THERE is some irony in the fact the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has published its report into RTÉ’s Mission to Prey fiasco the very week the BBC is being applauded for its exposé into Cardinal Seán Brady’s handling of sex abuse allegations.
Good journalism means following the story, checking the facts, backing those facts up with documents, checking one more time, and affording those affected the opportunity to respond in a fair and balanced manner. These are the basic tenets of reporting.
The BBC followed those principles to the letter in their This World programme. However, RTÉ’s Mission to Prey fell well short of that standard. The Prime Time Investigates programme, aired in May last year, accused Galway-based priest and former missionary Fr Kevin Reynolds of non-consensual sex with a Kenyan woman and of fathering her child in the 1980s.
As explosive allegations go, they don’t get much more damaging than that. Given the very grave nature of the claims, any news organisation would have made absolutely certain of them before publishing them. We now know that RTÉ fell well short of that.
In her 34-page report published by the BAI shortly before teatime yesterday, the former BBC Northern Ireland controller Anna Carragher highlights a litany of basic errors that has destroyed the reputation of the State broadcaster and cast serious doubt on its ability to continue to produce high-quality investigative journalism.
Ms Carragher catalogues a number of concerns about how the Prime Time Investigates team approached the programme — from the very basic failure to take notes to the cardinal errors of failing to corroborate the material, failing to check the veracity and credibility of the sources of material they had, and even the impartiality of the editorial team.
The report highlights a culture within the team which completely deviated from basic journalism standards. There was an abject failure to do what any first-year student is taught in their first week in journalism school — check their sources.
Ms Carragher is especially critical of the “group-think” mentality that existed within the production team.
In every conceivable way, this was one of the most appalling pieces of journalism ever to have been aired by RTÉ. To call it journalism at all is to misrepresent what it was; it was more akin to trailer-trash reality TV.
Pat Rabbitte, the communications minister, probably put it best on RTÉ Six One news when he described the programme as “shoddy, unprofessional, cavalier, and damaging”. That Mr Rabbitte refused to express confidence in the board of RTÉ underlines just how serious an issue this is for the State broadcaster.
RTÉ’s managing director of news and current affairs, Ed Mulhall, enjoyed, until this incident, an unblemished record of service, and was widely regarded within the broadcaster and in Irish journalism. His decision to accept full responsibility and retire was the right thing to do, although it is entirely understandable that he would have trusted those who worked under him.
It is extremely difficult to see how the other journalists named in the report could ever be allowed to return to an editorial position within the State broadcaster.
Other media organisations have in the past made catastrophic errors, leading to costly pay-outs. But as State broadcaster, with an essential public service ethos, we hold RTÉ to an even higher standard. The public’s trust in RTÉ as a reputable source for investigative journalism has been considerably damaged. Restoring that trust will take years.
Journalism, especially adversarial investigative journalism, is prone to error, which is why the standards set by journalists, both for themselves and by the news organisations for which they work, must be scrupulous.
Issues such as clerical sex abuse are important issues of public concern, and it is right that RTÉ should seek to investigate them. But the matter in which Prime Time Investigates approached such programming was appalling.
The public may, unfairly, tar all RTÉ journalists with the same brush but the reality is that, privately, many seasoned reporters working for the State broadcaster were horrified about what happened, and how it could have been allowed to happen.
The real danger now is that RTÉ itself will shy away from what it does best — investigative reporting. We cannot afford to lose that.
* Tom Felle is head of journalism at University of Limerick
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