This past week, Sarah McInerney, a reporter for the Sunday Times of Ireland, contacted us for our thoughts on the high profile cases involving Ireland’s public broadcaster RTE.
The two big issues that we’ve covered are the Father Kevin Reynolds libel and the fake tweet in the presidential debate. In both of those cases, the errors could seemingly have been avoided through proper fact-checking. What’s shocking about these cases is the opportunities to fact check that were either ignored or not taken.
Catholic priest Father Kevin Reynolds was accused by RTE of raping and impregnating a minor-aged girl. Prior to the claims being aired on RTE, Father Reynolds denied the charges and offered to take a paternity test, but RTE still went ahead with the program’s claims. Months later, after Father Reynolds was removed from his parish, he won a substantial libel payout, on-air apologies on at least two occasions, and he has been reinstated at his parish. The case led to three investigations of RTE — one by Ireland’s press ombudsman at the request of RTE, one by RTE’s director general, and one by the Irish Broadcasting Authority.
Sean Gallagher was the front-runner in Ireland’s presidential campaign when during an RTE debate, RTE aired a tweet that later turned out to be false information challenging Gallagher’s credibility. Gallagher ended up losing the election and complained to the Broadcasting Authority, which recently ruled in his favor. In the case of Gallagher’s complaint, The Irish Independent reported that Sinn Fein said Sept 17 on Twitter its candidate Martin McGuiness wouldn’t have a Twitter account “Before ratification.” If that’s the case, why did RTE air a tweet from a Martin McGuiness campaign account during the debate? McGuiness himself later noted RTE didn’t check the tweet “with any of a number of representatives of my campaign team who were present in RTE on the night.”
Mistakes happen, but the subjects were very important/big and, thus, the implications/effects were big — a Catholic priest accused of rape and impregnation, who was removed from his parish because of the report, and a man considered the frontrunner in an upcoming presidential election who lost the election following the debate in which his credibility was challenged with an uncredible piece of information. (Certainly, we cannot argue whether the tweet was the single straw that broke the election for Gallagher, but it is worth noting.)
Because of the severity of Father Reynolds’ libel case and the apparent many ways the libel could have been avoided but wasn’t, any error or accusation of error RTE makes will be highlighted — like the Corrib Rape Tape (see this case here), further questions about the “Mission to Prey” program, an investigative program, accused made (see stories here and here) — and become more noteworthy, interesting, and high-profile than they would otherwise.
In iMediaEthics’ coverage, just following up on the Father Reynolds case and its fallout led to our finding out about these other issues at RTE.
Questions These Cases Present
In the Gallagher case:
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- What digging did RTE do before airing the tweet? Did it even ask McGuiness, who was in the debate, about it? How did that one tweet make it to air and not any proof of its inaccuracy?
- How many people verified the social media information before airing it and who was monitoring it?
- What social media policies did RTE have in existence at the time?
In the case of Father Reynolds:
- Why was his offer to take a paternity test declined?
- Why was his offer not a signal to RTE that there might be issues with the program? The apology RTE issued noted that Father Reynolds “immediately protested his innocence and denied all the allegations,” “repeated his protestations of innocence, asked RTE not to broadcast the interview and volunteered to undergo a paternity test.” What happened on RTE’s end? Why did RTE go ahead with its report?
- Where did the story even originate?
- RTE interviewed the woman in question and her child. Did it verify outside of their claims? How?
- How many people worked on the Fr Reynolds reports?
In both these cases: How many people/layers of editorial staff made or approved the decisions that led to the problems?
How RTE Could Make it Right
RTE must be transparent about what went wrong in these cases, and how it will ensure these types of avoidable, grand-scale errors aren’t made going forward.
In terms of accountability, RTE & the Broadcasting Authority should publish full reports of how these incidents have happened – specifically the “Mission to Prey” program as a whole and the debate. It’s good that there were three investigations into the Father Reynolds accusations, but RTE must carry through with its December statement that it will publish “the results of its own investigations and recommendations to the full extent legally permissable once the BAI inquiry has been concluded.” Specifically, the BAI report and the John Horgan report would be of interest since they are the most removed from the issue — whereas the RTE’s director general has a stake in the game reviewing his own employees/standards/work.
Also, RTE should publish the “editorial review” of the Gallagher incident. The Irish Times recently reported that the director general “initiated” the review of “live audience-based shows.”
iMediaEthics covers international media ethics news. According to our case study page, most of our stories so far have focused on media ethics in the U.S., but we also have written several stories on media ethics in the U.K., Canada, Australia and China. And, in the past six months, media ethics in Ireland has increasingly become a focus.
- October 2011: RTE Apologizes for Wrongly Accusing Fr Reynolds of Rape, Fathering Child in May program (story)
- November 2011:
- Announcement that Irish press ombudsman John Horgan will review RTE ‘Editorial Processes’ because of Libel Apology to Reynolds, at the request of RTE director General Noel Curran (Story)
- RTE Pays Reynolds Libel Settlement, estimation of ‘more than EURO 1 million, including costs’ (Story)
- RTE Repeats Apology to Reynolds After Criticism of Original Apology, Two editors of RTE stepped down temporarily during invesigation RTE’s Director General Noel Curran investigates ‘sequence of events, journalistic practice, and editorial decisions which led to the broadcast” , Broadcasting Authority to Investigate how program ended up aired (Story)
- Family of deceased Brother Gerard Dillon questions RTE “Mission to Prey” program segment on Dillon charging him with sexual abuse. (Story)
- December 2011:
- Sean Gallagher, former presidential candidate, complains to Broadcasting Authority over Oct 24 debate. Gallagher was frontrunner before debate when RTE aired unverified and later determined to be false tweet questioning him. Gallagher ended up losing. Tweet was fake, and aired within 10 minutes of being sent. Tweet indicating that the tweet was false was posted during debate time but not aired on RTE during debate. Also, the tweet claimed to be from McGuinness campaign. McGuinness’ political party Sinn Fein said McGuinness wouldn’t get Twitter account until “after ratification.” (Story)
- Broadcasting Authority could fine RTE EURO 250K for Reynolds report (Story)
- Broadcasting Authority finds RTE misleading & inaccurate in parts of its report on Corrib Rape Tape after complaint from woman at center of rape tape incident. (Story)
- RTE airs Correction for Corrib Rape Tape (Story)
- Press ombud Horgan and RTE Director General Noel Curran present their investigations to RTE in Dec 15 meeting, but results to be kept private until Broadcasting Authority’s investigation finished in spring 2012. (Story)
- February 2012: Archbishop Richard Burke says RTE libeled him in the “Mission to Prey” program. Admits having relationship with woman, but says she was of legal age and relationship with consensual. RTE said he was minor aged. (Story)
- March 2012: RTE apologizes for airing fake tweet about Gallagher during presidential debates, Broadcasting Authority says it wont have a “full investigation or public hearings into the incident.” RTE says it is finishing a “new, full set of Programme Makers’ guidelines” (Story)