The Michaella McCollum interview: big mistake by the broadcasters

The Irish Times joins the Belfast Telegraph in criticising the soft focus treatment of drugs  smuggler Michaella McCollum. She was interviewed for RTE Features  by independent film maker Trevor Birnie of Below the Radar films, an outfit that is usually associated with investigative journalism.

As the Irish Times’ Hugh Linehan points out..

Given the circumstances, one might have expected a few hard questions. How much were you going to be paid for the job? Did you get money in advance? Were you asked to do anything else? Did you commit any other crimes? None of these issues were raised.

And as Suzanne Breen writes in the Bel Tel.

Far from resembling someone who has just been freed from a Peruvian prison hellhole, she could easily be an up-and-coming actress stepping off a Hollywood film set. She has the look of a young Helen Hunt, an astute colleague observed.

That comparison is apt because Michaella’s first post-prison TV appearance has one objective only – to launch her media career. Don’t be fooled into thinking that what you saw last night was an expression of genuine contrition, coming from the heart.

It was about rebranding Michaella so she can start making money. The chat show circuit beckons. Nolan Live, The Late Late Show, Celebrity Big Brother and much more. An army of agents will be vying to represent her.

There will be a big book deal, probably with movie rights too. Michaella is on course to make a mint.

This might be over the top given the critical reaction to the interview.  Nevertheless it raises serious questions about journalistic ethics, not only for RTE which ran the full version, but also  BBC News, ITV news and UTV  which had news access to the interview  in exchange for a plug for RTE.

All the broadcasters were guilty of a lapse in journalistic standards, RTE above all for running it largely uncritically and the UK based broadcasters for failing to set it in full context. If she was withholding information for the sake of Melissa Reid who is still in Peruvian custody, this should have been made clear.

I assume they failed to do so because those were RTE’s conditions for news access. The BBC and others are increasingly in partnership with other journalistic organisations like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists  for huge global stories, like the Panama Papers.  They need to take great care in their choice of partners and the terms they accept.  This is no time to rock public confidence in their standards.

As transmitted the Michaella McCollum interview was a category error, one that fell below  publicly recognised standards and would not have occurred  if it had been done  by their own news teams. In a sense it makes McCollum a victim once again, for all her surface glamour and coached self confidence.

 Adds later.. After the Irish Mail’s apology for the Buncrana interview, this has not been a good time for mainstream journalism. Saying sorry after the event can seem as phoney as the original error.  The pressure of media competition is no excuse for utterly predictable bad  judgement..

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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