RTÉ ‘devoured good practice’ in pursuit of edgy journalism

The current appetite for “edgy and groundbreaking journalism” led RTÉ to “devour good editorial practice” when it screened the Prime Time documentary about Fr Kevin Reynolds, one of its main news anchors has said.

RTÉ ‘devoured good practice’ in pursuit of edgy journalism

Brian Dobson described it as a fundamental failure by the national broadcaster.

Speaking at his inaugural lecture as adjunct professor of public service broadcasting at the University of Limerick, RTÉ’s Six One news anchor warned of the hazards that come with the ambition to produce programmes that make a real impact.

This is particularly the case in current affairs programmes, which he believes are exposed to more risks and under greater pressure to maintain audiences.

“When those two ingredients — risk and ratings — are mixed together, there is a potentially explosive compound. Certainly that’s what lies behind the single biggest crisis in RTÉ news and current affairs in my 25 years — Fr Reynolds’ libel case involving Prime Time,” he said.

“Much has been written and said about the programme, about RTÉ’s handling of the legalcase, and the many lessons to be learned. But it seemed to me that RTÉ’s fundamental failure was to allow this appetite for ‘edgy’, groundbreaking journalism to devour good journalistic practice and particularly editorial practice. It was failure above all of editorial control,” he added.

According to Mr Dobson, all RTÉ staff suffered reputational damage as a result of the Prime Time documentary.

However a number of things have happened at the organisation which have helped restore public confidence in its journalism.

“New, more rigorous procedures were put in place with clear lines of editorial control and responsibility. And RTÉ current affairs got back up on the investigative horse,” he said.

“Where it could have lost its nerve, instead RTÉ recommitted itself to investigative journalism, established the investigations unit which has produced a series of important programmes in the period since.”

Crucially, he added, investigative programmes are now broadcast when they are ready to be broadcast and when they have cleared the editorial process.

Mr Dobson shared his thoughts on the future of the media.

“And if ‘old media’ are to have a future it will be as providers of news and information that can be trusted, that can be believed. Particularly in public service broadcasting we must stand by the principle that our role is to illuminate, to try to promote calm, reasoned debate.”

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