I mentioned when the Gavan O’Reilly resignation broke late Thursday, a couple of weeks back, that we’re not a live show and the agreement with RTE is that we hand over the show by latest lunchtime Friday so they can check it for transmission.
That’s all fine except media stories are media stories and we’d look a bit daft if we ignored them.
On Wednesday as I was recording this week’s edition (which is about the TV market, RTE’s financial woes and the competitive battle between RTE TV and TV3) I got a call from the Charlie Bird radio show saying they were under the understanding that the BAI report on the PrimeTime Investigates programme about Fr Reynolds would be out on Friday and would I come on the show and talk about it? I said sure but let’s check.
We were told the BAI Authority members were meeting Thursday morning and if they approved the report and its finding it would be published. We would normally edit and close the programme Thursday evening so decided to continue to record and make our show but booked Friday to do the edit. Right through the day the BAI declined to comment on the timescale for the release of the report.
We were told they were busy writing on Thursday and working on a release but no timeframe. Given that our session ended at 6pm, our editor had been on duty since 9am, we completed the episode with all the different elements and had closed by 5.30pm on the basis we were under pressure to deliver to RTE for transmission.
A tweet from Bryan Dobson said the Minister would be on the RTE Six One News if the report was out in time. Clearly it seemed the report was at least with the Minister.
Just after 5.30pm the BAI released the 34 page report, to its site along with its finding. The RTE newsroom led with it at Six One but it was obvious they had not had time to go through it. Throughout the day we were told the RTE DG Noel Curran would make a statement if the report was published and both Six One and Drivetime on RTE Radio 1 had similar responses from the DG and RTE issued a carefully prepared press statement accepting all the finding and showing their compliance with them.
At this stage I was trying to read all 34 pages of the Carragher report, the additional BAI findings document, the lengthy RTE response, the additional John Horgan report which was simultaneously published by RTE, and trying to make sense of it to do a short insert into the top of the Media Show so we could drop a couple of items and replace with a piece on the report and at least reflect it.
By 7pm post the Six One News we had clips of Noel Curran’s response and I had gutted the documents but the most compelling element in the responses was not RTE’s but that of the Minister Pat Rabbitte who broke through some of the PR soundbites with a damningly frank assessment of the report’s findings and called the PrimeTime Investigates programme and the journalistic work behind it ’shoddy, unprofessional and cavalier’. His sense of shock at the detail in the report reverberated. Several times he was asked by the interviewer Bryan Dobson whether he now had confidence in the DG and the RTE Board. He declined to say yes or no simply stating his confidence was shaken and he would be meeting the board and the DG at 8am on Tuesday morning.
Up until that point I had a sense that the release of the report, just before 6pm Friday, on a bank holiday weekend, could mean that its findings and implications were buried. It seemed somewhat contrived that the report issued so late on Friday although we are assured that the BAI was working frantically to get it issued in time and not hold it over the bank holiday weekend. But with all good intentions it did seem to us that if we were struggling to get it into a weekend show (which is operating like a lot of weekend newspapers and magazines) because of our production deadlines then a late delivery of the report would also make it difficult for Sunday newspapers to fully assess the report and with the May bank holiday many people’s attention is off news and current affairs from mid day Friday until Tuesday morning and Morning Ireland (which may now have to revise its 8am start time!)
Pat Rabbitte’s statement that he is calling a meeting with the DG and RTE Board at 8am Tuesday signaled to everyone that this will not get lost in bank holiday traffic and that it will run as a very big media story throughout next week and beyond.
In our own case all we could do was reflect that in the show and flag that we intend to go into the implications and consequences of the report in much greater detail next week and will follow what happens at the Tuesday meeting. We’ve already several key interviews lined up next week from people who have not been heard on this story and can take us much deeper into what happened and why. But our ability to re-make the show at 7pm was non existent and even with the short insert and change we did not hand over the programme until after 9.15pm to be reviewed by the commissioning producer. It takes time to edit, cut to duration and re format for delivery.
So what are the issues? Anna Carragher has done an excellent job in the 34 page report in trying to pull together the threads but there are some real questions that RTE needs to address and I really encourage people to read the actual report and not just the press and broadcast coverage.
The BAI in its findings expresses regret that RTE did not lift its client privilege with its legal advisors and legal team so that that information could have come into the report and its understanding of what happened and why. Given that the chairman of the BAI Bob Collins is a former Director General of RTE it suggests that the BAI believes RTE had the ability to do this legally but did not. We do not have an input from RTE legal affairs in the report but a core part of the report hangs on legal letters from Fr Reynolds to RTE particularly one to the reporter at the centre of the programme on the day of transmission itself when Fr Reynolds once again offered a paternity test and flagged his intent to sue RTE. Its clear from the report that the reporter passed this email letter to the production team, and the head of current affairs. The head of news and current affairs was told by telephone as he was at the Obama event. What remains bizarre is the unanimous decision to go ahead and broadcast the show without any discussion, it seems, about the potential issues involved or the liability to RTE in terms of a court case. It seems from the Carragher report that this letter did not go to RTE legal affairs. It is not clear if that failure would have in fact stopped the transmission because no view is given in the report from RTE legal affairs. It may well have been that the editorial decision to broadcast would have remained but its the events around those legal letters and the day of transmission which are quite revealing about the gaps in RTE News & Current Affairs procedures.
