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Inadequate inquiries leave RTE tarnished

In the wake of the worst libel in broadcasting history in Ireland, it is only right to get to the bottom of how it happened.

However, far from being all-encompassing, far-reaching and forensic, the three investigations under way look set to reveal very little of what really happened in RTE regarding the broadcast of Prime Time Investigates: A Mission to Prey on May 23.

In truth, all of them are set to disappoint badly.

Neither external inquiry will look at events post-broadcast, meaning it is RTE's internal "analysis" that will seek to examine how the crisis was subsequently managed.

The inquiries look set to fall far short of sufficiently answering all the legitimate public concerns into how RTE got it so horribly wrong and how to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again.

With recrimination still thick in the air at Montrose, and as the State broadcaster struggles to reclaim some credibility, such a scenario can hardly be considered good enough.

Broadcasting Authority of Ireland Inquiry

RTE has already admitted "fundamental flaws" in the programme in which it committed the most egregious libel in the history of the State against Fr Kevin Reynolds, so the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland's (BAI) inquiry already looks to be superfluous.

Instigated by Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, the BAI has been given two months to produce its report.

Described as the "dominant" inquiry, given the body's statutory footing, in truth the BAI examination is set to be very limited in scope and will be largely toothless.

Any hopes of the BAI getting to the bottom of what happened are slim.

An investigator is to be appointed by the BAI's Compliance Committee within a matter of days and sources have said it is highly likely it will be a senior counsel. To avoid the appearance of a tribunal, the matter will not be given to a member of the judiciary to investigate.

The BAI inquiry will, under section 39 (1) (b) of the Broadcasting Act, inquire whether the programme was fair, objective and impartial. Under section 39 (1) (e), the BAI will inquire whether Fr Reynolds or any other person's privacy was "not unreasonably encroached upon".

However, of most importance, the BAI investigation will only concentrate on matters before the May 23, 2011 broadcast and not on the catastrophic failures in management afterwards.

This inquiry will therefore ignore totally how RTE, in the words of Fr Reynolds's solicitor Robert Dore, then aggravated the "appalling" damage done in the protracted manner in which it handled the libel proceedings following broadcast.

It will ignore the fact that RTE delayed in informing Fr Reynolds that the belated paternity test confirmed he was not the father.

It will ignore all of the subsequent decision-making process by senior managers -- including the Director General -- into how the decision to settle and the manner of that settlement was handled.

It will also ignore the vocal criticisms of RTE's corporate communications policies throughout the crisis as well as the "poor manner" in which the initial apology was broadcast -- heavily criticised by many within and outside the State broadcaster.

Surely any examination of the role of corporate communications would include the original statement by an RTE spokesman that "rolled heads don't learn", and the failure to inform staff of the decision to postpone Prime Time Investigates before it was announced on the Six One News.

Far from co-operating fully, it has also emerged that there have been attempts from within RTE to have previously critical journalist John Waters removed from his position on the Compliance Committee.

Mr Waters was highly critical of RTE in the wake of the broadcast and the BAI has sought legal advice which determined that Mr Waters could remain in his post.

Mr Waters, who is also a full board member of the BAI, may be asked to absent himself once the investigator presents the report to the board.

There is also some disquiet that former RTE DG Bob Collins is the chairman of the BAI as it investigates his former organisation.


Asked by RTE to examine its editorial procedures to see if they were robust enough, former DCU lecturer and now Press Ombudsman Prof John Horgan's inquiry will also only look at matters pre-broadcast.

RTE DG Noel Curran has said that Prof Horgan's inquiry will establish whether it was a personal or a systemic failure, but it has emerged that Prof Horgan's report will be far less than what was first indicated.

"My inquiry will only examine matters up until the day of broadcast," Prof Horgan told the Sunday Independent this weekend. Similar to the BAI inquiry he will ignore all of the crucial management errors in the wake of the broadcast.

Most importantly, Prof Horgan will not produce a full report, but only a series of recommendations which he will present to RTE.

Unsatisfactorily, neither Prof Horgan nor RTE would clarify exactly what sort of a presentation he will make, whether it would be written or oral.

RTE has only committed to publish Prof Horgan's recommendations, not any of his findings or conclusions.


Neither the inquiries of the BAI nor Prof Horgan will deal with the culture in RTE that may have led to this grave error. Given the extremely narrow focus of those two investigations, the substantive issues of how the debacle was handled in the aftermath of publication will only be covered by the internal RTE "analysis".

Despite Mr Curran's insistence that "nothing will be ruled out" in terms of sanctions for those who made mistakes, the public can have little faith in any internal investigation where the people involved will naturally seek to minimise their own exposure to the fallout of the crisis.

The RTE board is set to meet on December 15, at which a series of recommendations will be presented.

Ultimately, while we may have three separate inquiries under way into how Fr Reynolds was libelled in such a heinous fashion, none of them seem adequate to answer the many questions of licence-fee payers and RTE viewers.

At a time of great scandal, only a truly independent, unlimited exploration of all related matters in Montrose is sufficient to address public concerns.

As long as we wait for that to happen, the previously good name of RTE will remain badly tarnished.

Sunday Independent