Prime Time fallout an avoidable farce

THE botched handling of Prime Time Investigates programme which libelled Fr Kevin Reynolds could provide the ingredients for a Shakespearean tragi-comedy were its fallout not so serious.

However, the subsequent efforts by RTÉ, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and the Government to examine the background to the A Mission to Prey have turned the drama into something else . . . a farce.

While there might have been a feeling that the publication of the BAI’s report on the programme last week would have allowed dust to settle on the matter, it has gone on to highlight not only further inadequacies on the part of RTÉ, but the BAI itself. It has also raised questions about the adequacy of existing legislation to investigate breaches by broadcasters of the need for fair programming and respecting the privacy of individuals.

In addition, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte failed to cover himself in glory by initially hinting that he might seek resignations from the RTÉ board given his strident view that A Mission to Prey constituted “a shoddy, unprofessional, cavalier, damaging piece of work”. A few days later, he was happy to accept RTÉ’s reassurance that recommendations were being implemented and stressed that resignations were neither requested nor offered.

Without question, the gravest error of the programme makers was to set aside basic journalistic rules of verifying allegations as far as possible — most strikingly in their incomprehensible refusal to take up Fr Reynolds’s offer of a paternity test in advance of the documentary being broadcast on May 23, 2011.

It would have provided either conclusive confirmation or denial of the central allegation that the priest had fathered the child of a young teenager whom he had raped while working as a missionary in Africa in the 1980s. However, it is just one of many aspects of the affair that has revealed a series of gaps and deficiencies, not just in programme-making by the broadcaster but in how investigations into breaches of broadcasting legislation are conducted.

In setting the terms of the appointment of former BBC Northern Ireland controller Anna Carragher to conduct its inquiry, the BAI felt constrained by the Broadcasting Act 2009 to limit the investigation to events which occurred within RTÉ up to the point of transmission.

The most glaring example of the inadequacy of the recent process is how no insight has been provided to date as to why RTÉ continued to stand over its false allegations against the priest for several months until it finally issued a heavily criticised apology on October 6 which itself had to be amended. A month later, RTÉ settled the libel action taken by Fr Reynolds for a sum believed to be around €1m.

Bizarrely, the BAI praised RTÉ for its full co-operation with the inquiry, yet criticised it for its failure to waive its right to privilege on solicitor/client advice.

For its part, RTÉ sources maintain they were never asked by Ms Carragher to waive such a right.

However, the Irish Examiner understands from personnel involved in the making of A Mission to Prey that RTÉ lawyers who were aware, albeit belatedly, of the offer of a paternity test by Fr Reynolds in advance of the programme’s transmission, did not recommend the broadcast should be deferred.

The full picture is unlikely to emerge as an ongoing RTÉ internal inquiry being conducted by former Northern Ireland ombudsman Maurice Hayes, which will examine this aspect of the debacle, is almost definitely not going to be made public.

Meanwhile, the RTÉ board also seems to have been asleep on its own watch given the slowness in which it responded to the growing crisis once the results of the paternity tests emerged last summer.

RTÉ chairman Tom Savage also upset his own staff by appearing directly to blame head of news Ed Mulhall, one of the station’s most highly regarded and well-liked senior managers, in a Sunday Independent interview before the BAI report was completed. Following the board’s recent meeting with Mr Rabbitte, Mr Savage again seemed hesitant when answering questions about the board’s knowledge of how RTÉ handled the controversy.

While criticism has rightly focused on RTÉ’s conduct, the BAI’s own inquiry has been far from faultless. For a start, it is surprising that Ms Carragher, who was appointed after the BAI first considered hiring a senior counsel for the task, initially only invited reporter Aoife Kavanagh and Mr Mulhall to attend an interview, given several other personnel, including producer Mark Lappin, executive producer Brian Páircéir, and current affairs editor Ken O’Shea played key roles in the making of the programme. She also failed to contact a Kenyan journalist who had assisted with research.

The Irish Examiner understands that Ms Kavanagh’s interview with the BAI investigator lasted just 25 minutes. It might have been expected that all the main players would have been interviewed at length by Ms Carragher with the probability of a second round of interviews to try and clarify any contradictory evidence.

As for the BAI, the leaking of the main points of the Carragher report to the Irish Times in advance of its official publication is a major embarrassment, especially as RTÉ personnel claimed the disclosure had prejudiced their rights.

The BAI’s decision to publish the full report as well as its ruling to issue a €200,000 fine to RTÉ at 6pm on a bank holiday Friday was a rushed response to rumours that a Sunday newspaper was going to print a leaked copy.

Comments made by BAI chairman Bob Collins (a former director general of RTÉ) two days later that the timing of the report’s publication was a reflection of how the BAI didn’t stop working because of bank holidays was at best disingenuous.

While the BAI was admittedly on a big learning curve in staging its first inquiry under the Broadcasting Act 2009, there is a widespread belief that it could have been conducted in a more thorough manner, notwithstanding constraints imposed by the legislation.

To that extent, the minister cannot remain above criticism, as Mr Rabbitte should have anticipated such restrictions and ordered a full, independent inquiry.

Representatives of the BAI and RTÉ are due before an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday. Let’s hope that meeting can yield greater information than we have been given to date.


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