Ireland: Government weighs in on TV priest libel row
As the controversy surrounding high profile defamation case of RTE and Father Kevin Reynolds continues, Michael Foley explores the involvement of the Irish government.
14 Dec 11

As the controversy surrounding high profile defamation case of RTE and Father Kevin Reynolds continues, Michael Foley explores the involvement of the Irish government

When is a government order not a government order? When the order is issued by the Irish Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte.  The order in question, to hold an inquiry, was made in respect of the Irish public service broadcaster, RTÉ, following a libel against a priest, Fr Kevin Reynolds, whom RTÉ alleged had fathered a child while a missionary in Kenya. The programme was aired, but the allegation was subsequently found not to be true.

The case is possibly the most expensive and definitely the most controversial the station has faced and is having an impact on public discussion similar to the phone hacking controversy in Britain.

In the middle of last month, Mr Rabbitte’s department issued a statement, which said: “the case of Father Kevin Reynolds was considered at today’s government meeting. It was decided by cabinet that there should be an independent inquiry to determine the true facts and circumstances which led to the Prime Time programme on Fr Reynolds being broadcast on RTÉ in May of this year.”

The inquiry, the Minister said, was to be carried out by the “independent” regulator responsible for broadcasting, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). The Minister then went on to “request” the BAI use its powers under the 2009 Broadcasting Act to determine whether RTÉ has met its statutory responsibilities around objectivity, impartiality and fairness. Mr Rabbitte also set a deadline.

By now the Fr Reynolds case has attracted three inquiries, one to be conducted by the RTÉ Director General, Noel Curran, another by the Press Ombudsman, Prof John Horgan, acting in a private capacity, and, of course, the one headed by the BAI.  The third, “ordered” by Mr Rabbitte, as so many newspapers reported, is headed by a former BBC Northern Ireland controller of programmes.

However, it now appears the Minister had no right to order such an inquiry. Colum Kenny, a journalism professor and member of the BAI, wrote in the Sunday Independent that the government had no power to order the BAI to conduct such an investigation: “Widespread misreporting of the Government’s decision failed to note this fact”. Professor Kenny noted that he agreed to refer the programme to the Compliance Committee, because there was “significant public concern” and not “just” because the government thought there ought to be an investigation.

The programme, Mission To Prey (sic), was part of a programme stream called PrimeTime Investigates. The series has a good record of investigative journalism and some programmes have had a major impact on public opinion and public policy.

Mission To Prey, a programme concerning child sex abuse in Catholic missions in Africa, was shown in May. The subjects of the programme were already in the public domain, except for allegations concerning Fr Kevin Reynolds and those against a deceased Christian Brother.

In the programme the allegations were put to Fr Reynolds when he was door-stepped outside his church in Co Galway, where he is now based, following a service for children’s first communion. Reporter Aoife Kavanagh asked him about a child named Sheila whom, she alleged, he had fathered with a woman called Veneranda. She stated that a number of local people knew of this, including his bishop, and that that was why he left Kenya.

Fr Reynolds realised the seriousness of the allegations and a solicitor’s letter was sent to RTÉ refuting the allegations. But instead of the station’s legal department handling it, as is normal, the reporter herself responded, saying RTÉ had a very credible third-party source and that the programme was going ahead on 23 May, which it did. Kavanagh asked a number of questions concerning Fr Reynolds’ sexual conduct and suggested he reconsider his denials. A few days before the broadcast was aired Fr Reynolds offered to take a paternity test, an offer RTÉ did not take up, which has proved to be a costly mistake.

Following the programme there was a panel discussion, and further discussions took place on radio the following morning, all of which guaranteed very large audience indeed. Fr Reynolds was removed from his parish.

The Association of Catholic Priests took up the case, after Reynolds had been warned he could not win against RTÉ. Legal proceedings began and this time RTÉ agreed to a paternity test, which it organised. The test proved negative — Fr Reynolds learnt of this from a newspaper reporter — and the girl, Sheila, now in her 20s, also wrote a letter to Fr Reynolds’ Order saying she now knew he was not her biological father. Fr Reynolds was in the clear and he was restored to his parish. RTÉ had to pay an undisclosed sum, had to read out an abject apology over a period of a few days on radio and television and found themselves facing a fine from the broadcasting regulator.

RTÉ handled the whole affair badly. The offer of the paternity test was ignored and the testimony of an impoverished mother and daughter and an unnamed third party source were considered sound enough to go ahead.  How the programme was duped, one journalist suggested, is worthy of a Prime Time investigation of its own. That, of course, cannot happen, as the programme is now off air.  Senior staff have stepped aside and the repoRTÉr is not involved in broadcasting.

RTÉ’s decision to investigate became irrelevant once the political establishment turned on RTÉ.  RTÉ, had, of course, made appalling mistakes and judgement errors, which left an innocent man at the centre of a storm for six months.

There are  implications for public broadcasting and journalism. Conservative Catholics have been using the controversy to roll back some of the damage done to the church, damaged caused in part by some powerful documentaries concerning clerical child abuse broadcast by RTÉ over the years, by turning the focus onto RTÉ. A major investigative journalism programme is now off air and RTÉ has probably been cowed and will think carefully before embarking on major investigations for some time.

As for the government’s “ordering” of an inquiry. One can take it ministers were as appalled as most that Fr Reynolds had to go through such an ordeal and that RTÉ appeared to apply some very shoddy practices, including that initial door stepping at a church full of children. However, the populist tactic of ordering an inquiry is dangerous.  The motive is unclear — maybe they are trying to gain some credit with the church after attacks on it by the Taoiseach (prime minister) and the decision to close the Irish embassy to the Vatican — who knows, but it is wrong to allow the impression the government has the power to order inquiries into broadcasting and for the rest of the to fail to question this. It smacks of those days when Fianna Fáil used to consider RTÉ an arm of government and directors general and programme makers use to dread the call from a government minister unhappy with a programme.

Clarification from Michael Foley in comments:

Michael Foley

December 19, 2011 at 16:21

 My article might give the impression Aoife Kavanagh doorstepped Fr Reynolds outside his church at the same time as the Communion service and that children were present. That was not the case, a communion service had taken place earlier that day

Michael Foley is a lecturer in journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology, a media commentator and a member of the Index On Censorship advisory board