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Dublin: 13 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Call for RTÉ Director General to resign

RTÉ faced an all-party Oireachtas Committee today for the second time, where calls were made for Director General Noel Curran to resign – and where Tom Savage was quizzed on his role as a communications guru outside of RTÉ.

 Chairman of the Board at RTE Tom Savage (left) and Director General Noel Curran arrive at Leinster House
Chairman of the Board at RTE Tom Savage (left) and Director General Noel Curran arrive at Leinster House
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

DEPUTY TOM BARRY has called for RTÉ’s Director General Noel Curran to resign in the wake of the Fr Kevin Reynolds defamation case.

The call came from TD Tom Barry and others as Curran and RTÉ Chairman Tom Savage appeared before an all-party Oireachtas committee today on the Fr Kevin Reynolds defamation case. This was the second time they had faced the committe, which had to be adjourned last week due to time constraints.

The meetings are taking place in the wake of the RTÉ Mission to Prey episode of Prime Time Investigates, which defamed Fr Reynolds. The priest reached a settlement with the broadcaster over the programme. A Broadcasting Authority of Ireland investigation later heavily criticised the programme.

One TD, Mattie McGrath, called for Savage to resign during last week’s session and another committee member, Senator John Whelan, echoed calls for Savage to resign at the weekend.

At today’s meeting, which was chaired by Andrew Doyle TD, Curran and Savage were questioned about a number of issues surrounding the programme.

Collateral damage

Before being questioned, Savage began by answering a question posed to him at the last committee. He said that there were “1800 victims who are suffering collateral damage” as a result of the programme. He said those people are RTE staff who are “committed to their profession and yet they have seen their organisation’s reputation tarnished”.

Curran said that it is RTÉ’s job to learn the lessons from the Reynolds case “without undoing the rigour and quality that defines our output”. He said that although “it is hard to give absolute guarantees”, RTÉ has put in place a whole range of changes to “try and ensure that nothing like this on this scale” would happen again.

He reiterated that new guidelines have been issued at RTE, that all of the main staff involved no longer work in current affairs, and that the 10 recommendations made by the BAI investigator have been introduced. He added that RTÉ has begun implementing the findings of the independent report. There will also be a review of the wider culture within RTÉ.

Paternity Test

The RTÉ representatives were asked about the paternity test carried out on the woman who it was wrongly claimed was Fr Reynold’s daughter.

It emerged that there were two paternity tests carried out because there was an issue with identification after the first test was taken. The woman taking the test did not bring proper identification with her, so a second test was carried out. The results of the test were known in early September.

However, Curran said that the issues around the test were “enormous” and that he understood “how difficult it was for Fr Reynolds that it took such a long time”. Fr Reynolds had been written to in June to say the test would take place, which was followed by “a delay that shouldn’t have happened”, said Curran.

He said that initially the woman said she would do the test but then decided not to in July. Then in August she agreed to do the test but did not turn up, so reporter Aoife Kavanagh travelled to Kenya to her. Again, she was due to take the test but didn’t take it. It was then done on 23 August.”That made that summer very, very difficult for Fr Reynolds,” said Curran, who added that RTÉ “should have moved much quicker” to put things in place, but due to logistical reasons they hadn’t.

Costs

RTÉ were asked by Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív about legal costs. Chief Financial Officer Conor Hayes said that legal costs are in the order of €3.5 million a year for RTÉ, and defamation costs account for up to €1 million of that.

Curran said that the woman interviewed for Prime Time Investigates did not get a financial inducement but he didn’t know if she was paid the RTÉ interview fee.

Fr Reynolds

Deputy Noel Harrington asked if the programme would have gone ahead if the subject was Mr Reynolds and not Fr Reynolds.

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill asked when Curran became aware that there was a potential issue with the programme, and if he was aware in June or July, why no emergency meeting of the RTÉ board was called to address the issue.

Senator John Whelan said he was “flabbergasted” with Savage’s contribution, and was “uncomfortable with the manner he is approaching this”. “I would put it that it seems everyone in RTÉ is damaged except himself,” he said. He accused him of “classic spin-doctoring” and said there was a clique and cronyism in Monstrose that “infuses the broadcaster from top down”.

