RtÉ Team Made Submissions Defending Standards after Draft Report Published

By Harry McGee
Irish Times
May 7, 2012

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte arrives at RTÉ studios following the publication on Friday of a Broadcasting Authority of Ireland report into the Prime Time Investigates programme Mission to Prey, which defamed Fr Kevin Reynolds. RTÉ has been fined ˆ200,000.

BACKGROUND: Four members of 'Mission to Prey' team argued over findings on journalistic standards

SUBMISSIONS MADE by the team involved with RTÉ's Mission to Prey to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland made detailed defences of its journalistic standards and some key editorial decisions, while conceding the programme had seriously defamed Fr Kevin Reynolds.

Four members of the production team made submissions following the completion of a draft report by investigating officer Anne Carragher in February and took issue with some of its findings. The submissions were made by reporter Aoife Kavanagh; producer Mark Lappin; executive producer Brian Páircéir; and head of current affairs Ken O'Shea.

The submissions were not released by the authority but the details strongly defended key decision-making processes and challenged conclusions reached by Ms Carragher's draft reports. None of the submissions altered the final report or findings, save for a brief paragraph summarising what was said.

The contention put forward by those involved with the programme was that the enormity and gravity of the defamation of Fr Reynolds resulted in the programme-makers being criticised not only for the mistakes [which they admitted were major], but for the journalistic standards involved in almost every aspect of the investigation. They argued there was evidence that the team went to far greater lengths, and endeavoured more to ensure standards were upheld, than was reflected in the report.

Ms Carragher's report was highly critical of the large reliance placed on the credibility of a person she described as the primary source. This was the person who first informed the journalist Aoife Kavanagh about the allegation that Fr Reynolds had assaulted a Kenyan teenager named Veneranda and then abandoned her child.

The allegation was made while Ms Kavanagh was on a research trip to Africa in January 2011. Ms Carragher concluded that no attempt was made to contact those mentioned by the primary source as also being aware of the account. Consequently, "second-hand repetition of gossip was treated as corroboration". She also stated that not enough was done to test the credibility of the source, given the seriousness of the allegation.

The report said the producer Mark Lappin and senior editors Ken O'Shea and Briain Páircéir should have interrogated these aspects more closely.

The findings in relation to sources were vigorously challenged by the RTÉ team, which said there were five sources: Veneranda; her daughter Sheila; a priest; the former headmistress of the school; as well as a fifth source who (in the production team's opinion) provided strong evidential support that backed the investigation. The emergence of the fifth source, who was seen as authentic and credible, was seen as having a crucial bearing on the decision-making. They were also influenced by the high degree of knowledge Veneranda possessed about the school compound and living quarters in the 1980s, details that convinced them she knew Fr Reynolds and his living area. Programme-makers argued that she was the primary source, not the other person.

The BAI investigator's report criticised the lack of a paper trail, saying that the only record available from the time the investigation was given the go-ahead in October 2010 until February 2011 was a list of names that Ms Kavanagh brought back from Africa. Some other omissions were highlighted, including lack of evidence on trying to locate documentary records to stand up an allegation that Fr Reynolds, through the local bishop, secretly paid Sheila's school fees at a later stage.

Generally, Ms Carragher was critical of the lack of a paper trail throughout the process, including an absence of notes recording key meetings of senior RTÉ personnel discussing the Reynolds section of Mission to Prey.

Ms Kavanagh told the investigator that she had lost a notebook she had used while investigating. But it was also pointed out by the team that Mr Lappin, who also travelled to Africa, had taken copious notes. The programme-makers had also recorded a great deal of material and had, according to them, tried to procure records such as the school bills, but were hampered by the practical difficulties involved in obtaining records in African countries and by the passage of time since the 1980s.

They also argued strongly that the report had not given due regard to the important research conducted by the investigative journalist, Mike Njenga, an experienced television journalist with the national broadcaster in Kenya. Ms Carragher had not sought to interview him or obtain his notes, despite submissions arguing he was an integral part of the Prime Time team.

The report concluded that the "doorstep" interview with Fr Reynolds in May 2010 unreasonably encroached on his privacy, although Ms Carragher accepted that the production team had done it in good faith and it had not breached RTÉ guidelines in place at the time. However, there were mixed views on that approach among the team. Mr Páircéir argued for it on the basis that in the past, priests under scrutiny had tended to "disappear" before they could be interviewed on camera.

Such doorstep interviews involve a subject being "confronted" and by their nature they tend to give the subject the appearance of guilt, especially when they try to avoid the camera. However, Fr Reynolds robustly denied the allegations being put to him and did not try to evade the questions. His attitude did lead to some doubt among the team but the view of more senior members was persuasive to the effect that the evidence already gathered was sufficient.

Some members of the team conceded in retrospect that there was "groupthink" about the assumption that the programme's central allegation was true. There was an over-reliance on the precedent of the manner in which previous Prime Time Investigates programmes had faced down legal and gagging threats. It was that which led to the crucial decision to treat two separate offers of paternity tests as not genuine and as stalling tactics.

This decision was a major mistake, easily the most fundamental. The team's thinking on it was coloured by its conviction the allegations were true, the mistaken belief that his superiors had pressurised him to demand such a test, and the emergence of the fifth source.

However, none should have overruled the only reliable means of proving or disproving the allegations, it was conceded.


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