Let’s all hope RTÉ comes back stronger to serve the public interest

THE country needs an editorially strong RTÉ but the self-inflicted wound caused by the dreadful libel against catholic priest Father Kevin Reynolds has the potential to seriously injury the station’s future ability to delivery strong and original current affairs material to suit the public interest.

Already the next series of Primetime Investigates has been delayed, to date as yet unknown, and the fear must be that other programmes may be tempted, consciously or not, to pull their punches in case they get things wrong. The rich, powerful and criminal will be delighted by any neutering of RTÉ’s news and current affairs output.

There’s a degree of schadenfraude in the reaction of some people to the libel debacle at RTÉ. Media rivals should not engage in it, even if they are jealous of the licence fee provided resources that gives RTÉ a considerable advantage and are irked somewhat by the arrogance sometimes displayed by some RTÉ personnel who behave as if only they perform in the public interest. Those who have been the subject of legitimate journalistic inquiry by the station, including others in the Catholic Church and politicians, may be delighted to see RTÉ hoist by its own petard but should be reminded that the reporting of RTÉ in the majority of cases has been fair, accurate and essential. There have been many more successes than failures.

That is not to suggest that there have not been other examples of editorial failings occasionally at RTÉ, especially when documentary programmes may have overplayed the drama of events and created sensation to maximise audiences. For example, there was considerable fuss four years ago when a two-part series called High Society examined cocaine use in Ireland and alleged that an unnamed government minister had admitted to the use of the drug within the confines of Leinster House. RTÉ justified this broadcast on the basis that it was in a book and that the publisher of that book maintained that it was satisfied of the veracity of the information brought forward by the little-known author. That was roundly and justly criticised at the time.

While the Government was justified in requesting the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland conduct an investigation into the Primetime Investigates debacle, it is to be hoped that it is not intended to use this as a stick with which to beat RTÉ every time from now that it conducts investigative journalism or even normal day to day inquiry. I can imagine some politicians or public relations consultants on behalf of the wealthy trying to undermine the confidence of reporters in the stories they are about to report by reminding them of the Father Reynolds example, telling them that the publication of information would lead to similar consequences, even if it is the case that the information is entirely correct.

None of this is to deny the dreadful performance of RTÉ in broadcasting “Mission to Prey”. It is hard to imagine just how badly wrong RTÉ got this. The willingness of Reynolds to provide a DNA sample to deny his alleged paternity of a child in Kenya should have caused alarm bells to clang prior to broadcast.

The manner in which his legal representations were dealt with, again prior to broadcast, raises other very serious questions. The decision to confront him unexpectedly after a mass at his local parish church in Galway, and in full view of his parishioners, may have made for dramatic television pictures but may have been unnecessary and therefore unfair. The BAI inquiry will have to ask serious questions about what legal advice had been provided by RTÉ’s in-house legal team prior to broadcast. If this legal advice was not to broadcast, or to change the content seriously, why was it overruled?

Indeed, I should declare also what might be construed as a conflict of interest here in relation to RTÉ and Primetime Investigates. I was involved, as reporter, in the making of a Primetime Investigates programme, broadcast back in May 2005. I made the programme with two excellent journalists, Catherine Cleary as a researcher and with Brian Pairceir (one of those involved in the “Mission to Prey” programme) as producer. The programme dealt with tax avoidance, focusing on how wealthy people used the law to minimise their tax payments to the State. It focused on tax exiles. It also highlighted the enormous range of tax breaks that were made available to the wealthy who stayed in Ireland and questioned the economic damage that they would cause.

The programme was subjected to extensive legal review before broadcast. One prominent businessman was particularly exercised when he became aware that we intended to deal with his tax status (along with that of many others). RTÉ was insistent that I verify the information in my possession about his circumstances. It was entirely correct to do so.

We had a duty to ensure that what we broadcast was correct. Afterwards he issued legal proceedings against the station, not on the basis that the report was incorrect (he couldn’t, because it was accurate) but because he claimed we had breached his constitutional right to privacy in respect of his dealings with the Revenue Commissioners.

I swore an affidavit in response to his claim on behalf of RTÉ and, to my knowledge, nothing has ever come of it since, most certainly not any court proceedings.

I was happy with the way RTÉ stood up to the pressure that was applied against it, because the personnel involved knew that the information broadcast was correct and in the public interest.

RTÉ did have to issue one apology because of the programme, however. The continuity announcement made just before the broadcast of the programme mistakenly said it was about tax evasion rather than tax avoidance. This was a simple mistake, one that is often made by people who don’t understand the difference between the two things: evasion is illegal, avoidance is legal use of the tax laws to minimise payments. We were making no allegations of evasion against anyone mentioned in the programme, although the distinction was also lost on some of the contributors to the Questions and Answers programme that followed afterwards. A clarification and apology was made the following week.

And Primetime Investigates had far greater successes in highlighting serious issues in Irish life to the public than our effort. In particular its use of undercover cameras (which some would consider dubious ethically but was more than justified in the circumstances) highlighted abuse of highly vulnerable elderly people at the Leas Cross nursing home. This led to its closure and the establishment of greater safeguards for nursing home standards. There many other programmes that served legitimate public interest, particularly in relation to child abuse carried out by members of the priesthood. None of those other programmes have been compromised by the terrible errors in this one programme.

RTÉ has to be held accountable, not just for the circumstances of the broadcasting of the programme but for its handling of the aftermath. It seems to have moved slowly initially in issuing its apology and making adequate financial settlement to Reynolds although the internal and external investigations may reveal the reasons for this. Those involved now face an anxious time at the very least, as does the station. But the old saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” comes to mind. RTÉ has to take whatever medicine is dished out and come back stronger to serve us all.

* Matt Cooper will be signing copies of his new book How Ireland Really Went Bust at Waterstones in St Patrick’s Street, Cork at 1pm tomorrow and at Eason’s, Mahon Point, at 3pm.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

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