Should Tom Savage quit RTÉ?: Yes

ON May 23, I was told by an impeccable source it was their understanding that Tom Savage and the Communications Clinic had represented Fr Kevin Reynolds in the run up to the broadcast of the RTÉ Prime Time Investigates programme, ‘Mission to Prey’.

Surely not I countered, there must be some misunderstanding.

If this were true, I felt it would be explosive. Tom Savage’s company, the Communications Clinic could not possibly have been involved with an injured party or parties with a direct concern and interest in this programme, prior to broadcast.

He had only assured the Oireachtas committee on communications 24 hours earlier that no conflict of interest had ever arisen between his business and his role as chairman of the authority. He even went so far as to say he was fulfilling his role at the helm of the State broadcaster out of some sense of duty, a vocation as it were, as he maintained it cost him money every time he came in to work for RTÉ.

He was also emphatic that the first he learned of the problems pertaining to the defamatory programme was at the September board meeting.

I dismissed the information being put to me in the corridors of Leinster House as rumour. I fobbed it off as innuendo from someone looking for a smoking gun to advance my side of the debate surrounding conflicts of interest and the head of RTÉ.

My source and I agreed it was merely gossip, probably mistaken with Tom Savage advising Albert Reynolds at the time of the Fr Brendan Smyth affair.

It is not the function of politicians to meddle in the operations of RTÉ. It is not the role of the Oireachtas to attempt to stymie, muzzle or interfere in any fashion in the editorial decisions or dynamic within RTÉ.

It is our responsibility to ensure through the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland that there are systems, protocols, and procedures in place to ensure the independence and impartiality of RTÉ programming; to ensure that there are guidelines to guard against any vested or conflicts of interest so as to assist programme makers in delivering quality, fair, and balanced journalism in the public interest and in the best traditions of public service broadcasting.

Tom Savage’s role as founder, owner, and director, along with his wife Terry Prone and son Anton Savage of the media management and coaching company the Communications Clinic is at odds with these principles while he continues to serve as chairman of the RTÉ authority.

I don’t know Tom Savage in person. I’ve never met him. I don’t know his wife Terry Prone or son Anton Savage but by all accounts they are very good at what they do in the whole area of media management, coaching, and advice. Their clients include influential figures across the spectrum of political, clerical, and corporate Ireland. They have trained, advised, and coached broadcasters and journalists. They are a powerful troika.

Terry Prone herself is seldom off the air on flagship RTÉ television and radio programmes giving her opinion, comment and analysis on a range of important matters.

The Communications Clinic can help make or break a reputation.

This week it was confirmed the PR firm worked for the Irish Missionary Union to help them handle the fallout from ‘Mission to Prey’. Tom Savage omitted to tell the Oireachtas committee this. His wife Terry Prone insists he didn’t know, she never told him. Therefore to accept this we have to believe that Tom Savage, chairman of the RTÉ authority and founder, owner, and director of the Communications Clinic does not know what clients his own company represents? Yet he insists there has never been a conflict of interests on his watch.

In the Sunday Business Post, on May 22 last year, John Burke reported that Terry Prone and the Communications Clinic were advising the Irish Missionary Union in preparation from the expected fallout from ‘Mission to Prey’.

I share the concern of the National Union of Journalists about the revelation of the Communications Clinic’s involvement in advising the Irish Missionary Union in relation to the fallout from the programme.

The NUJ maintains that programme makers at Montrose have found this development deeply uncomfortable. It is imperative that Mr Savage is called back before the Oireachtas to set the record straight in the interest of fairness, clarity and transparency.

“Failure to do so would not be in the interest of RTÉ and it is essential that Mr Savage, as a director of the Communications Clinic, deal with this issue as a matter of urgency,” Seamus Dooley, secretary of the NUJ, maintains. As yet the Communications Clinic remains strangely incommunicado.

The new RTÉ guidelines on impartiality and conflict of interest must extend to policy makers at the top as well as programme makers in the frontline. In the best interests of the State broadcaster, the BAI have a responsibility to ensure that the RTÉ authority lead by example and uphold the highest standards which address any potential conflicts of interests.

As RTÉ marks 50 years of remarkable service to the Irish public, what they really need is a champion in charge, not someone who is playing for both sides — managing the home team, while coaching and advising the away team at the same time. In the best interests of RTÉ, public confidence in the state broadcaster, the integrity, impartiality, and independence of its current affairs and news coverage, Tom Savage cannot continue to run with the hare and hunt with the hound.

* John Whelan is a senator and former journalist

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