'Mission to Prey' defamation 'inexplicable'

'Mission to Prey' defamation 'inexplicable'

The chairman of RTÉ has said he still finds it inexplicable that the hugely damaging 'Mission to Prey' programme in which Father Kevin Reynolds was defamed was allowed to air.

Tom Savage said there were grave and exceptional failures implicit in the case which raised questions that go to the very heart of the State broadcaster's public purpose.

He said RTÉ accepts the findings of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) report that found the station was guilty of failures in editorial and managerial controls over the now-defunct 'Prime Time Investigates' series.

“RTÉ accepts the findings and can offer no excuse,” said Mr Savage.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath has called for Mr Savage to resign from his role as chairman, saying his position is untenable after the programme wrongfully accused Fr Reynolds of raping a woman and fathering a child in Kenya while a missionary 30 years ago.

The BAI fined RTÉ €200,000 and Fr Reynolds has been awarded compensation for damages to his reputation.

Several journalists involved in 'Mission to Prey' have been been moved to new roles in RTÉ, the presenter Aoife Kavanagh resigned and head of news Ed Mulhall retired early.

Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív requested a breakdown of figures on how much taxpayers' money RTÉ has paid out on defamation cases.

Mr Savage insisted the broadcaster would take on board all the recommendations in the BAI report with regards to policy and procedure, and insisted journalists will undergo further training and development.

“We have learned the lessons of what has been a bitter experience,” he said.

Mr Savage and director general Noel Curran got a grilling from the Oireachtas Communications Committee on the broadcaster’s response to the BAI report.

The station is facing two more defamation actions from Kenyan Bishop Philip Sulumeti who defended Fr Reynolds in the Mission to Prey episode and from a separate broadcast where it was claimed Richard Burke, the former Archbishop of Benin, had sex with a 14-year-old girl.

The family of another priest, late Christian Brother Gerard Dillon, have also called on RTÉ to either retract abuse allegations it aired concerning his time in South Africa or prove he was guilty.

Deputy Ó Cuív said the Fr Reynolds affair has prompted the need for an independent review to be carried out on RTÉ’s general approach to current affairs.

He added that the 'Twittergate' scandal involving unsuccessful presidential hopeful Seán Gallagher and the Frontline debate created even further concerns about RTÉ’s output.

“I believe that a review should take place of a number of randomly selected current affairs programmes from both radio and television made during the last year,” said Deputy Ó Cuív.

He said issues including choice of topics, editorial policy, method of selection of participants and panels of commentators and use of tweets and texts, should all be examined, as well as editing of interviews, balance and the personal interests of presenters and producers.

Meanwhile, the BAI pointed out that social media, including Twitter and the danger of having unverified tweets read out on air – as was the case with Mr Gallagher – is difficult to regulate.

Authority chairman Bob Collins said there was a fine line between imposing new rules and hampering broadcasters and the material they can use.

“Broadcasters know the challenge is much greater because of the nature of social media is much different,” said Mr Collins.

“Broadcasting of unconfirmed material is an issue that needs to be looked at carefully.

“How that can be regulated within statutory terms without putting an albatross around the neck of programme makers is a challenge that hasn’t been addressed, but certainly it needs to be looked at.”

Mr Gallagher yesterday compared his treatment by RTÉ – in which journalist Pat Kenny read an unverified tweet during a debate that the failed candidate’s campaign team believe wrecked his Áras hopes – to that of defamed priest Fr Reynolds. He was speaking publicly on the controversy for the first time since the election.

The businessman and former Fianna Fáil member said he was treated with hostility and arrogance when he questioned the source of the tweet that raised questions about his political past.

RTÉ bosses will appear before the Oireachtas Communications Committee next Tuesday to answer further questions on the Fr Reynolds-BAI report.

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