Lessons for US All in Rte's Libel Debacle

Irish Independent
May 5, 2012

The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland report on the RTE programme 'Mission to Prey', which grievously libelled Fr Kevin Reynolds, does not portray the national broadcaster, which is funded by TV licence payers, in a flattering light.

In the organisation's own statement on the report, RTE director general Noel Curran admitted: "We are not proud of the picture presented in the findings."

Mr Curran then goes on to acknowledge that RTE made "grave errors" in the making of the programme. That's almost certainly an understatement.

The BAI report, which was compiled by former BBC Northern Ireland controller Anna Carragher, catalogues a series of errors and system failures which ultimately led to the defamation of Fr Reynolds.

In her report, Ms Carragher accuses the Prime Time Investigates team of "group think", is highly critical of the absence of any contemporaneous notes of key editorial meetings or interviews with sources for the programme, condemns the secret filming and "doorstepping" of Fr Reynolds, and concludes that the standards of the production team on the ground "fell short of what should be expected".

The BAI report is by any definition a formidable indictment of RTE's editorial practices. Reading the report it is difficult to resist the conclusion that, in the absence of any meaningful checks and balances, members of the Prime Time Investigates team convinced themselves that certain things were true merely because they wanted them to be true.

With RTE having scrapped Prime Time Investigates, the most urgent question that now needs to be answered is: where now for current affairs and credibility?

RTE says it has addressed the weaknesses and failings documented in the BAI report. That is a message that will have to be repeated, re-emphasised and reinforced through action over the coming months and years.

It is important for us all in a democratic society that, human frailties apart, what appears on our screens has been thoroughly tried and tested for veracity. RTE is largely funded by its viewers via the TV licence, in reality a ¿160 per year tax on all TV-owning households. In return we are entitled to expect the highest standards.

The national broadcaster now starts out on a long journey of recovering lost ground. It is an arduous undertaking and one whose importance stretches far beyond the confines of Donnybrook.

Like all media today, the challenge is to reflect matters of public interest in a manner that informs and alerts an audience that is entitled to expect nothing less.


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