists. His wife Prone has said that Savage had no involvement in advising the religious orders affected by the Mission to Prey programme that libelled Fr Kevin Reynolds.

And when Savage was under immense public scrutiny by the Oireachtas Communications Committee last month,it was still not clear if Prone had, by then, told her husband that their public relations firm was working for the Irish Missionary Union.

Savage told the committee that the first he knew of an issue surrounding the programme was in September last year at an RTE board meeting. If he had known earlier, Savage would have broken "the code of business conduct for RTE board members". The code states: "Personal and public activities which are likely to compromise RTE's impartiality as a public service broadcaster organisation, or undermine public confidence in the organisation, are inconsistent with a continuing role as a board member."

After all, how could Savage maintain impartiality as a public official if a conflict had existed with his commercial interests? The Broadcasting Act requires that members of the RTE authority must remove themselves from RTE boardroom discussions where private interests collide with the public duties.

In the three and a half years since he became chairman, "not a single issue has cropped up on the board that I have had to absent myself," Savage has said. Indeed, RTE has defended its Chair, stating that Savage has complied with the terms of the Broadcasting Act.

And this is exactly what is wrong with Ireland.

Savage decides if there is a conflict of interest. He is his own arbiter. Nobody else. This is an entirely voluntary provision.

Senator John Whelan has called for a new draft code of conduct for key editorial staff which requires a register of interests to be established, as is the case currently for ministers and other high-ranking office-holders.

Such a register would provide details about contracts with the public service and remuneration

received as a political or public affairs lobbyist, consultant or adviser. In other words, a list of the Communications Clinic clients.

The public has a right to know if any perceived conflicts of interest exist. We do not know, for instance, if Savage, his wife or son, coached any of the politicians who questioned him on the Oireachtas committee.

We do know, however, that the Communications Clinic earned €41,000 in the last year from ministers James Reilly and Frances Fitzgerald on PR training and scriptwriting courses. So, under this voluntary disclosure of interests, it is assumed that Terry Prone and Anton Savage will excuse themselves from now on in any broadcast discussions relating to health or children's matters.

We have tax relief laws that oblige owners of Martello tower homes to open their houses to the public each weekend between March and September. Members of the public, if they wish, can visit Savage's home today. But they do not have the right to know what conflicts of interest, if any, the chair of the RTE authority may have with regard to his public role and his private business interests.

That's just plain crazy.

In its 2009 annual report, the Standards Commission recommended, in the "clear public interest", that the legislation for public bodies be reformed to "ensure that private interests are appropriately disclosed and that conflicts of interests are properly dealt with".

This was precisely what went wrong at the Dublin Docklands Authority. Two members of its board, chairman Lar Bradshaw and director Sean FitzPatrick, were also directors of Anglo Irish Bank while another director, Declan McCourt, was a director of Bank of Ireland.

The Comptroller and Auditor General report last week found that a serious conflict of interest had occurred because the same people on the Docklands board were providing the finance for the Irish Glass Bottle Site. The site was bought for €431m in 2007 and is now worth €45m. The taxpayer picks up the €386m tab.

Like the RTE authority, board members were asked to voluntarily disclose any personal, professional or business interests that may represent a conflict of interest in relation to the acquisition of the site. Well, they didn't.

When a complaint was made, way back in 2007 to the Standards Commission about Bradshaw and FitzPatrick's conflict of interest, they could do nothing.

The law still hasn't changed. Are the dogs still too big to bite?

Dr Elaine Byrne, of the Department of Political Science, Trinity College; twitter: @elainebyrne. She is the author of 'Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, A Crooked Harp?'

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss