Should RTE investigate itself?

Who minds the minder? In the investigation of ethics, who investigates the ethics of the investigator?

Who minds the minder? In the investigation of ethics, who investigates the ethics of the investigator?

These are the obvious questions prompted by the recent acknowledgement by the national broadcaster, RTE, that it had gravely defamed Fr. Kevin Reynolds in its “Prime Time Investigates” programme, under the pejorative title “Mission to Prey.”

“Defamed” would seem a relatively benign description of an accusation of rape and the fathering of a child: an accusation which held him up to public infamy and resulted in his having to leave his ministry and his home. It, as somebody has said, “turned his life upside down.”

It was a trial by the media and offended the basic principles of our laws, under which a person is innocent until proven guilty in our courts. In these courts, the State, taking a case in the name of “The People,” has to prove the guilt of an accused person. The accused does not have to prove his or her innocence. In the follow-up of the television programme, Fr. Reynolds had to prove his innocence.

The programme, the content of which ended up in the High Courts and the payment of very substantial damages, raises issues of public importance. What do we, as ordinary people, expect of our national broadcaster, and how it goes about its business?

Apart from entertainment, we have come to see it as a sort of watchdog of our democracy: an investigator of the affairs of State and the institutions which impinge on all our lives. That is how it presents itself in its serious investigative programmes. All institutions! And that includes the Catholic Church, to which a very substantial number of Irish people still give their allegiance. But it also includes itself, the national broadcaster, which in its influence, is probably one of the most powerful of our institutions.

In the shadow of its recent experience, should it now have itself investigated? While the Press Ombudsman is currently investigating the Reynolds case, has the time not come for an independent investigation into its methodology, its agendas, and its objectivity. It may not be an entirely comfortable perspective. As the Sunday Times writes: “The centre of a glasshouse is not a good vantage point from which to throw stones.”

The methodology which involved confronting Fr. Reynolds, without any prior notice, as he was leaving his church, having administered First Holy Communion to children, would seem an infringement of ordinary good-mannered decency. The refusal to explore his denial of the allegations of paternity, and a postponement of the broadcast pending the result of a test, was not only rash, but more importantly was a refutation of his natural right to justice. For all of which the cash-strapped station now has to pay damages, which however substantial, can never compensate for the trauma caused to a decent man in his retirement years.

And this inevitability leads to the question of objectivity. Was sensationalism more important than substance, vision more compelling than fact? If so, why? Has RTE, as an institution, become too big, and too arrogant, for its boots? In the past few years, it would appear even to its casual listeners, that the station had adopted an anti-Catholic bias, not always overt but nevertheless obvious in tone and attitude and aside.

The institutional church did not cover itself in glory, in the manner in which it dealt with clerical abuse, adopting retreat rather than confession and openness. Thus the climate was created by media coverage that “they (priests) are all at it.”

But having raised the temperature, the national broadcaster did nothing to steady it, and the church by its obfuscation did nothing to reassure its diminishing members still in the pews. So every priest was a target, and an Amarach survey found that about 50 per cent of Irish people believed that about 25 per cent were guilty of child-abuse.

The actual statistic is in the region of two per cent, and the vast, vast majority of child molestation is, tragically, interfamilial, an area into which even RTE dare not tread. But two per cent is two per cent too much, in its origin and character, and in the devastation it has caused. Maeve Lewis of One in Four, herself a trenchant critic of bishops, very fairly acknowledged that “abuse by priests got disproportionate coverage...... and gave the public the impression (that) clerical abuse was much more common than it was.”

How much of this impression was formed by the lack of balance in a media as powerful as RTE? In its capacity to form opinions, how objective was the national broadcaster? How fair? In the climate of the time, and the awful circumstances of the crimes, it remained unchallenged, until the Reynolds programme, when it became libellous. The station spoke, as somebody said, with the authority of an Old Testament God. But, then RTE doesn’t believe in God!

The broadcaster was very quick in its pursuit of the resignation of bishops, some of whom had only the most peripheral association with the reporting of abuse. Yet the principals involved in the offending programme, are still in their jobs, and have not been asked to even temporarily stand down. This again presents as a double standard - not putting their money where their mouth is.

The foregoing was written prior to the government decision for the holding of an investigation by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. This is a welcome extension of RTE’s own decision to investigate itself. But it begs the question: would a procedure entirely independent of broadcasting, such as an inquiry chaired by a retired Judge, be preferable?

Since the national broadcaster is largely financed by money from ordinary people, in the form of licence fees, a complete report of all investigations, international and external, should ultimately be made available in print form, and not just read at rapid gabble speeds on the television.