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Media coverage of Pat Kenny’s transfer from RTE to Newstalk was of two types: celebrity gossip and business news, neither of which pays the slightest attention to how public controversy should be presented by broadcast media. The move prompted not even a mention of content.*

Think about it: the biggest name in Irish broadcast politics moves to a rival organisation and editorial policy will be unaffected by his going or his coming. That should be pretty shocking; it should prompt people in the industry to question their understanding of “rival” – or indeed “competition” or “alternative”.

It is easily forgotten that Newstalk’s purpose was to have been an alternative to RTE. Purveyors of the public consensus or conventional viewpoints moving between stations is a measure of the failure of a basic policy: it is simplistic to believe that broadcasting stations under different ownership will deliver choice in any meaningful sense of the word. If we want challenging, alternative, discursive media – or media nailed to any other praiseworthy communication adjective – we will have to regulate to make it happen. At this stage in the history of media it is pretty silly to continue to believe that competition alone will deliver.

Of course no one ever seriously believed that competition would deliver the range or type of media that is thought desirable; that’s why there are regulations to ensure balance, Irish language content, news, limited advertising etc. etc. The notion that different owners would deliver different political perspectives, or alternative or challenging points of view was entirely unfounded but still formed the basis of a belief that competition would be good for Irish public controversy.

The problem of course is stations staffed by bien pensants, having a shared perspective on the world, will inevitably compete for audience by offering not different content but different formats and personalities. There is a great deal to be said for this detached professional approach but it does lead to sameness and at this stage of its development it is quasi-institutional.**

Public Service Broadcasters in Ireland, like the UK, are subject to regulations in relation to coverage of public controversy and other matters broadly political. If a citizen considers a regulation to have been breached, he/she is entitled to submit a complaint and receive an explanation. The complaint may go to the BAI for determination. Having to explain oneself and be criticised in public is considered sufficient to ensure compliance. A problem, however, is that staging a thorough debate is not an obligation and cannot be a matter of complaint. Bluntly, it’s not something that need overly concern the producers. Now, a dismissive response would be to say that “thorough debate” is too vague to constitute an obligation. Firstly, that’s not true; most citizens have a grasp of what is meant and a list of features could be produced. Secondly, the essential feature of complaint as a compliance mechanism is that it forces people to respond, to say what they were trying to achieve in the programme. In short, if we wanted a debate, we’d make it an obligation.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/media/pat-kenny-s-move-to-newstalk-is-revealing-about-our-culture-1.1484418?page=2
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/conservative-journalism-and-the-victims-of-austerity/

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Think about the following. It’s from Noel Whelan’s piece in the Irish Times of Saturday, May 12th.  He’s referring to the BAI report re Primetime Investigates but the added emphasis is mine.

“Among the report’s most important revelations is that, contrary to some media reports, the key decision to proceed with the broadcast was not made on the hoof.  A formal, although undocumented, meeting took place the previous Friday, including the producer and reporter of the programme, the executive producer of Prime Time Investigates, the editor of RTÉ current affairs and the director of RTÉ news, together with legal department representatives.

There was unanimous agreement to proceed among production and editorial staff despite awareness of Fr. Reynolds’s willingness to take a paternity test. They were convinced their story was accurate, and made a series of ‘highly subjective assumptions, which served to reinforce their certainty’”. (http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0512/1224315982387.html )

I’ve already written (https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-prime-time-scandal-needs-plain-talk-and-a-realisation-that-management-practices-and-systems-are-seldom-unique/) about Irish journalism’s failure to call a spade a spade in commenting on this mess. There’s only so much refuge to be found in “groupthink”, “hubris” and ineffective management. Publishing an allegation of paternity about a man offering to take a paternity test was (Say the word!) stupid.  My piece also raises the question of utterly basic management and it is to this that I want to return.

Look again at the half dozen or so words to which I added emphasis: “A formal, although undocumented, meeting took place” .  The words sit there attracting not even their author’s comment, their significance lost. Those present at that meeting have many fine qualities, are high achievers and are people of ability but that they sat through a formal meeting without seeing the need to have a record of what transpired is alarming. Now, a meeting might have been called at which it was made clear that it was “unofficial”, that it was “just a chat among colleagues” and which didn’t seriously address the issue. This would attract a range of other criticism but it wouldn’t be quite so (Here comes the word again!) stupid or signal a complete absence of routine management.

The innocence of those present is as telling as the lack of subsequent comment. It suggests that slipshod practice is commonplace. Now that’s a depressing thought with implications beyond restoring trust in journalism.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has found that an RTE * programme in the series Prime Time Investigates, “Mission to Prey”, was not fair in that it broadcast serious, damaging and untrue allegations about Fr. Kevin Reynolds.** The reality is more serious. A good man was cruelly injured. He was trampled in a bovine lust for a story.

Once the truth emerged, the response of the media industry generally – in failing to call a spade a spade – has been ridiculous. Leaving aside management structures, guidelines, “group think”, standards in journalism, “best practice”, legal advice etc., something quite brutal needs to be said: On the verge of publishing an allegation of paternity, it requires an enormous level of stupidity to refuse to defer publication when the man concerned is offering to take a paternity test. While there can be many determinants of stupidity, the word still needs to be said without professional prevarication.

Incidentally, we all do stupid things from time to time. We learn from them. The costs of stupidity can be viewed as an investment in the avoidance of similar mistakes. It is therefore silly to get rid of an employee whose stupid error has cost the organisation a great deal. Look at it this way: It can be said with enormous confidence that such a person will be very careful in future. Their replacement comes with no such guarantee and the person in whom so much has been “invested” goes off to work – carefully – for someone else. In short, the stupidity has been compounded for the sake of creating a tough image.

Publication of the BAI report prompted the familiar balm: comments by industry worthies processed in ritual seriousness. However, the BAI investigation and report turns out to be a veritable rescue package for standards of operation that any thinking person would regard as ordinary – indeed, as minimal. Absence of records and notes, and failure to perform checks do not constitute a problem specific to journalism; this would be maladministration in any industry or organisation. It is a description of inefficient, wasteful chaos.

It is impossible to believe that such chaos existed in one isolated area and that word of its existence never reached the outside world. It is more likely that it was learned and accepted in RTE, in the media industry and very probably in industry generally.

A long time before “managerialism”, management was in trouble. It was fluttering from fad to fad, guided by well-meaning people who thought they had found a career in promoting some fundamental truth. Routine, well-tested, ordinary – even boring – management was interrupted by or abandoned in favour of a series of fashions. Let’s put it this way: The study of management in order to make it better is desirable and necessary but like life in general, there is no blinding liberating truth and proposals for change have to be plausible. Moreover and much more importantly, there are basics which if removed, draw the enterprise into inflicting and incurring damage. The chaos that was Prime Time and which the BAI reveals is all too familiar: The triumph of a slipshod, bogus iconoclasm over planning, minutes, research, questioning etc. – all very likely dismissed as “bureaucracy”.

* I worked in RTE for more than three happy decades. I seldom criticise the organisation now for a few reasons. Firstly, there are fond ties of loyalty. Secondly, if tempted, it would be wrong to use insider information in argument. Thirdly, while RTE is subject to all of the fads which pass through industry generally and while RTE journalists are too like journalists generally, it remains an exceptionally good organisation which deserves to be spared overly harsh criticism.

** http://www.rte.ie/news/2012/0504/baireport.pdf    http://www.rte.ie/news/2012/0504/baireport1.pdf