RTE, in its reponse, is keen to show everything that has been done since April in its pre-emptive move before the report’s publication. All that is well and good but some of it raises questions for RTE which may be part of that Tuesday meeting.
1.Why did RTE at an executive and board level react so late? Nothing in the Carragher report will have come as a surprise to RTE since its all based on their own internal material and all this was known to them by latest November given the background to the programme would have gathered for the legal case and for the internal inquiry post the libel judgement. Key people only stood aside when the Minister asked the BAI to investigate, post the libel settlement, on November 23rd. RTE’s failure, at the Board level, to take decisive action after the court case and the fact that the key decision-makers were still in their posts appeared to have prompted ministerial action. As a former member of the executive board of RTE (I was Head of RTE Radio 1997-2002) it is always uncomfortable to see politicians in the midst of the public broadcaster’s operations we have a legacy of political interference in RTE and the direct legacy of Ray Burke’s corrupt actions in radio (see Moriarty report 1!) but public accountability for the publicly funded media is the final responsibility of the Minister. It would have been preferable if the BAI had called the investigation itself but these are new powers and the BAI would normally respond to a request to investigate rather than make that call itself.
The Minister’s decision to invoke the 2009 Act and call for an independent investigate was necessary and we would not have got to where we are now without it. The RTE John Horgan report, issued yesterday post 6pm, is fine but was limited by RTE to exploring guidelines and procedures rather than what happened and why. It is equally not clear why this report could not have been issued at the time of the April guidelines announcements and given context and a rational background to those changes which took many by surprise given the BAI report was not out.
2. Can we believe, given the experience and reputation of the people involved, that this was an isolated programme or has the collapse in journalistic good practice (note-taking for legal purposes is part of Journalism 101) been part and parcel of our programmes? Was the casual approach to ethics, guidelines and referral in this case part of a culture which had developed in that strand or in the division? Can we possibly believe it was isolated? The full transcripts of the team would help us understand that - including the one with the head of news & current affairs - as to why everyone believed this story unquestioning? Was the Director General aware of this programme and to what extent was he aware of it? What level of briefing did the division give to the DG and the executive board? In assessing this programme was there a conversation about RTE’s ability to stand this up in court? If not, why not?
3. RTE’s decision to grant early retirement to the Head of news & current affairs, Ed Mulhall, before all processes were finished has to be questioned. The clarity over who runs the news and current affairs division could have been resolved without that decision being taken. Yesterday the reporter at the centre of the programme resigned and that’s the first time the word ‘resignation’ has been used. There is as RTE tells us an independent HR inquiry going on. The challenge RTE faces is that the burden of this failure of standards, or absence of standards, appears to be falling on the reporter. In any editorial process the reporter is at the bottom of the chain. That is why there are producers/directors, middle managers and finally heads of divisions.
All the non-existent processes that the Carragher report highlights existed under a layer of management. The lack of note-taking, paper records, documentary evidence, challenge and review is all the responsibility of management across the organisation. What is shocking about the Carragher report is that many of the existing guidelines were ignored or misunderstood. People seemed unclear about their meaning. That responsibility - to ensure staff know and understand their responsibilities within an editorially led organisation - is the responsibility of senior management. The appalling failures in management are at the heart of what happened and that is why the word systemic is used in the report. ‘Groupthink’ and a lack of challenge and review can not easily be tackled by new guidelines. It requires leadership. External experts can no provide that.
3. How do we learn? The big message from RTE post the report publication last evening is that the organisation is learning from the events. A key part of that learning will be openess, transparency and an acceptance that things must change completely. It would be good to see external outstanding candidates being seriously considered for the current vacancies. It would be good to see RTE re-investing in journalistic training - not just guidelines and social media training. RTE used to be a primary trainer in its sector. It would be good to see more diversity at executive board level. It would be good to see RTE engaging with the public - in the period 1997-2002 we used to do a road show, led by Kevin Healy, where RTE - including the executive board - went to towns and cities and listened to the public. It would not be a bad idea to open the windows again. Our own humble show The Media Show is a beginning - but we’re not a public feedback show - we can’t do a digital ‘mailbag’ but it is needed. The RTE Audience Council could play a much more prominent role as an interface between the public (who are 50% funders of RTE) and RTE itself. Yet it is still true that the vast majority of licence fee payers have no idea there even is an Audience Council and who is on it let alone its remit and function.
If the Minister is looking at the big picture the independent regulation of RTE is at the heart of this. Does it currently work?If not why? and what are the solutions? Given the financial crisis which is literally threatening the future of RTE - with 2012 promising a 50 million euro deficit -that question of regulation and governance is not academic but may rapidly become one of survival. Let’s hope everyone at that meeting on Tuesday is up to the challenge. Now is not the time to blink.