Senator Whelan also said that the fact Savage works for the Communications Clinic is “a most glaring conflict of interest”. He said that Savage broke ranks by speaking to the Sunday Independent about the programme and asked him was his position tenable.

Savage added that in the Sunday Independent interview, when asked by the reporter who made the decision to air the documentary, he said five people decided, and when asked who made the final decision, he said Ed Mulhall.

He said that if the insinuation from Senator Whelan is that he has “not got the highest standards of integrity, honesty and ethical application to my work I resent that completely”.

Whelan said there was no insinuation but that he asked him was it fair he plays for the “home and away team”. “I am suggesting it is another problem waiting to go wrong in RTÉ,” added Whelan.

Savage said there was no clash of conflict between him being on the board of RTÉ and working for the Communications Clinic.

Priesthood

Savage said he spent eight years in the priesthood. In response to comments from Senator Whelan, he said he is not a spin doctor or a hack. He said that “there is no one in this room who would be more vanquished over what happend to Fr Reynolds than I am”. He offered his sympathy and apology to Fr Reynolds and said there is not a clique operating in RTÉ.

Under no illusions

Curran said that “no member of the programme team or editorial management was under any illusions about legal risks” and that everyone involved in that production knew the legal risks in going ahead with the broadcast.

He said that legal affairs do not tell people not to broadcast or not – it has to be down to management to make that decision. He said that he can find nothing to say that Fr Reynolds was targeted because he was Fr Reynolds, but he is “not going to be naive about any of this” as media organisations generally are probably more secular than the general population.

Deputy Anne Phelan said she thought that confidence was being confused with arrogance on Prime Time Investigates “because you got everything right up to now, you couldn’t possibly get this one wrong”.

Curran said that when the first paternity test result was told to him, he contacted the board. The board were unaware of the issues until September. Deputy Mattie McGrath said this was “coming from a complete arrogance” while Deputy O Cuív said he was “very disappointed” as it “all seems to be wordgames”.

Curran said that PTI had made very few mistakes as it went over the years and that “perhaps that led to over confidence and arrogance”. But he said that doesn’t mean that PTI broadcasts previous to this didn’t have high standards.

Savage said that the board is only informed when issues become serious in the view of the Director General. They were told about the issue in advance of the September meeting and then further information was provided at the October meeting.

“Sweeping generalisation”

Head of Radio at RTÉ, Clare Duignan, said that the idea of ‘groupthink’ at RTÉ “is grossly unfair to me, my colleagues and so many hard working people who work with RTÉ who are deeply unhappy with this programme” and the mistakes that were made. She said that doesn’t mean all the people in RTÉ are part of groupthink “or that we have arrogance in how we do our business”.

In response, Whelan took back his comments about groupthink pertaining to all of RTÉ and said: “I have every respoect for the great people who do good work in RTÉ”.

Savage said that “people have talked about RTÉ as if there is one RTÉ” but that “RTÉ is not one programme, not one department, not one division”.

Curran said there is not a Dublin 4 culture and there are a rang eof views. He said that RTÉ has a “fundamental obligation to be a national broadcaster”.

Curran said that he doesn’t have any issues with accountability and that “the responsibilty I have to lead this organisation through a very difficult situation”. “This is an organisation that I believe in,” he said of RTÉ.

Calls to step down

Deputy Tom Barry said that he felt Curran was “spoiling for a row”, which was denied by Curran. Deputy Barry told Curran: “I just feel as Director General you have to take responsibility and to do this the consequence of this means you should step down”.

Deputy Michael Colreavy said: “When Fr Reynolds twice offered to undergo a paternity test… to my mind gap year students making a college movie would have said look it, hold on there’s something wrong here”.

Savage said that if you looked at situation RTÉ finds itself in currently “there are horrendous challenges” ahead and the “last thing it needs is the trauma particularly of removal of the Director General”. He added that for he himself “to walk away would be cowardly”.

Read: RTÉ Chair and DG back before Oireachtas Committe over Fr Reynolds case>

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