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

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    One thing about Michaela McCollum is that she took responsibility in the interview for what she did and the harm that caused. So often have we heard politicians speak about the consequences of their decisions as if someone else took the decision – for instance to cut welfare entitlements or to facilitate a soft landing for banks and bank CEOs while causing hardship to the rest – that this was refreshing. Surprising, for instance, in light of its coverage of the NAMA controversy in the North that the Belfast Telegraph is complaining of the hard questions not asked of Michaela. The newspaper could usefully have asked a few hard questions itself of Peter Robinson and others.

  • murdockp

    Wow the faux outrage and irony about cocaine smuggling from a society that has created the binge drink culture of its kids due to the short window it is available, let’s former paramilitaries selling drugs as it is the least worst option to arresting them and then protests about job losses when the cancer Stick producing local cigarette factory closes.

    How many people have booze, paramilitaries and cigarettes killed compared with cocaine, comparable I would say.

    Am no fan of either but the ridiculousness of the different positions of people on such matters needs to be highlighted.

  • ted hagan

    It would be interesting to know if McCollum has got some sort of PR agency advice about all of this. She seems to be a very shrewd woman. She smuggled drugs to try to make money now she’s using the consequences to try to make a living. I’m surprised at RTE being so slack after the lessons they should have learned from the priest fiasco that cost them a lot in credibility, and money.

  • Sharpie

    Why are people being earnest? Is it naivety? This story is pure entertainment. It is straight out of reality TV land and she is playing the game. More power to her. I think it will make a great Midnight Express story for generation Y.

    WRT meaningful journalism, I watched Panorama last night with big expectations and it was pure gunk. The amount of ammo these guys have and the best they could come up with is that idiotic tactic of doorstepping people to get a non-response. Wow, he nearly drove over me!

    We live in “news is entertainment” land. Even the Brussels Airport and Metro tragedies reporting was sold in this way – and has been a soap opera since Paris attacks.

    I’m afraid it’s all a bit dumbed down for the moment.

  • Jag

    The producer guidelines that apply in BBC & C4 & ITV about not paying criminals don’t apply in Dublin. That said, RTE maintains it didn’t pay MM for the interview. Some have made much about RTE’s silence on linked questions about whether payment was made to her benefit eg to solicitor or her legal fund.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    This sort of thing goes beyond dumbing down though. It to me represents the drive for market share (marketeers & PR experts) tail wagging the dog. Although journalism’s ‘speaking truth unto power’ objective is all too worthy to be realisable it is still a standard that should be aimed at no matter how lofty.

  • Granni Trixie

    Make no mistake about it – this women did something really wrong and from what she said I’m not sure she still really gets it. Through time, when the call of celebrity fades I’m sure she will. In mitigation, she was young and possibly has few resources (working class? little education?). I suspect she has been ill advised to go for this kind of interview especially as she seems ill equipped to handle it to advantage (as others might).
    She ought to have resisted the lure of explaining herself, put her head down, do some good works and try to get on with her life. Many (like me) believe that people ought to be given a second chance even in a serious case involving the distribution of drugs.
    I was pretty disgusted with Susanne Breen. Talk about jumping on someone when they are down. Just hope she never is in need of compassion.
    I don’t blame other journalists either for Michaela exploitation – didn’t expect any better.

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    Did RTE arrange her makeover?

  • Sharpie

    That “exclusive” was never about journalism. It was pop tv.

  • Jollyraj

    I suppose we may be grateful she didn’t go on hunger strike. We’d have never heard the end of it.

  • Brian Walker

    Granni, your hear beats generously for Michaela. I think Suzanne is pretty much on the money. But this time I blame the media more than Michaela for the exploitation. If she ever does another interview you can bet it will be tougher. The interview after that may be more prurient, about the chorus girl image behind the mule.

  • Saint Etienne

    In the past week one journalist creates a princess out of a drug runner whilst another snakes an ‘exclusive’ out of a grieving mother for nothing in return. Everything that is wrong with the news right there.

  • chrisjones2

    Sure she’s just a lovely girl dressed in all them pastels

  • chrisjones2

    Didn’t the solicitor initially swear she was innocent ….pure as the driven snow. Indeed she had been kidnapped and forced at gunpoint to take the drugs

    When did she suddenly realise she was guilty? And who made up that story?

  • Granni Trixie

    Brian, Suzanne has all the power – two full pages in Tele – which to me she abused. We will have to agree to disagree.

  • Old Mortality

    But what happened to the stunning ‘double pineapple’ on her head?

  • Old Mortality

    ‘Didn’t the solicitor initially swear she was innocent ….pure as the driven snow.’
    Would you expect anything better from a local legal aid parasite. Sure, it’s not worth his while getting out of bed for a guilty plea.

  • Sherdy

    Are the critics of the interview mostly composed of media outlets who failed in their attempts to interview the woman?
    An old ploy – if you don’t get the interview, attack the motives of those who do!

  • Sherdy

    Would it matter who did it?
    She washed her face, tidied herself up.
    That’s a problem!

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    Bit more than that.

    Dyed her hair and carried out a professional makeup job.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Wouldn’t you be astounded if a lawyer did anything less. Look at the reaction on the Making a Murderer docuseries when a lawyer let slip that his client was maybe guilty but under the influence.

  • Graham Parsons

    Would this article (and the linked others) have been written if the person in question was a man? Pathetic stuff really.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    He would be a pretty bad solicitor if he stood up and said she was guilty!!!

  • Old Mortality

    Lionel. No I wouldn’t, but I can’t believe he ever believed his innocence.
    As a matter of interest, is a lawyer not under an ethical obligation to demand that a client pleads guilty if he admits his guilt to the lawyer? To do otherwise would surely be attempting a miscarriage of justice.

  • Neil
  • Granni Trixie

    Why did she ever have it! Yes, I know it’s wrong but I often wondered what she saw in it.

  • chrisjones2

    Perhaps Minnie Mouse sued?

  • John Collins

    Old Morality
    Saving your presence, morality and all that, but I once heard it said that even if a defence counsel knows his client has committed the crime, he is obliged to give him, or her, the best possible defence. I know that sounds absurd, but there you go.

  • Hugh Davison

    Why should anyone have to smuggle drugs? Wouldn’t it make sense to decriminalise, regulate and ensure they are sourced from controlled suppliers as is alcohol and tobacco?
    To me, the whole drugs moral panicery seems hypocritical, and wastes a lot of tax money in enforcement as well as providing an income for gangsters and the prurient tabloid press.

  • Annie Breensson

    The best poitín was always available in the big house.

  • Hugh Davison

    Yes indeed, and sixty years ago, heroin addicts in the UK could get their supplies on prescription from a GP. But moral panic and hypocrisy intervened, resulting in what we have today.

  • Annie Breensson

    Moral panic can be manufactured easily enough. There’s no money to be made if the state supplies certain substances to those unfortunates who have been unwise enough to become addicted.

    Portugal seems to be going in the right direction, if I can use that phrase in relation to a left leaning government.