It Will Take a Long Time to Regain Audience Trust

By Carl O'Brien
Irish Times
May 5, 2012

ANALYSIS: RTÉ FACES a major challenge in re-establishing its trust with viewers who have come to expect high standards from the national broadcaster.

The damage is in the detail. It's one thing to say RTÉ Prime Time Investigates programme was unfair and a breach of Fr Kevin Reynolds's privacy. We have known that for months.

But it's the sheer extent of failings both individually and collectively that make for shocking reading.

Former BBC Northern Ireland executive Anna Carragher investigated the programme for the Broadcast Authority of Ireland and has documented a series of failures that make it difficult to understand how a team with such a good reputation could allow the programme to be broadcast.

Take the area of documentary evidence. She found that the "standards of the production team on the ground . . . fell short of what should be expected, with interviews with significant sources not documented and an almost complete absence of documentary evidence".

Carragher's report says the programme was under consideration and discussion from October 2010, and a research trip involving the reporter took place in January 2011.

Yet there was no evidence of any written documentation until February of 2011 apart from a single handwritten sheet containing names and dates dating from the research trip.

On legal issues, given "the high risks inherent in the programme", Carragher commented that it was very surprising that the legal affairs department [RTÉ] became involved very late in the process, less than two weeks before transmission. She believed earlier input would, at the very least, have given the team "more time for reflection and consideration".

In this latter context her report "highlights that it was highly undesirable that the reporter was the sole point of contact between Fr Reynolds's solicitors and RTÉ. A piece of correspondence was not forwarded to the legal department by the production team on the day of transmission; while it is impossible to say definitively that if it had been there might have been a different outcome, it may be that this would have been the case."

In the area of scrutiny, she says there was a lack of "challenge within the department and an over-reliance on subjective issues for example, the demeanour of individuals . . ."

She believed a "groupthink" mentality on the part of the programme team convinced them "that the 'facts' verified their assumption and which led them to interpret the offer made by Fr Reynolds to take a paternity test as not genuine and a tactic to derail the programme".

In the case of reporter Aoife Kavanagh, she says that she did not appear to have met or questioned colleagues who, according to the primary source of the allegations against Fr Reynolds, were all aware of the allegations.

"... therefore it appears that second-hand repetition of gossip was being treated as corroboration. In these circumstances, and given the seriousness of the allegations, good journalistic practice would be that a more detailed and objective examination of the claim and its provenance took place.

"I am concerned that neither Ms Kavanagh's producer nor her editor interrogated this aspect more closely."

But overall it was the failures in management that allowed the broadcast to air. There was, she found, a significant failure of editorial and managerial controls within the organisation.

Repeatedly her report makes comments along such lines as "concern was raised that the editor did not interrogate this more closely" or that neither the reporter's "producer nor her editor interrogated this aspect more closely".

There was also the assumption "that members of staff working on the programme were familiar with the guidelines, but RTÉ had no way of verifying that this was the case".

The foreword to the independent investigation into the Prime Time programme that libelled Fr Reynolds contains a single, hopeful sentence that stands out from what is a devastating report for the national broadcaster.

"I hope RTÉ will emerge from this difficult period with strengthened processes and procedures and that Fr Reynolds will be able to feel that not only has name and reputation been enhanced, but that his experience will have made journalism better and more responsible into the future."

Can RTÉ emerge with its reputation strengthened and procedures and processes enhanced?

Time will tell. The BAI report is keen to stress that its findings should not be construed as representing a deterrent in respect of a continuing engagement with investigative journalism.

On the contrary, it states that it is keen to ensure highest standards in policy and practice are maintained in respect of current affairs. Audiences have been provided with exceptionally high standards in the past from RTÉ. It lost much of its reputation with a single, reckless, broadcast. It will take much longer to regain that respect into the future.


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