There’s a lot of talk about media accountability, accuracy and bias at present. Some of it is flowing from the controversy over the so called Frontline and bogus tweet account which was the subject of a BAI complaints decision against RTÉ last week. Some of it comes from the discussion over the proposed changes to the code of fairness and balance for news and current affairs which the BAI is also concluding.
Equally there is discussion over the BAI’s investigation of RTÉ’s ‘Fr. Reynolds’ Primetime and the report by investigator Anna Carragher which is due shortly. In many ways it is good to separate the apples from oranges (or apples from garlic given the week’s other news!). The Frontline ‘fake tweet’ issue is an error of judgement and even good journalists are allowed to have errors. RTÉ has already said ’sorry’ but it does have questions to answer on its processes, its editorial processes, which have been highlighted over the weekend. I don’t think it warrants a public inquiry (and the BAI has already ruled out any inquiry) but Sean Gallagher is open, or anyone else for that matter, to take another complaint against the programme based on the changed and continued allegations. We need to be careful that every single clash over an editorial error or judgement call does not result in endless inquiries which will be both costly and equally fruitless.
The Fr. Reynolds case was and is completely different and separate and the investigation governing it has been triggered by the Minister using part of the Broadcasting Act to investigate the matter. It did not result from a complaint and is not part of the normal complaint process under the BAI. The Fr. Reynolds investigation is not about a live programme and a judgement call within a live programme. It’s about a detailed constructed programme which was seen and vetted by several key editorial people in RTÉ and it’s about the broadcast given the subsequent libel case. What is puzzling about the weekend allegations about The Frontline is that is does not seem that these were made as complaints to either RTÉ or the BAI and have only surfaced post the BAI judgement and in response to news media coverage. If that’s not the case I’d love to be corrected?
For RTÉ the key now is to re-connect with the public in a new and more open, transparent manner. The new social media guidelines which will form part of the overall programming guidelines should be on the home page of the RTÉ website as a click through. The RTÉ Audience Council, which does exist although few know about it, must be given channels to connect with the public and to act, as it was intended, as an interface between the audience and RTÉ so that there is real communications. The Audience Council could really help RTÉ, but try to find it online or via the website and you will struggle. It needs to be empowered.
Emily Bell, formerly of The Guardian newspaper and now of the Tow Institute for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in New York, talks about the Internet and social media forcing journalism to be more transparent in all its processes, more open to its readers, listeners, viewers contributions and feedbacks and to recognising that what is needed today is ’see-through journalism’.
‘See-through Journalism’ is about getting rid of the cloak of secrecy around what we do in journalism and in the media. It’s about seeing ourselves as collaborators with our so-called audiences. It’s about respecting them and ensuring they know how we make the news, how we make decisions, about how we edit and construct stories. An informed and engaged public is more likely to support the valued news providers who offer trusted and accurate news and information stories which help and assist our lives. For RTÉ - and indeed any news organisation - the challenge is to see this crisis as an opportunity to re-invent, to open up rather than close down. RTÉ need to look at ways in which it does this via its website, its own programmes (there is no media programme on RTÉ radio or TV) and more importantly via public meetings. One of the things my colleague Kevin Healy did in my time on RTÉ’s executive board, when he was in charge of public affairs, was to set up an RTÉ road show where managers and programmes literally took to the roads and had open public meetings around the country on RTÉ, programming and feedback. They were lively discussions but the thing is when you open up and say you are listening to your audience, your clients, your customers, you often find that the majority of them support and value you and the conversations that follow allow you to understand and address the negative feedback.
The challenge for the Minister of Communications and the BAI itself is that the Internet does not come under their brief. The Internet and all the content that flows within, and via social media, is not governed by the regulations currently being discussed about broadcasting and equally while the print media loves to attack RTÉ it would have to think quite differently if it had to operate under the same news and current guidelines as the broadcasters. It is time for an overall Media Authority which brings together all forms of media and content creation, which is distributed to the public, and to merge and coordinate the ways in which we think about media regulation. The press is currently self-regulated and we know from other parts of public life how challenging that is as a concept. The conversation now needs to open up to the creation of an integrated media authority which connects and makes rational all the ways in which we as citizens and consumers are served by the media as a public and commercial good.