Wednesday 26 June 2019

Heads must roll, but RTE shouldn't be emasculated

Alison O'Connor

IF you want to get on the anti-RTE bandwagon, you'd better be quick because seats are filling fast. There is a creeping danger that the national broadcaster could be damaged far beyond what is necessary regarding the Fr Reynolds libel case.

The station's management could give lessons in how to make a bad situation disastrous. But we need not allow the situation run away with itself on the basis that there are so many people out there delighted to see a media organisation in trouble and particularly RTE, as the major broadcaster in the State.

It's a puzzle of epic proportions as to how RTE management, and in particular its director general Noel Curran, allowed this situation to slide so far -- that's just what has happened since the case was decided less than 10 days ago.

Imagine how different things might be now if the director general had stood outside the courts last Thursday week and expressed the profound regret of the station for how Fr Reynolds had been so shockingly libelled? Firstly, it would have been entirely appropriate, given what had gone on, but it would also have set a proper tone of contrition and lessons learnt.

Instead, there was an "apology" read out at great speed on RTE 1 prior to that night's 'Prime Time', the tone of which bore no relation at all to any sense of regret or sorrow. The subsequent 'Drivetime' interview by RTE's head of corporate communications Kevin Dawson really just put the tin hat on it all, as did the continued baffling silence from Noel Curran.

To anyone who has ever had a gripe with RTE, there is now an open goal that stretches from one end of the pitch to the other. It is a dangerous situation for the station.

On the political front, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte acted properly when he ordered an independent inquiry. However, you have to be worried about a situation where RTE has managed to put itself in such a vulnerable position.

The station has always had a difficult balancing act in trying to hold the Government of the day to account -- that same Government being its paymaster. Programme producers will tell you privately this is something that is always at the back of their minds when wondering how far to push contentious political issues.

I doubt any of them have the appetite for engaging in any of that right now. In fact, there is a mixture of seething anger and continuing disbelief among staff at how all this has been handled.

The Association of Catholic Priests, which was instrumental in Fr Reynolds being able to take his case, has taken the opportunity to complain that there is a serious anti-Catholic and anti-priest bias among sections of the media, including some in RTE.

The association cited an Iona Institute survey, independently carried out, which showed that people significantly overestimated the number of priests guilty of child abuse.

You couldn't help but have some sympathy for those priests around the country who are constantly living in the shadow of clerical sex abuse and who, as we see from the Fr Reynolds case, are obliged to stand aside from their ministry as soon as an allegation is made.

But, and this is a very big but, the reasons for all of this are entirely understandable, given the recent history of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

They are correct that there is an anti-Catholic bias among some journalists, but there was also a very strong anti-media bias in the church, especially when it came to the investigation of the rape of children by some priests.

THE Iona Institute survey may have shown that numbers are considerably overestimated but the results are hardly a surprise. Much of this is down to the years of lying, dodging, self-protection and downright bad-mindedness in which the church engaged, as we as a society attempted to get to grips with the sexual abuse of children by clerics.

The media is certainly not without blame and it does children a disservice for people to imagine that the main and only danger from child abuse comes from priests. But the real target should be their own bosses: the bishops, the cardinals and, ultimately, the Pope.

It is through their years of lies and cover-ups and the shifting of abusing clerics around different parishes that the situation has arisen where priests have to step aside once an allegation arises.

The situation does indeed lack balance. I refer again to how this must have a terrible affect on the ordinary decent non-abusing priests. But Irish society has been through major recent traumas in relation to clerical abuse. It will take time, and continuing effort on the part of the church, to rebalance the scales.

Back at RTE, Noel Curran finally put himself in front of a microphone on the 'Six One News' on Tuesday night. He was on the receiving end of an excellent interview by Bryan Dobson, in the course of which Dobson asked Curran if he would be stepping aside during the investigations.

Curran, a talented and bright guy who is well liked by staff, came out of the interview poorly. However, there was an important signal in there, in that the news anchor clearly felt that while this was his boss, he would be treated in the same way as anyone else and tough questions would be asked. Dobson was showing that he worked in an organisation where such standards of journalism were still expected.

Lessons will be learned. Heads will roll. But there is a vested interest for us all in ensuring that RTE's current affairs division is not utterly emasculated by the aftermath of this sorry mess.

Irish Independent

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