Communications Minister, Pat Rabbitte, meets the RTE Chairman and Board to discuss the critical BAI report. Helen Shaw explores some of the questions and argues good management could have saved RTE from bad journalism.
RTE’s problems are multiple: a E50 million record deficit and a devastating failure in its editorial standards and processes.
The cash crisis is hitting programming. But the editorial crisis cuts far deeper.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s report into RTE’s Primetime Investigates shows an incredible breakdown in editorial controls. The Minister used the words ‘shoddy, unprofessional and cavalier’.
As a former Head of RTE Radio it is hard to understand how this happened given the experience of the people involved. Long established guidelines were ignored and the lack of documentary evidence and paper notes is contrary to all serious journalistic practice, whether in print or broadcasting. Anna Carragher, the report’s author, talks of ‘groupthink’, a lack of challenge and review, which allowed the team to accept assumptions as facts. But, disturbing as the thirty-four page report is, it prompts many questions.
Central to those questions is the role of RTE Legal Affairs. What was its involvement in the case, what was its advice and risk assessment?
The BAI in its findings, which imposed the E200, 000 fine on RTE for a breach of its legal responsibilities under the 2009 Act, states ‘it is a source of regret’ that RTE did not waive its solicitor/client privilege with its in house legal staff. Why did RTE not do this? Given the scale of the libel and its consequences it is important the public know. The Carragher report expresses concern that the reporter was the sole conduit for contact with Fr Reynolds solicitors. Yet what is disturbing is that the report states that the May 18th RTE response to Fr Reynolds was sent by the reporter but written with the assistance and agreement of RTE Legal Affairs and the Executive Producer and Head of Current Affairs. By May 18th a letter from Mill Hill Fathers offered, for the first time a paternity test. A second letter from Fr Reynolds solicitors on May 19th was copied to Legal Affairs by the team but no reply was sent by RTE.
By May 23rd, the day of the programme’s transmission, a further letter is sent directly to the reporter by Fr Reynolds solicitors. This again offered a paternity test and stated Fr Reynolds would sue for defamation if the programme went out. This letter, while shared with the programme team, and verbally discussed with the Head of News & Current Affairs, Ed Mulhall, never went to Legal Affairs. While Mr Mulhall took full responsibility for the decision to broadcast, it remains bizarre that no one seriously considered the offer of the paternity test. There was such an assumption of guilt they never saw the offer as genuine.
It is not clear if Mr. Mulhall or Legal Affairs briefed the Director General on the paternity test offer. The report states there ‘appears to be no mechanism for alerting the Director General who is Editor in Chief’. In my RTE experience such alerts were standard requirements by Heads of Output.
When did this change and why? RTE is heavy on meetings and has several key editorial meetings across the week. Traditionally the Director General had regular contact with the Outputs Heads in Radio, Television and News & Current Affairs. When did a process develop where a major editorial and legal risk was not flagged to the Director General? The new editorial guidelines and editorial standards board create checks but the key dynamic is the relationship between the Director General and the content divisions heads.
A further, and significant, question for RTE is why they accepted an early retirement package with Mr. Mulhall without waiting for the report’s findings and without therefore providing any opportunity to explore what happened and why. The report does not include the transcripts of those involved but the real absence is an account from the senior manager himself; someone who has such a record for outstanding judgment.
The emphasis on the reporter, who has now taken voluntary redundancy, and the media’s portrayal of her as ‘shamed’ and ‘disgraced’ obscures the fact that layers of management lay between her and the programme’s transmission. She had an Executive Producer, a Head of Department and a Head of Division above her and they had RTE Legal Affairs advice. One might have expected the Head of News to brief the Director General or for RTE Legal Affairs to have flagged an alert given the scale of risk.
Was that risk assessed?
RTE, and independent, stable public broadcasting, is central to our democracy. We need trusted news and critical, courageous investigative journalism. Those who worry that that is in danger must worry about why this happened. The Chairman and RTE Board, who were appointed by the previous Minister, bridge the last Director General and the current one who started the job not long before this programme aired.
Did the board ask questions about editorial risk and structural process? Did they evaluate corporate governance? Did they provide challenge?.
A further question remains over the speed with which RTE reacted to the crisis post the libel settlement last November (indeed RTE knew once the paternity test was done in September what the outcome would be). It was this lack of public action that seemed to prompt the Minister to request the BAI investigation.
RTE needs to move on. It needs to get its finances and operations in order and restore public trust. But the failings identified in the BAI report are not just in journalism but also in management and in managerial structures and operations at the highest levels.
Good management would have saved RTE from bad journalism.
It is not clear that the changes will address the managerial gap. That requires open, engaged and collective leadership from the boardroom down rather than targeting frontline reporters who need support, training and robust editors. We all need RTE to get this right because as Carragher says in her foreword: ‘broadcasting’s powerful place in our society also brings heavy responsibilities and it is right and proper that those who hold others to account are themselves held accountable’.
The stakes are high but if RTE embraces that level of transparency, accountability and openness this dark episode may be the roots of a stronger, more public focused broadcaster. Now that would secure the public’s willingness to pay.
Helen Shaw runs Athena Media who produce The Media Show on RTE Radio 1. She served as MD RTE Radio (1997-2002) and previously worked with BBC NI as Editor news & current affairs, radio.