Libel Matters

by John Boland

Irish Independent, November 26, 2011

As a practising journalist, I wish I could say I’m dismayed at the disgrace RTE has incurred over its libelling of Fr Kevin Reynolds (there but for the grace of God and all that), but I’m afraid it didn’t even come as a surprise to me.

Reviewing the Prime Time Investigates film about missionary priests in this column last May, I expressed grave misgivings both about its content and its methods. Trial by television, I deemed it, noting that none of the priests who were named as sexual abusers had been convicted of any crime and that most of them hadn’t even been charged with the offences alleged in the film. And I was especially disturbed by the scene in which Fr Reynolds, accosted outside his Galway church, denied any knowledge of the crime with which the reporter was confronting him.

If such troubling and basic questions were immediately obvious to the viewer, why weren’t they obvious to the makers of the film or to the editorial executives who passed it for screening? Was it simply that decades of public anger at the ghastly crimes of some Irish clerics had lulled RTE into imagining that all priests were fair game for vilification and that therefore the normal rules of fact-checking could be abandoned?

Perhaps the inquiries, both internal and external, that have been set up will illuminate this murky episode. We should certainly expect more from them than we got from RTE’s head of corporate communications, Kevin Dawson, whose fatuous response to a query about accountability was that it was “very difficult for a rolled head to learn anything” – as if RTE were a teaching establishment in which all that mattered was the education of its programme makers, and as if even the most egregious of programmes had a purpose if they served to enlighten those who bungled them, and indeed as if the public cared two hoots about such in-house niceties.

Whatever the result of the enquiries, RTE’s response to the debacle could well be drastic. Already, investigative programmes that were intended for the near future have been suspended, but the general outcome could be more alarming, with likely curbs on the admirably crusading journalism that seeks to afflict the comfortable while comforting the afflicted.

Let’s hope, though, that increased timidity won’t lead to schedules clogged with such dreary series as Tracks and Trails (RTE1), whose opening programme featured Tracy Piggott traipsing through Tipperary and encountering nothing or no one of the remotest interest along the way.

At one point she and travelling companion Cormac McDonnell met a man who had six tractors. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Cormac said after their brief, desultory chat with him. “Yes, unbelievable,” agreed Tracy. Unbelievable wasn’t the word.

Towards their end of their seemingly interminable hike, a tired Tracy inquired “How much further do we have to go?”, which were my sentiments exactly.

In last week’s opening instalment of The Business (RTE1), an upbeat George Lee outlined how, with a bit of lateral thinking, we could be creating oodles of jobs for ourselves – causing me to reflect that if George had stayed in Fine Gael rather than throwing a hissy fit, he’d now be a senior minister in a goverment footling about while jobs were axed instead of created.

This week he marked the anniversary of our IMF bailout by going to London, where he asked various pundits, power brokers and politicians whether or not we were on the right track. The general consensus seemed to be that we were doing the right thing, but I’m not really sure because the programme was so boring that I kept nodding off.

Arrivals (RTE1) interviewed some of the emigrants who’d previously been seen flying out from Dublin airport in last January’s Departure Day (also RTE1). Having failed to keep the family’s Newcastle West clothing store in business, Declan returned to the Sydney in which he’d formerly lived with his Australian wife. This time they’re there to stay, about which both of them declared themselves quite happy.

Less happy was Heather, living in an anonymous satellite town 30 miles from Toronto, where husband Stephen works as a carpenter. But they’re unlikely to return to Ireland in any near future and the same seemed to be true of the other emigrants featured in a rather dour film whose purpose I couldn’t quite discern.

The most rewarding viewing came courtesy of three BBC4 documentaries. Art of America, presented by Andrew Graham-Dickson, focused this week on Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, managing to link all four to their times in such a way that the programme became as much engrossing social history as cultural enlightenment.

In John Steinbeck: Voice of America, Melvyn Bragg put a persuasive case for reassessing a novelist who’s been long out of critical fashion. Following the Route 66 journey undertaken by the poverty-stricken Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, Bragg looked at Steinbeck’s life and art with the enthusiasm of an advocate but he was clear-sighted about his failings, too.

Deadline: The New York Times was a fly-on-the-wall account of life inside an institution that, like any newspaper today, is facing the twin threats of new technologies and falling advertising revenues. The star turn was grizzled commentator David Carr, formerly a cocaine addict but now one of the Times’s most eloquent spokesmen.


Everyone’s talking about The Killing II (BBC4) and about its central star, Sofie Grabol, which leaves me feeling somewhat miffed. Most of these admirers, after all, are johnniescome- lately jumping on a bandwagon, whereas I and a select group of other discerning viewers were raving about Ms Grabol, her wooly jumper and her intuitions when the first series started a year ago.

And if this new series doesn’t seem as startlingly good as the original, I’ll blame that on familiarity with Grabol’s doggedly determined Sarah Lund and with the dank, dark atmosphere that surrounds her wherever she goes – forget Copenhagen as you know it, this is a far less welcoming place.

The charismatic politician from the last series is gone and so, too, is her loyal sidekick, to whose death she inadvertently contributed, but the new characters look promising and the plot seems set to develop nicely. As for Grabol, she’s glamorous, cheerful and charming in any interviews I’ve seen, which makes her playing of the obsessive, unsmiling Lund all the more impressive.

Anyway, eight more Saturday nights on BBC4 to be relished, along with the last few episodes of The Slap, which has been terrific, too.

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